intelligencer chats

Should Biden Throw Election-Map Calculus Out the Window With His Veep Pick?

Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth would be an intriguing pick but probably wouldn’t help much in swing states. Photo: Shutterstock

Joe Biden is currently enjoying a solid lead in national and state polls. But there’s still a reasonable chance that November’s election will come down to a small number of familiar swing states. With that in mind, does it make sense for the Democratic nominee to pick his running mate with an eye toward the electoral map? Intelligencer writers Jonathan Chait and Ed Kilgore and editor Benjamin Hart discuss.

Ben: Joe Biden is expected to name his vice-presidential pick in the next few weeks. This is seen as a particularly consequential decision, given Biden’s age and the unusually high odds that if he wins, he’ll only serve one term. To what extent, if any, does it make sense for him to consider the electoral effect of his running-mate choice — as in, giving special weight to candidates from swing states?

Ed: He should consider everything, though the consensus among political scientists these days is that the veep doesn’t make much difference in the general election, even in her home state.

Jon: I think in general, the micro-electoral effects of VP picks on demographics — and especially states — are overrated. It’s vastly more important to select who will be a good candidate and president. And it’s especially true when there’s a lead as large as Biden’s.

Ed: It’s easy to get too caught up in Florida 2000 scenarios, where 500 votes mean the ball game and this or that veep is a game-changer.

Jon: Also, a lot of the Florida Jews Gore was wooing wound up voting for Buchanan by mistake.

Ben: Or so they claim.

Ed: A more important and unfortunately more likely scenario is one in which Joe Biden dies in office and his veep becomes president. But even in terms of the campaign, meta-messaging rather than micro-politics matters more, and even then you have to be careful, as I noted in writing about how Sarah Palin made sense for John McCain, who didn’t know she’d turn out to be a low-information extremist who tossed word salads every time she opened her mouth.

McCain viewed her as a attention-grabber and a “maverick” who was also beloved of one of the GOP’s most important constituencies (the anti-abortion movement). That was way too cute.

Ben: The George Floyd-inspired protests that have swept the country have obviously changed Biden’s calculus here. Before them, Amy Klobuchar was considered a strong contender; now she’s thought to be out of the picture altogether. Kamala Harris is still thought to be the favorite, but other black candidates like Representative Val Demings and Atlanta mayor Keisha Bottoms have gotten a lot of buzz in recent days. Do you think the exigencies of the moment demand that Biden pick someone who is a convincing voice on criminal-justice reform — which might hurt Harris, given her prosecutorial record?

Jon: I’m pretty skeptical that there’s a space for a candidate like you describe, if “convincing criminal-justice reformer” means something to the left of Harris/Demings/Bottoms

Ed: I would agree to the extent that there’s no one who would satisfy Black Lives Matter activists on this subject who is viable.

Jon: I think all three of them are evidence that most black Democrats are comfortable with some level of support for prosecutors and police but also want reform, as opposed to reaching out to defund-the-policers.

Ed: It’s possible there is someone less provocative to BLM than Harris or Demings, but for all I know Team Biden may want to triangulate a bit.

The threshold decision for Team Biden, I think, is whether he wants to Go Big with a star veep who is accepted party-wide as a potential president (e.g, Elizabeth Warren), or instead has a moral obligation to choose a black running mate, since without question, black voters saved his ass this year. As it happens, I’ve made both arguments in the past.

Ben: Not to mention current events pointing in that direction as well.

Jon, I know you’ve got a soft spot for Tammy Duckworth in all this — what’s your rationale there?

Jon: Who leaked this? My Duckworth fandom was off the record.

Ben: Haha.

Jon: Duckworth strikes me as a huge star. In case you don’t know who she is or aren’t sure if we mean Tammy Baldwin, she is the senator from Illinois who’s an Iraq War vet, a double amputee, and the first senator ever to give birth while in office. She’s well- qualified and a pretty effective communicator.

Ed: She is also, as Jon illustrates, someone you pick if you are checking off boxes. Not sure that’s the right way to approach this, particularly if you think veeps don’t necessarily sway voters.

All I’d ask about Duckworth is: (a) Is she a sort of governing superstar like Warren? and (b) Does she help discharge Biden’s massive debt to black Democrats? The answers are “probably not” and “no.”

Jon: I think Duckworth has a certain power as a candidate that transcends a specific constituency. She so personally embodies not the American story, but an aspect of the American story that people find aspirational.

Ed: Interesting way to put it.

Jon: Clinton-Gore was a candidate team that told a political story about New Democrats and generational change. I think Duckworth tells a different kind of story. Biden has anchored his theme in restoring goodness/decency, and I think Duckworth’s biography enhances that. Also, Duckworth’s mom is Thai, and while Asian-Americans may not be as key a constituency as black voters, she would still represent a real breakthrough.

Ben: Do any of the other names recently bandied about make sense to you as a pick?

Jon: Susan Rice!

Ed: Took the words right out of my mouth.

Jon: I’ve been mentioning her for a while, now there’s some Ricementum.

Ed: Biden is reportedly big on personal chemistry, and presumably he’s comfortable with Rice.

Ben: I have to say, I don’t see it. Have I been poisoned by Benghazi propaganda?

Ed: Probably. It might be good to encourage Republicans to go there. Make this another “Lock her up!” election.

The best thing about Rice, to be cynically honest about it, is that she is a highly qualified black Democrat who so far as I know has never had to deal with the slippery politics of crime, law enforcement, and the justice system. Nobody’s going to call her a “cop.”

Ben: Is this really all a sideshow until we get the inevitable Kamala Harris pick?

Jon: She’s the leader, but I bet they’re at least a little worried about her poorly run campaign, which is a direct reflection on her political instincts and management skills.

Ben: Yes, that has to give one pause.

Ed: Her palpable lack of black support during the nomination campaign is troubling. As is the sort of meh attitude many California Dems have about her.

Should Biden Base His Veep Pick on Swing-State Appeal?