Veepstakes 2020

Who might the four leading Democratic candidates (Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren), choose as their running mate if they were to get the nomination? Who should they pick to maximize their chances?

As Presidents delegate more real responsibilities to their Veeps, a presidential candidate’s choices are increasingly a matter of personal chemistry. The candidates also consider expertise, such as foreign policy or legislative experience. Sometimes, candidates even consider who could safely run the country. (But see Palin and Pence.) As a result, these choices are increasingly difficult for outsiders to predict. Nonetheless, it’s a fun parlor game. Remember, this isn’t about who you want, but who you think best fits the electoral calculations.

Let’s start with some basic political considerations:

  1. It helps if a Veep can pull in a swing state. Indeed, that used to be pretty much all Vice Presidents were thought to be good for. Trouble is, in these polarized times there are increasingly few politicians who are true favorite sons or daughters with that kind of pull beyond what the presidential nominee brings to the ticket. So this consideration has faded if only because almost no one satisfies it. Al Gore couldn’t even carry Tennessee for Bill Clinton. This consideration still weighs against picking a Veep from a safely Democratic state such as California, like Senator Kamala Harris.

  2. Geographic diversity matters. Even if there isn’t someone who could be counted on to deliver Wisconsin, Ohio, or Florida, or maybe even Arizona, geographic diversity has value. In particular, a Democratic ticket with two northeasterners would likely face a disadvantage. If Sanders or Warren or even Biden is the nominee, they’ll want to look well beyond their neighboring states.

  3. Other forms of diversity also matter. It helps if a Veep can appeal to a demographic or ideological group where the candidate is perceived to be weak. Modern history offers lots of examples: Pence (evangelicals); Biden (white “regular guys”); Reagan’s choice of the first Bush (moderate Republicans – back when they were numerous enough to matter); Mondale (the so-called liberal wing that suspected Carter). Occasionally, Veeps are presented as providing a skill set (e.g. Biden’s foreign policy experience, Cheney’s supposed gravitas) that the candidate is seen to lack.

  4. Another modern consideration is whether the electorate can see the Veep nominee as a potential President. Sarah Palin’s candidacy is an object lesson in the costs to the campaign if the Veep fails that test. A similar issue is whether the Veep nominee has ever been exposed to the unique rigors and scrutiny of a national campaign. Palin is also a lesson in the risks of picking someone who hasn’t. Sen. Thomas Eagleton notoriously had escaped scrutiny of a his history of ECT therapy, and when that came out days after his being named by George McGovern, Eagleton got dropped from the ticket; the incident torpedoed whatever small chance McGovern had of being elected.

  5. An additional consideration applies only if the candidate is thinking of picking a sitting Senator as a running mate: Who will appoint the Senator’s replacement if s/he gets elected Vice President? If Democrats have any hope of getting to even a tied Senate, the last thing they want to do is give up a sitting Senator’s seat. Here’s a list of the leading Senatorial presidential candidates, and their home-state governors:

SenatorStateGovernorParty 
Corey BookerNew JerseyPhil MurphyDemocrat
Kamala HarrisCaliforniaGavin NewsomDemocrat
Amy KlobucharMinnesotaTim WalzDFL, ie Democrat
Bernie SandersVermontPhil ScottRepublican
Elizabeth WarrenMassachusettsCharlie BakerRepublican

OK. Enough preliminaries. Let’s play!

Joe Biden

If Biden wins the nomination, it will be because of his appeal to older voters, Black voters, and moderates generally. Polls suggest Biden isn’t doing as well with Hispanic voters or young people. Although Biden is an Easterner, he is thought to poll well in the key Rust Belt states, but more wouldn’t hurt. While Biden’s weakness in the party is his left, it’s not clear he really needs to offer Warren or even Sanders voters a vice-presidential sop; odds are that most of them despise Trump enough to vote for Biden without one. Even though some reports quote Sanders supporters as saying they’ll stay home, I’d bet that most of them will reconsider when the prospect of a Trump win looms.

