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Democratic Veepstakes in a Time of Protest

The mass movement seeking justice for George Floyd may not have shifted Biden’s running-mate calculus, but it’s added plenty of complications.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The shortlist for the Democratic vice presidential nomination is getting shorter. “Democrats with knowledge of the process said Biden’s search committee has narrowed the choices to as few as six serious contenders after initial interviews,” the Associated Press’s Bill Barrow and Julie Pace reported Friday. “Those still in contention include Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, as well as Susan Rice, who served as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser.” Other contenders named in the piece include Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Florida Congresswoman Val Demings, and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.

That list is in keeping not only with Biden’s public commitment to picking a woman but also, for the most part, with the clear preference of Democratic leaders and insiders for a woman of color, as has been consistently expressed across multiple reports so far. Former Virginia Governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, for instance, told the AP that a black woman would specifically be “exciting for the party.” Support for that position will only deepen as the impact of the George Floyd protests continues to reverberate through Democratic and national politics.

Biden amply demonstrated his popularity among black voters by sweeping the South during the Democratic primaries, and those results suggested enthusiasm and turnout could be quite high no matter who’s on the ticket in November—if Republicans aren’t successful in substantially suppressing the vote. To the extent that Biden might have to improve anywhere within the demographic, it’s with younger black voters, and particularly young black men: A drop in turnout among them hurt Clinton in 2016, and the Trump campaign is making an effort to pursue their vote in 2020.

The Floyd protests and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has destroyed the black job growth Trump has often boasted about, have made Trump’s project an even dodgier proposition than it already was. But Biden, given a record and platform already at odds with the Black Lives Matter generation, would probably prefer a nominee unlikely to alienate them too much further. In this light, it’s relevant that Demings was chief of the Orlando Police Department before her election to Congress and that Bottoms would have to answer for the record of a large municipal police department under her tenure. And, of course, Kamala Harris was a prosecutor and state attorney general.

Elizabeth Warren carries none of that baggage and would also lend some heft and credibility to claims that Biden is planning an FDR-size presidency. But her chances probably rest on whether Democratic leaders who are ambivalent about the size of Biden’s ambitions—and hostile to progressives—fear party disunity more than they value minority representation on the ticket. This seems unlikely. Biden’s lead in the polls seems to have muted talk about progressive defections, and, again, the salience of the Floyd protests shouldn’t be underestimated.

Moreover, while Warren’s supporters on social media have insisted that her support among black voters shouldn’t be discounted, important black figures who have Biden’s ear, such as Congressional Black Caucus chair James Clyburn, have expressed a clear preference for a black woman. One of Warren’s other advantages is that she would be well prepared to succeed Biden should he pass in office—age has been at the front of mind for Democratic and national voters since Biden entered the race. But there are several other potential candidates with at least state-level executive branch experience, including a few mentioned by the AP, such as Grisham, Rice, and Harris.

Harris appears to be the likeliest pick, as Bloomberg’s Jennifer Epstein reported Friday. On paper and on balance, she makes sense. She meets representational demands and, at 55, is substantially younger than Biden. She’s already established a national profile and proven herself competent on a presidential debate stage. Additionally, she ran to Biden’s left during her brief campaign. Criticisms of her record as a prosecutor and as attorney general from the primary will certainly be revived, as they should be. But activists haven’t yet punctured the electorate’s preference for the kind of police reformism Harris and Biden endorse, and Biden may well see Harris’s record as an advantage—moderate enough, the thinking might go, to further insulate the campaign from the right’s messaging on defunding the police without Harris’s actually having been, like Demings, the head of a police department.

Given Biden’s position in the polls, any pick he makes will be more likely to hurt him than substantially help him, and Trump has been itching to find a new and viable line of attack. One of the president’s notable rhetorical habits has been his insistence that Biden, as moderate as he might seem, will ultimately be controlled by more radical figures in the Democratic Party. “His handlers want him to ‘Defund the Police,’” he wrote in a representative tweet last week. “I want more money for Law Enforcement!” This suggests that Biden’s running mate will be a focal point of the campaign, particularly if the pick is a woman of color. Harris, if she’s selected, will be both Hillary-ed and Obama-ed at once by a president and a conservative press eager to rekindle the forces of political sexism and white backlash. But the numbers on Trump’s worsening position offer good reason to suppose the strategy might not work. All told, her selection seems like a reasonable bet for observers to make. But, obviously, this year has already utterly defied prediction.