Three Things a Vice President Needs to Have.
Competence, compassion, and cultural. Biden needs to consider all three in his VP pick.
There is little evidence to suggest the Vice President makes a significant difference in an election. Recent research by Christopher Devine and Kyle Kopko suggests “vice-presidential nominees do not have home state or regional effects, and don’t seem to help attract affiliated social groups like women”.
Despite this, some argue Amy Klobuchar’s bipartisan history and appeal in the Midwest makes her a good pick. Gretchen Whitmer for similar reasons, only she has executive experience too. Others say that Kamala Harris or Val Demings would be able to energise the African American vote. Abrams bringing Georgia in to play? Elizabeth Warren to appeal to the left? These arguments are being well discussed at the moment.
We know Biden will nominate a woman, which limits the field of past evidence somewhat. As Devine and Kyle point out, historically, that has had little impact. At best, see Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, at worst, see Sarah Palin in 2008. Both lost handsomely.
Biden would be wrong to make a decision based on hypotheticals about what states of groups of voters he thinks his partner might help him with. Instead, he should focus on three core attributes. Attributes that will be important in any COVID/post-COVID environment, but are emphasises because of the stress the pandemic is putting Americans under.
It is no secret Joe Biden would be 79 by the time he is inaugurated should he win the election. Considering the life expectancy for a US male is 78, voters are being fair when they consider his age. The Presidency is, after all, hardly a job famed for its relaxing nature.
There is, therefore, every chance Biden’s VP pick might have to step into the Oval Office prematurely. Even if that doesn’t happen, she will automatically become favourite to become the next party nominee. The point is, the Vice President needs to know how to be President. This might benefit someone with executive experience, while it might hurt someone like Stacy Abrams.
Joe Biden himself served as a great ambassador to the Obama administration and was rewarded with significant responsibilities such as the overseeing the 2009 economic response. A scheme of work that involved 100,000 projects, 275 programmes, and 28 federal agencies. Biden’s VP will have a similarly robust brief.
Jimmy Carter summed it up well when he said “the first and most important requirement ‘is who would be the best person to lead this country if something should happen to me’.”
One doesn’t have to look very far to see that American leadership is in short supply of compassion. The recent Republicans Against Trump ad puts that perfectly. Compassion is, on the other hand, part of Joe Biden’s DNA. In his recent Philadelphia speech he said he was able to “recognize pain and deep grief of communities”; a statement beyond Trump’s comprehension.
But to complete the package, his Vice President needs to share those values. This is where the balancing act becomes more precarious. Someone who rates highly on the competence scale could come across as bureaucratic and, to put it bluntly, boring. Tim Kaine sadly serves as another example there. A litany of political accomplishments, but never quite the personal touch to match. Trump’s base are chomping at the bit to vote for him, while Biden doesn’t capture the same enthusiasm. His VP could help him.
Democrats, however, have to watchful of Trump’s recent attempts to pitch himself as the ‘law and order’ candidate because there will also be those who look on in fear at rioting and looting and long for exactly that: law and order. During the 1990s, British Prime Minister, John Major, called on society to ‘condemn a little more and understand a little less’ when discussing crime.
But for Biden, the so-called ‘empathy gap’ between him and Trump is one of his greatest assets. I have written before about how Obama beat Romney on the ‘cares about average Americans’ question, despite losing on overall economic performance. It’s a powerful tool and a VP who possesses similar compassion could really put the ticket out of reach. I see footage of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren joining the protests and expect they are wishing to give off that very message.
Donald Trump is not a candidate who goes above 50%. He only secured 46% of the popular vote in 2016, and according to FiveThirtyEight, has never achieved favourability ratings of over 50%. In short, one of the major electoral strategies Trump will seek to deploy is depression and division. He will not care if his loses the popular vote again. He’ll seek to drive a wedge between the Democrat ticket wherever he can.
Even before the devastating murder of George Floyd, Donald Trump was already seeking to depress African American turnout for the Democrats. Since then, he used his Twitter platform to brag about his administration’s accomplishments. Black turnout for Hillary Clinton was devastating, especially in major cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee and Trump will seek to capitalise on that possibility again.
The party is already being warned the same could happen this year. Trump will not win this group of voters, but with a modicum of sophistication, he could easily use Biden’s VP pick to drive a wedge either deeper. Even if Harris or Demings are on the ticket, Biden is not out of the woods. Arguably Harris’ greatest moment of the primaries was when she clashed with Biden on busing and segregation.
A similar picture can be seen if Biden selects Warren. Rightly or wrongly, this selection could be seen as an attempt to appease the left which could provoke backlash from both sides. Those who elected Biden as a moderate wouldn’t want to surrender their ground, but those on the left would not want to be seen as being offered a consolation prize. All the while, Trump would happily manipulate these divisions to his benefit.
In reality, no one fits comfortably into this non-exhaustive list of attributes. A list that doesn’t take into account Biden’s personal relationship with the candidates — what Gerald Ford called “some personal compatibility” — or the rigorous vetting process. The L.A. Times have concluded that Biden’s pick should simply be based on “ability and compatibility”. I broadly agree with that statement in so much as it doesn’t make assumptions about a candidate’s ability to carry certain voters.
Currently Biden can take great solace, not just in the work of Devine and Kopko, but also in the fact he is leading Trump in virtually every poll. Ultimately, his decision might have a limited impact, but using competence, compassion, and cultural markers as compass points would be more effective than using his Vice President as a means to win certain states of voters.