So I’d say – if they get along personally – we’re looking at the scenario of Biden-Klobuchar. Helps him in flyover country. Bows to gender issues. Doesn’t help with Hispanics. I’d hate this ticket, but I’d have to vote for it anyway. (Not being a Berniecrat I can’t say with as much confidence how it would play with them.) A more interesting, if less likely, choice would be Julián Castro, as way to make a play for the South-West, including Arizona and even Texas. I can’t see Biden picking Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for although Buttigieg would greatly lower the average age of the ticket, so far Buttigieg has not proved especially successful with younger voters or any other group that Biden needs.

Pete Buttigieg

I honestly can’t see Mayor Buttigieg winning the Democratic nomination if only because he appears to have no appeal to the Black voters who make up a critical block of the Democratic party. But suppose he does win. Then either Buttigieg has managed to persuade Blacks to vote for him – in which case I think all bets are off – or he hasn’t, but has won without them. In that case, I think there’s a real enthusiasm risk and Buttigieg will have a very strong incentive to pick a Black running mate.

On the other hand, he’ll also have some calculated reasons not to. Given the inevitable uncertainty about the country’s willingness to elect a wet-behind-the-ears gay man, there will be pressure on the nominee to pick a reassuring almost-elderly obviously straight white man, much as when Obama chose Biden. But one has to go fairly deep into the also-ran pile to find one. Sanders isn’t reassuring. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg fits on demographics, except maybe being from New York which is a safe Democratic state, but in any case Bloomberg would be an uneasy fit for a Democratic ticket even if he’d be a one-man answer to funding problems. This is not the year to run a multi-billionaire, nor even uni-billionaire Tom Steyer, especially if you are sometimes called McKinsey Pete. Steven Bullock of Wyoming might fit the bill. Washington Governor Jay Inslee would be another, more interesting, choice. Both, however, suffer from being a bit obscure. They do provide an ability to run as an “outside the Beltway ticket” which might be popular; but those same characteristics might make it harder to govern. DC rewards people who come in knowing something about its ways, and often punishes those who don’t.

If on the other hand the Buttigieg campaign decides it needs to shore up the enthusiasm gap with Black voters, it has among its options the two leading Black candidates who ran for President. Of them, I think Senator Booker would fit Buttigieg much better than would Senator Harris for several reasons. First, I think Harris actually would have less appeal to Black voters although she might make a better Trump attacker. Second, I think that if Buttigieg is going to roll the dice on the electability of a ticket with no straight white men at all (and wouldn’t that cause a freakout in some quarters), New Jersey is a bit less certain than California. Lastly, I think Booker’s optimistic style might play better with Buttigieg’s attempts at optimism than would Harris’s more slasher-like public persona. Despite the polls, I think Booker is just a better campaigner than Harris, but maybe that is just me.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders is strong with young people, with Hispanics, and with working-class voters. He hasn’t done well with Black voters in part because Biden seems to have their allegiance and in part because, Vermont being so white, Sanders just doesn’t have the history of ties with the Black community that one might expect for someone with such a long civil rights record. Sanders actually polls well in lots of distressed communities, and that includes the Rust Belt so he’s got some geographical freedom. He’s also, I think, more of an ideological purist than the other major candidates; while this is a matter of conviction it has also become a key part of the brand. So I can’t see Sanders taking a moderate, certainly not one who was weak on single-payer health care. Indeed, the ideologically congenial choice for Sanders is Warren, which also provides some gender balance–but there are strong negatives to consider.

First, both Vermont and Massachusetts have Republican governors. So if the Sanders-Warren ticket were to prevail, that would cost Democrats two Senate seats, effectively putting a majority in the Senate out of reach of anything but the very most unlikely massive landslide. Second, a Sanders-Warren ticket means having candidates from two contiguous states, with Massachusetts being very safely Democratic without Warren on the ticket.  So, Warren not only is not as ideologically diverse as other possibiliites, she’s the opposite of geographically diverse. And frankly, much as I like her, it’s hard to conceive of a voter who wasn’t going to vote for Sanders but does so because Warren is waiting in the wings.

