In a kinder, dumber world, well-funded media outlets would be filling a lull in political news right now with wall-to-wall coverage of the Democratic “veepstakes.” But since a historic pandemic is capsizing the global economy, you’ll have to settle for revenue-starved media outlets providing wall-to-floor coverage of Joe Biden’s big decision instead.
And that decision isn’t a frivolous one. Running-mate speculation usually focuses on horse-race minutia (Can Sarah Palin shore up John McCain’s weakness with tea party Republicans? Can Tim Kaine deliver the “blandly inoffensive white men you won’t remember four years from now” vote for Hillary Clinton?). But this year’s Democratic standard-bearer would be 78 years old on Inauguration Day. And this country is all-but certain to be in crisis come next January. Thus, Biden isn’t just picking a ticket supplement. He’s quite likely anointing his would-be successor.
Given this context, the Democratic nominee should look for a running mate who meets these four criteria, ranked in rough order of importance:
1) Is ready to be a good president tomorrow (both in actual fact, and in the eyes of voters). This should go without saying. U.S. history would look a lot different if Abraham Lincoln had prioritized having a trustworthy understudy over a balanced ticket in 1864. John F. Kennedy’s decision to tap Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1960 might well have yielded both the Great Society and the great atrocity that was America’s extended war in Vietnam. Thus, Biden’s first concern should be finding someone with governing chops and solid values. The latter, of course, are a subjective matter. If Uncle Joe would like to leave his grandkids the most environmentally sustainable, peaceful planet possible (while maximizing the enthusiasm of the all-important Eric Levitz vote), I recommend he pick someone with impeccably progressive credentials. But, at the very least, he should choose a would-be veep who seems indisputably competent and no more sociopathic than the average Democratic politician with presidential ambitions. This matters both substantively and politically: Recent polling suggests voters prize “legislative and executive experience” in Biden’s running mate above all else.
2) Definitely would not cost Democrats a Senate vote. The Donkey Party faces a massive structural disadvantage in the Senate, as the average U.S. state is about six points more Republican than the country as a whole. In its quest to secure a Senate Majority in 2021 and beyond, Democrats have zero margin for error. And without a Senate majority, the next Democratic president will struggle to appoint his own Cabinet, let alone pass major legislation. Biden should not pluck anyone out of the Senate unless he’s 100 percent sure that lawmaker will be replaced with another Democrat.
3) Would be a strong presidential candidate in 2024. This may seem redundant, given the first criterion. But it isn’t: Voters may trust someone to mind the store without liking them enough to support them over Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, or Ivanka Trump in 2024. In electing a president as old as Biden, Democrats would likely be sacrificing the advantage of incumbency five years from now. Which makes it all the more imperative that Biden’s running mate, who would enjoy a giant head start in the 2024 primary, be a broadly appealing politician.
4) Would marginally increase Biden’s standing in a key state, or with a key constituency, this year. This one gets pride of place in the media discourse. And it’s a worthwhile consideration. But running mates don’t reliably deliver significant gains with the constituencies they’re intended to. So it’s probably less important than the three criteria listed above (after all, any politician who checks those three boxes would, at the very least, not hurt Biden with the general public).
Unfortunately, no one on Biden’s short list meets all of these criteria. Although these things are always subject to change, recent reporting indicates that the Democratic veepstakes has narrowed to a top four: California senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Here’s a quick rundown of how each measures up to the standards outlined above:
Kamala Harris is experienced but unpopular.
Harris clears the threshold of presidential plausibility. As California’s attorney general, she proved herself a competent bureaucratic manager (albeit, on occasion, a chillingly amoral prosecutor). That, plus her Senate experience and stint in the 2020 spotlight should be sufficient to render her a credible successor in the eyes of the mainstream media and median voter. And the chances that Harris’s selection would cost Democrats a Senate vote are close to nil, given her state’s partisan complexion.
In theory, Harris might also help Biden juice turnout with African-American Democrats. But then again, in theory, Kamala Harris would have had strong appeal among such Democrats in the 2020 primary. And she didn’t. Meanwhile, a Morning Consult poll released this week suggests that Elizabeth Warren is actually nine points more popular with African-American voters than Harris is. Nevertheless, the California senator is quite well-liked by (“normie”) Democratic Party activists and big-dollar donors. So her presence on the ticket would arguably boost Biden’s fundraising and volunteer operation.
But there’s much cause for concern about Harris’s ability to win at the top of the ticket in 2024. On paper, Harris looked like a top-tier contender for this year’s Democratic nomination. She entered the race with a strong fundraising base, and a bevy of high-profile endorsements. Her campaign launch immediately propelled her to 15 percent support in the polls, putting her in second place behind Biden. And yet, by the time she dropped out last December, Harris was polling at under 4 percent nationally, and just a smidgen ahead of novelty candidate Andrew Yang. More critically, Harris is bizarrely unpopular with the general public. The most recent polls of her approval rating from the Economist-YouGov and Harvard-Harris both give her a net favorability rating of minus-12. In the former survey, some 48 percent of voters express an unfavorable opinion of the senator. It’s quite possible that voters’ impressions of Harris are weakly held and subject to change. But the information we have suggests that Democrats should be nervous about having Harris as their bulwark against Josh Hawley (or Don Jr.) 2024.
