The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
July 27, 2020

With just 100 days left until the US Presidential election, Joe Biden must find a safe but progressive foil to his moderate image to bolster his campaign, writes Lorcan Nyhan

The US Vice Presidency is a job that, historically, no one wants until they have it. Joe Biden turned down Barack Obama’s initial offer. In his 2017 memoir, the current Presidential candidate was clear he didn’t rate the role. He felt he could do more as a Senator and just “didn’t want” it.

He changed his mind, and in doing so, redefined what the Vice Presidency could be. His condition of acceptance was that he was the guaranteed “last man in the room” before every major decision – a true right-hand man with real areas of responsibility.

Commentary has been devoted to exploring the electoral implications of Biden’s pick for Vice President – but his primary consideration will be who could help him run the country. He’ll pick the best governing partner from the final list in front of him.

Biden values his role in the Obama administration. So he’ll seek to replicate that situation himself with a proper partner. To do anything else would be to suggest that Obama didn’t really need their partnership.

That being said, the names on the shortlist will be influenced by the current volatile political climate. It will definitely be a woman and it’s highly likely to be a woman of colour.

All the chatter so far has -wrongly – been dominated by speculation on which candidate is best placed to bring voters to the Democratic side: What state could they carry? Which voter segment would they motivate? Who appeals to wavering Trump voters?

The answer to all of those questions is none or no one. Running mates don’t win the White House. People vote for the President – the top of the ticket, not the supporting character.

The VP Advantage, a book by political scientists Christopher Devine and Kyle Kopko, analysed research on Presidential elections and found that a nominee’s running mate has no direct impact on their final vote.

But here’s the rub: just because they don’t add to the total, doesn’t mean they can’t subtract from it.

In 2008, John McCain was trailing in the polls and went for the surprise ‘Hail Mary’ move of picking the untested Sarah Palin.

The former Alaskan Governor was a pick from nowhere. It was an unmitigated disaster. Research from Stanford University found that her presence cost McCain two million votes. Biden’s guiding principle for this decision should be ‘do no harm’.

The coalition Biden has built is capable of delivering the popular vote he needs to return to Washington. That vote, though, is an unstable group, diverse in its make-up and distinct and conflicting in its demands. It includes suburban whites who stayed at home in 2016, Sanders acolytes, conservative black voters and anti-Trump Republicans.

Biden must keep each of these segments to deliver the emphatic win America needs to ensure a calm transition to 2021.

‘Do no harm’ is not an easy goal. It requires a vice presidential candidate who keeps everyone on board and has potential to be a good governing partner, without weakening Biden’s image.

And this doesn’t mean playing it safe by picking a bland candidate; because the appearance of running to the perceived safety of moderation is as likely to be off-putting to supporters who demand an exciting, progressive candidate – 2020 may be the most difficult election to pick a safe running mate.

Biden’s age means that there will be intense scrutiny on the governing and foreign policy record of the eventual pick.

The line of attack by Trump – that Biden is a Trojan horse for the radical left who will use him as a patsy to sow discord – also presents risks. It’s a delicate balance between placating the left and not alienating the centre.

The anger Trump creates has allowed Biden to keep himself palatable to the left. But what Biden has done best, so far, is create what Tim Miller, an advisor to Republicans Against Trump, calls a ‘permission structure’.

That structure doesn’t attack traditional Republicans for voting for Trump in 2016, presents them with reasons not to vote for him again and permits them to break from the party without guilt.

A misstep in choice of running mate would allow Republicans recalibrate and suggest that the radical left will be controlling Biden from the Vice President’s residence.

Accepted wisdom has named Kamala Harris as the frontrunner. She’s one of only two black women who have been a US Senator. She’s been vetted by the media during her high-profile bid for President. And she’s a capable communicator who could be trusted to deliver in the VP debate.

Glaring risks, however, appear when you examine a Biden-Harris ticket.

Harris’s history as a prosecutor is problematic in a contest where the narrative is going to be dominated by issues of police reform. Her record as a District Attorney and Californian Attorney General would draw criticism.

Remember also that as a candidate for President she attacked Biden, brutally, during a Primary debate. She robustly challenged his record on busing and his comments praising segregationist Southern Senators.

That debate clip is a readymade gift for Trump. Picking Harris is drawing a target on already exposed Biden sore spots – criminal justice reform and his record on race.

Elizabeth Warren is another favoured choice among Democratic voters. But her profile as a standard-bearer for the progressive left also brings challenges.

New names had to emerge. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta and Michelle Lujan Grisham, Governor of New Mexico, are all viable options.

Two of the more interesting names linked to the job are Karen Bass and Tammy Duckworth.

Bass is the 66-year-old leader of the Democratic Black Caucus in Congress. Bass’s stint as Speaker in the Californian State Assembly brings governing experience. In addition, she has been talking about the need for radical police reform since the 1970s.

Her selection would be welcomed by the party’s progressive wing while having no obvious fatal flaws that would repel Biden voters.

Tammy Duckworth is an Asian-American Senator from Illinois. A purple-heart wearing veteran who was the first woman to become a mother while in the Senate, she is a double amputee, having lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

Again, she’d be a candidate who would meet the need for a progressive foil for Biden’s moderate image with a minimal propensity to alienate any other group. She would also be an asset to the campaign with an ability to push Trump on his relationship with Putin’s Russia.

The perfect pick does not exist.

A candidate that does no harm is the aim. Because little point exists to having a strong governing partner if you’ve nothing to govern.

The contenders

The decision on Biden’s running mate will be made using information and insights none of us will ever see – making predictions a fool’s game.

But using the knowledge we have to hand, the logic we imagine Biden will apply and an appropriate amount of guesswork – here’s our ranking of the most likely choices.

1. Kamala Harris

2. Susan Rice

3. Tammy Duckworth

4. Keisha Lance Bottoms

5. Karen Bass

6. Elizabeth Warren