Why Biden’s Vice President Pick Matters More Than Usual For This Election

Date: 2020-08-11 02:25:28

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For all the secrecy and speculation that typically surrounds the search for a vice presidential candidate, the decision rarely sways an election. But ahead of Joe Biden’s imminent announcement, this year could be different.

At a minimum, the decision will shift the force of the campaign — at least temporarily — away from Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency onto Biden himself. That’s not a place many Democrats are comfortable given Biden’s proclivity for gaffes and the persistent lack of excitement behind his candidacy.

More fundamentally, the choice offers Biden an unusual opportunity to unify a party still reeling from Trump’s 2016 win and solidify its future. He’s already committed to selecting a woman and is considering several Black women. And since the 77-year-old Biden has not committed to seeking a second term, his running mate could be strongly positioned to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2024 and shape national politics for the next decade.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who served as Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee in 2016, said Biden’s decision “may be the most closely held and personally driven vice presidential pick ever.”

“Nobody knows this job better than Joe Biden and nobody did the job better than Biden, so he’s gonna really control this one on his own,” Kaine said in an interview.

He pushed back against those who discount the impact of running mates, estimating he added about 2 percentage points to Clinton’s winning margin of 5 percentage points in Virginia.

While Biden has said a top priority is selecting someone who could step into the presidency on Day One, the politics of the moment have pushed the silver-haired white man to the brink of making history. He could become the first presidential nominee of a major party to select a woman of color. While he promised months ago to pick a woman, the nation’s reckoning with systemic racism has added pressure to pick a Black woman.

But it’s not certain he will do so. Last weekend, he met privately with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who’s white. Biden has said publicly she remains on his short list. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who also is white, has also been a leading contender.

Biden’s campaign has refused to comment on his search, but his team has been in recent contact with a small group of finalists that includes at least four women of color: California Sen. Kamala Harris, former national security adviser Susan Rice, California Rep. Karen Bass and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

Some were instructed late last week not to leave Washington, an indication that more in-person interviews, or an actual announcement, was imminent.

Within the party, there is some tension about how soon before the Democratic National Convention Biden should unveil his decision. While finalists and their allies believe the process has already gone on too long, experienced Democratic operatives want Biden to wait as long as possible before the convention’s Aug. 17 start date to limit the vice presidential nominee’s exposure to the attacks expected no matter whom he picks.

Most of the women don’t have strong ties to a specific battleground state that might offer Democrats a geographic advantage this fall, which would represent a break from precedent to some extent. But Biden allies hope the historic nature of his pick might help energize two key Democratic constituencies: women and people of color.

Inside the campaign, some are privately skeptical that even a history-making pick would have a significant impact. There is a strong belief that after only a brief focus on Biden’s running mate, the election would quickly return to being a referendum on Trump’s presidency, which may be all the motivation Democrats need to drive massive turnout in November.

Yet Biden risks a real backlash from his base if he doesn’t pick a woman of color, according to some activists.

“It would be a reckless choice to pick a white running mate with a party that’s as dependent on black and brown voters as it is,” said Aimee Allison of She the People, a political advocacy network for women of color. “A Black woman as VP is a healing link that our country needs right now to navigate this historic moment.”

Running mates are rarely a deciding factor in presidential elections.

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