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 — they could deliver their home state’s electoral votes. And 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 is not 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.
And that’s why he 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 will pick a woman no matter what (a concession to many of the same people demanding even more from him), they tout people like 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 to black support. Abrams, who is black, is a much better politician than Warren, but she wasn’t good enough to win a governor’s race in Georgia 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 cited by Trump voters was that he wasn’t Clinton. In late September of that year, 11% of Trump voters told the Pew Research Center that they’d be disappointed if he won.
It’s funny hearing people like Sen. Bernie Sanders simultaneously insist that Trump is a world historic threat to what all 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: He needs to win voters who don’t necessarily despise Trump, specifically in the 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, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, recently told the New York Times. “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, as a result, usher in a return to normalcy. The base may not love that message, but it’s one they can swallow if the alternative to their binary choice 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 those 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 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 loath her, which is catnip for the Democratic base.
Biden needs to send the message that he’s a safe choice who occasionally says odd things. Surely there’s a woman out there who can help with that.