I think imagining who Sanders should and might pick as a running mate is harder than for any other candidate, because of the purism — unless the necessities of a brokered convention force his hand. If Buttigieg were not running as such a conservative, he might be perfect, but I’d be really surprised if Sanders would be willing to choose Buttigieg given his choice to commit to running in the Biden lane , his embrace of big donors, and the recent abandonment of Medicare for All.

If Sanders is worried about Black enthusiasm, there are Senators Harris and Booker, but both of them might fail the ideological purity test.  Georgia’s Stacy Abrahms could be a possibility, but she lacks any national political experience so she’d be a very high-risk choice.

Otherwise, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington is great on climate change, and on geography, but I don’t know if he’s sufficiently liberal on other issues to appeal to Sanders. Nor, I suspect, is Julián Castro, although again there’s an intriguing prospect of building on Sandders’s popularity with Hispanics and making a run for the South-West.

In addition to his supposed troubles with Black voters, Sanders was dogged four years ago with accusations that his supporters were dominated by “Bernie Bros,” and that the campaign was somehow unfriendly to women.  These claims may have been unfair, but their currency increases the value of picking a woman. AOC isn’t available, because she isn’t old enough to be President. Picking Warren or Abrams, despite the negatives mentioned above, would reinforce Sanders’s purist brand, but doesn’t do much to broaden the tent.

My bottom line is that I think that Sanders would do himself the most electoral good by picking someone youthful and geographically diverse whom the electorate would have no trouble imaging as president  It would also help if the choice didn’t seem rigidly ideological, keeping in mind that some choices, like Klobuchar, are probably out of the question on ideological grounds. That rules out almost everyone mentioned above except maybe Julián Castro or Corey Booker. Castro is better geograpically, Booker is a much better campaigner. Inslee might be ideologically congenial, maybe, but he’s not youthful.

I suspect, however, that Sanders will see his campaign as depending on not being a traditional compromiser or trimmer, and that this will lead him to offer to job to Warren first.

Elizabeth Warren

I see Warren as a much more pragmatic figure than Sanders. The story of the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau demonstrates both Warren’s backbone and her talent for judicious compromise. So I think Warren would be far more willing than Sanders to pick a Veep for electoral reasons at the price of some purity.

Temperamentally, I think the optimism of Senator Booker would serve a Warren campaign best, but the ticket would lack geographic diversity. It would also lack a white male. I think Julián Castro is not a top choice, mostly because in the debates he picked up a somewhat unfair rap as mean, and Warren doesn’t need mean on her ticket when she’s struggling against the ‘likeability’ canard that is raised against women.

Is there a nice friendly moderate mid-western white male available? There’s Buttigieg, but it’s hard to imagine he appeals to enough independents and/or Republicans in a way that would add significantly to a Warren ticket. Plus, to the extent that Warren’s natural constituency is not the working class, he hurts rather than helps there (and see freakout, above). Klobuchar has flyover cred, but in addition to the ideological friction, there’s the factor of a two-woman ticket – would that work with suburban women or turn them off? Someone would have to poll the hell out of that.

Would Warren be willing to pick a moderate-to-illiberal Democratic governor? Jay Inslee is geographically diverse and might work politically. Steve Bullock of Montana fits the bill demographically, but likely wouldn’t even carry his (tiny) state.

As for the other also-rans, Beto O’Rourke is not ready for prime time. Nor, frankly, for all his erratic charm, is Andrew Yang — not this time, maybe not ever, although someone should give him a Cabinet department to run and see what happens. Ex-Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper Jr. didn’t impress. Nor did Rep. Tim Ryan, even if he is from Ohio. Rep. John Delaney is too far to the right to make any sense on Warren’s or indeed any Democrat’s campaign. Tulsi Gabbard, Bill deBlasio, or Marianne Williamson would be toxic. So, Warren, like Sanders, would face a difficult choice.

