We are entering the silly season of vice presidential speculation, filled with ill-sourced rumors and Talmudic interpretations of what Joe Biden means every time he says that his running mate must be “simpatico.” Depending on what you read over the weekend, Kamala Harris is either the inevitable pick (The Hill) or doomed (Politico) because she refuses to express remorse over her theatrical debate attack on Biden over busing.
All that is missing from the melee is a Mount Rushmore-sized mistake like the New York Post’s 2004 front-page revelation that Dick Gephardt would be John Kerry’s running mate. The infamous exclusive (based on a tip from Post owner Rupert Murdoch) held for about ten hours until Kerry announced his intended VP choice: John Edwards, who was later infamous for other reasons.
Most strategic analyses by TV pundits and armchair experts assume that Biden’s vice presidential pick (whoever she is) will matter in November. A sampler of this type of political calculus: A Black woman like Harris on the ticket would inspire African American turnout. Elizabeth Warren as VP would ideologically unite the party. A governor like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer or a mayor like Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms would help deliver a swing state. One of the downsides of choosing either Harris, a Californian, or Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth is that they both come from states already locked up for Biden.
Political science research and history have largely discredited all of these theories. In fact, most of what you think you know about the politics of picking a VP is probably wrong. As political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck wrote in their study of the 2012 election, The Gamble, “Vice-presidential picks have had at most a small influence on modern presidential elections.”
Begin with the common misconception that a running mate can help the ticket carry a state or a region. In 1988, Michael Dukakis, perhaps hoping that the pairing of a Bostonian with a Texan might remind voters of John Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, chose Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate. Under a permissive law originally crafted for LBJ, Bentsen was able to run simultaneously for reelection to the Senate. He won his Senate bid but couldn’t come close to delivering Texas for Dukakis—Senator Bentsen ran 800,000 votes ahead of would-be Vice President Bentsen.
In fact, in their new book Do Running Mates Matter? political scientists Christopher Devine and Kyle Kopko concluded “that vice presidential candidates, in general, do not deliver an electoral advantage in their home state, division, or region.”
Devine and Kopko even debunk the myth that Johnson delivered Texas for Kennedy in 1960, stressing that there is no polling data to support the all-the-way-with-LBJ thesis. (Of course, Johnson’s skill with vote counting may have had something to do with Kennedy’s narrow victory in the state.)
Many of the misconceptions about the political significance of a VP choice are rooted in an outmoded concept of the job. As Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues in a new ebook Picking the Vice President, “Every vice president since Al Gore has been chosen more for their ability to help the president do his job than for their ability to balance the ticket.” What changed, according to Kamarck, who was a top Gore aide in Bill Clinton’s White House, was the presidential nomination process: Since nominees are now picked in the primaries, candidates no longer need to dangle the VP nomination as a bargaining chip at contested conventions.
Political science data can only take us so far. Part of the trouble is that voters are often contradictory about why they chose a presidential ticket. Many call the VP pick “extremely important.” But Devine and Topco noted, “Vice presidential selection is quite unimportant when measured in relation to other electoral influences; approximately 90 percent of survey respondents cannot recall ever changing their presidential vote based on account of the vice presidential candidate.”
The other factor, particularly pertinent for 2020, is a shortage of relevant examples when it comes to the electoral impact of a female running mate. It is hard to imagine two more diametrically opposed political figures than Geraldine Ferraro, a liberal Democratic congresswoman from Queens, and Sarah Palin, the ill-informed hockey mom turned Alaska governor. Both VP choices were the product of desperation, as both Walter Mondale (facing Ronald Reagan in 1984) and John McCain (trailing Barack Obama in 2008) believed they needed to do something unorthodox to shake up the race. But when Mondale ended up carrying just one state and McCain lost by the biggest margin of this century, it was hard to blame the flaws of their running mates (though Palin probably did cost the GOP ticket votes).
Of course, no presidential nominee has ever tapped a person of color as his running mate, and academic studies dating back to 2006 have shown that Black candidates, in particular, do boost turnout. In 2015, political scientists Amir Shawn Fairdosi and Jon Rogowski calculated that African American Democratic congressional candidates increased Black voting participation by as much as 5 percent. But there is no way of knowing whether these findings can be extrapolated to 2020 presidential politics when voting interest is already high because of Biden’s popularity with Black voters and the deep antipathy to Donald Trump.
Biden’s hefty lead in the polls also provides an argument against choosing a vice president primarily for political reasons. When seemingly safe Republican states such as Ohio and Georgia are in play, it is hard to determine precisely what Biden needs—even if the VP candidate had the clout with the voters to provide it.
There is an axiom dating back to Richard Nixon in 1968: “The vice president can’t help you. He can only hurt you.”
Nixon’s choice of Spiro Agnew that year (who called a reporter “a fat Jap” and said, “If you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all”) was an epic example of a political leader failing to follow his own advice. The Democrats responded with an ad that consisted entirely of a man laughing hysterically at a TV screen that showed the words, “Agnew for Vice-President?” But Agnew survived the uproar and served as a laughingstock of a vice president until 1973 when he resigned because of his long addiction to taking cash bribes from Maryland highway contractors.
The one arena where a vice presidential pick can play an electoral role is in raising or lowering perceptions of the presidential candidate who made the choice. As Devine and Kopko put it, “The choice of a running mate is a ‘window’ into a future presidency—a ‘message’ or a ‘signal’ about who we are electing ... and what he or she will do once in power.”
To be avoided at all costs are the kind of debilitating VP furors that were a staple of late twentieth-century politics. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower nearly dropped Nixon as his VP choice after he was caught up in a fundraising scandal. (Nixon saved himself by delivering his tearjerker Checkers Speech, vowing that he would never return the gift of a cocker spaniel). As the press became more aggressive in its campaign coverage, almost every other VP choice in the 1970s and 1980s boomeranged. There was Tom Eagleton (dropped by George McGovern in 1972 for concealing his history of electroshock treatments for depression), Ferraro (challenged over dubious real estate transactions by her husband), and Dan Quayle in 1988 (portrayed as a lightweight senator who used family connections to wangle his way into a safe billet in the Indiana National Guard during Vietnam).
That history explains why nominees like Biden place such an emphasis on exhaustively vetting the vice presidential contenders. Former Senator Chris Dodd, who is taking a lead role in the VP search, knows better than anyone (other than Biden) about the twists, turns, and misdirection that accompany the choice of a running mate. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson conspicuously trotted out Dodd’s father, Tom, also a Connecticut senator, on the White House lawn to add a note of fake drama just before announcing that he had chosen Hubert Humphrey as his vice president.
In recent years, the press has gotten a jump on many vice presidential picks by deciphering the flight path of a private plane departing from the VP nominee’s home airport. That tactic may not work during a pandemic—since everything from interviews with Biden to the vice presidential rollout may be done on Zoom.
The homebound flavor of Campaign 2020 gives Biden the element of surprise. But, as history shows, the best vice presidential picks are solid figures (Gore, Biden, and even Dick Cheney) who provide no unpleasant surprises whatsoever during the campaign.