Gretchen Whitmer is popular but inexperienced.
The Michigan governor has clear upside from an electoral perspective. Whitmer was popular in her swing state before the coronavirus crisis hit, and her leadership since then has earned her a massive boost in favorability with Michigan voters (right-wing backlash to her lockdown measures notwithstanding). And there’s reason to think she may have broad appeal in her home region. Look how normal and midwestern this person is:
And, of course, picking Whitmer would present zero risk of costing Democrats a Senate seat.
But she also has less experience than anyone else on Biden’s list, having held statewide office for less than two years. Given that fact, and her less-than-captivating oratorical stylings, it’s hard to say with a ton of confidence how she would perform in the Oval Office, or on the campaign trail in 2024.
Amy Klobuchar is too good at winning elections in Minnesota (and too mean to her staff).
The Minnesota senator’s electoral record is genuinely impressive. In a midwestern state that’s been trending purple, Klobuchar has consistently racked up landslide victories. And although she is relatively little known among the general public, she’s reasonably popular with those who are aware of her existence: In RealClearPolitics’ polling average, Klobuchar’s net favorability is plus-3.3. So one can plausibly argue that she would both aid the Democratic ticket in 2020 and be a relatively safe bet in 2024.
But precisely because Minnesota has been slouching toward Republicanism, removing a popular incumbent like Klobuchar from the Senate would be hazardous. Minnesota’s Democratic governor Tim Walz would get to appoint Klobuchar’s replacement in 2021. But in 2022, that unelected Democrat would have to face Minnesota voters, and since the party that does not control the White House tends to enjoy superior turnout in midterm elections, Republicans would have an excellent shot of flipping that seat.
Finally, although Klobuchar’s experience would likely render her a plausible president in the eyes of the electorate, her history of abusing and alienating staffers raises questions about her fitness for high office. The problem here isn’t just that mistreating your workers should be a deal-breaker for a party that claims to fight for labor (although it should), but that the ability to maintain equanimity in high-stress situations seems like an important quality for a president to have.
Elizabeth Warren would be a great president in 2021, but a risky presidential nominee in 2024.
The Massachusetts senator is doubtlessly ready to govern. Her reputation for wide-ranging policy interest and expertise precedes her. And in her relatively short time in national politics, she’s proven a savvy operator, successfully willing a new regulatory office into being, and exercising veto power over Barack Obama’s nominees to the Treasury and Federal Reserve. There’s no one on Biden’s list (and few national Democrats beyond it) that I would trust more to steer executive policy in a sound and just direction. Which makes some sense: I’m a 32-year-old Democratic voter, and Warren polled second among Democratic voters under 35 years of age (albeit a distant second to Bernie Sanders) for the bulk of the primary campaign. Given Biden’s profound weakness among younger voters, Warren could conceivably improve his prospects of victory this year by nudging some fence-sitting young people into his camp.
But unless Warren is willing to resign from the Senate this summer, her selection will cost Democrats a precious vote in the upper chamber for at least the duration of Biden’s presidential “honeymoon.” Under Massachusetts law, Republican governor Charlie Baker would have the power to appoint Warren’s successor. Massachusetts voters would eventually get to vote on Warren’s replacement in a special election, but Baker could delay that vote by up to 160 days after the senator vacates her seat. If Warren resigns this July, that special election will be held in tandem with November’s presidential election. And Democrats would probably feel good about their odds of winning an open Senate race in deep-blue Massachusetts on a day when Trump is on ballot — especially since they’ll be able to run either Ed Markey or Joe Kennedy in that race, both of whom are well-known and well-liked among the state’s voters. Still, given Baker’s popularity, there is an outside risk that if the governor decided to run for Warren’s old seat himself, Democrats would forfeit a can’t-lose Senate seat to the GOP for a generation.
There is one big caveat to that entire last (exceedingly complicated) paragraph: Since Democrats boast a supermajority in the Massachusetts state legislature, they could technically rewrite the rules of Senate appointments over Baker’s veto. For example, they could pass a law stipulating that – when one of the state’s U.S. senators resigns – the governor must appoint a replacement who belongs to the same party as the departing senator. This wouldn’t eliminate the threat of Baker running for the office himself in a special election. But it would significantly mitigate the risk of Democrats losing Warren’s seat.
Regardless, Warren biggest liability is her uncertain electability as a top-of-ticket candidate in 2024. In hypothetical general election surveys this year, Warren consistently polled worse against Trump than Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. And while not nearly as unpopular as Harris, Warren’s favorability rating is six points underwater in RealClearPolitics’ polling. The fact that Warren will be 74 in 2024 also seems less than ideal.
All of which is to say: Biden is a highly imperfect nominee who appears poised to select an imperfect running mate. The Democratic nominee might be wise to widen his search. Although just about every other Democrat who’s been discussed as a possible veep runs afoul of at least one of the aforementioned criteria (Tammy Baldwin is too valuable in the Senate, Val Demmings has never held statewide office, etc.). If Biden must choose from his four rumored finalists, then Whitmer and Warren seem like the best of his imperfect options.