The first thing to remember about vice presidential picks is that they are marketing decisions. That is, once a candidate has been deemed qualified to be president, the only thing that matters is what the choice says about the person at the top of the ticket.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when vice presidents were picked on the assumption (or promise) that they could deliver their home state’s electoral votes. In an era of machine politics, that was probably justified. But it stopped being true a long time ago.
In the modern era, veeps are picked to reinforce a message. The best example of this was Bill Clinton’s selection of Al Gore in 1992. Clinton was running on generational change—for America and for the Democratic Party—so he picked another young, centrist Southern Democrat to buttress his image.
Now, this isn’t to say that Joe Biden should pick another logorrheic septuagenarian who might shout “Give the hamster a bank loan!” at any given moment. You pick a VP to support the message you want to send, not the one your opponents want to stick you with.
That’s why Biden should pick a boring running mate, ideally a centrist, wonky, pleasant one.
The left wing of the party is desperate for Biden to pick one of their own, claiming he has to “energize the base” to have any chance of getting elected. Since Biden has already said he’ll pick a woman no matter what (a concession to many of the same people now demanding even more from him), they tout people such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams.
Warren failed to energize the base in the primaries and was particularly unappealing to black voters—unlike Biden, who won thanks largely to black support. Abrams, who is black, is a much better politician than Warren, but she wasn’t good enough to win the Georgia governor’s race in 2018.
There are two problems with the energize-the-base argument. First, that job has been filled—by President Trump. Yes, polls say that many Democrats aren’t enthusiastic about voting for Biden, but there’s a mountain of evidence that they’re very enthusiastic about voting against Trump. Indeed, the primary reason Biden beat the competition was the widespread view that he was the best candidate to beat Trump in November.
Think of it this way: Trump galvanizes the left the way Hillary Clinton did the right. In 2016, the No. 1 reason people voted for Trump was that he wasn’t Clinton. In late September of that year, 11 percent of Trump voters told the Pew Research Center they’d be disappointed if he won.
It’s funny hearing people such as Sen. Bernie Sanders simultaneously insist that Trump is a historic threat to everything Democrats hold dear and that if Biden doesn’t pick a left-wing ideologue, Democrats won’t vote for him.
Biden will have Trump-despising Democrats in his column no matter what.
Which brings us to the second problem: Biden needs to win voters who don’t necessarily despise Trump, specifically in battleground states, where there are fewer Trump-despising Democrats.
“In just about every battleground state, there are more conservative voters than liberal voters,” David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, told the New York Times Magazine last year. “So a Republican nominee starts out closer to the goal line than a Democrat does. That’s the fact.”
Biden’s appeal is derived from the belief that he would be a normal president and would usher in a return to normalcy. The base may not love that message, but it’s one they can swallow if the alternative is four more years of Trump. Meanwhile, to the former or occasional Republican voters in the suburbs, it’s the only pitch that can win them over. Nominate a socialist or an advocate for reparations, and you force voters who cannot stand Trump’s style but agree with many of his policies to bite the bullet and vote for him—or stay home.
There are many VP possibilities who fit the bill. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is boringly competent. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has attracted a lot of negative press from the right for her response to the pandemic, but she is more popular than Trump in her state, most importantly with independents and moderates. Moreover, Trump seems to loathe her, which is catnip for the Democratic base.
Biden needs to send the message that he’s a safe presidential choice who occasionally says odd things. Surely there’s a woman out there who can help with that.
Photograph by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images.