All of this leaves out the wild card of someone who didn’t run at all in 2020. Someone with stature, with political and perhaps ideally foreign policy experience. A recently retired General or Admiral would be good, but even if Warren knows one who is liberal enough, it’s hard to imagine they are used to dealing with the press and the pubic in the ways necessary to survive a brutal campaign. Scholar-General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis anyone? I’m kidding, I think, if only because he has a Theranos problem as a former director. But maybe Mattis could spin that as demonstrating why we need better consumer financial protection rules….

Semi-kidding aside, Warren more than any other candidate likely would benefit from picking a joker out of the deck and going with a fresh and unexpected pick like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a nice friendly somewhat liberal mid-western white male. Only problem is that the Governor of Ohio is Mike DeWine, a Republican, so this costs another Senate seat.  Nevertheless, Sherrod Brown might still be Warren’s best choice. If we restrict ourselves to the candidates already in play, my heart says Booker, my head says Inslee. Booker’s politics struck me as far too pro-Wall Street, but he has run the sort of uplifting optimistic campaign that could do a lot for a Warren candidacy especially if he can stop reminding us all the time that he’s a vegetarian.

OK, I’ve gone on long enough. Corrections, comments, alternate viewpoints welcomed in comments.

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4 Responses to Veepstakes 2020

  1. E C says:

    I see a real path for Buttigieg, but maybe. If he pulls out a first in Iowa, he has a good chance of getting #1 in NH. This momentum may carry him through Nevada and SC.

    I believe you overlooked the best pick for Mayor Pete, and IMHO, that would be Stacy Abrams. She would help shore up African American and excite women voters. She has the charisma that matches nicely with Buttigieg. She may help deliver Georgia. Her run for Governor of Georgia received national attention (unless you run for president, no one has experience with a national campaign). They have geographic diversity. Neither will cause the loss of a senate seat. She would be a viable presidential candidate.

    Buttigieg’s best route to the WH may be to announce Abrams as his VP pick prior to Iowa, reversing the media narrative about his appeal in the AA community.

    • I don’t think I’m persuaded.

      I’m not convinced — and thus don’t think other voters will be convinced — that Abrams has demonstrated she’s ready to be President. Maybe someday, but not yet. What makes a candidate ready? Having to engage with national and international issues in a sustained way. Abrams’s focus has been at the state level.

      One of the major (overt) criticisms of the Buttigieg candidacy is going to be lack of experience. It’s not just his young age — it’s the leap from mayor of a small town straight to President. That’s a huge and almost unprecedented leap. Both JFK and Obama had at least been Senators for a little while (and JFK a Representative for six years too). Eisenhower had run WW2 and then Columbia University, so I don’t think he counts as a precedent. One of the closest precedents is Jimmy Carter — but at least he had run a State…albeit in ways that foreshadowed the problems in his presidency. And then there is Trump who, as far as I know, had never had a job outside the family business before his election — and look how that turned out.

      Buttigieg could blunt that critique at least somewhat by getting a running mate with real domestic and/or foreign policy chops, if such a person could be found. A bit of gray hair — whether male or female — and a large happy family wouldn’t hurt either. (Abrams is unmarried AFAIK?)

  2. Vic says:

    I always wonder how people act as if things like ideas, experience, political stances, etc. are soooooooo mind-bendingly important, until they are talking about GETTING the job, in which case it’s about, essentially, tricking people into voting for them over someone else. Who can fool the most people. Both sides would run a broom and mop for President and Veep if it meant sure electability. Don’t kid yourself.

    It’s no different really than how we pretend that Federal judges are the impartial arbiters of justice and constitutional interpretation so necessary to uphold the rule of law (whatever that really is), until the question becomes should person X be made a Fed a Judge? J. Roberts defending the Court as unbiased, even though we ALL commonly know that individuals on it have biases, and confirmation hearings are based on that principle.

    It’s a game. It always is. But most people only admit it when the question is electability/appointability.

  3. Barry says:

    I think for Warren her best VP would be former senator and former envoy Russ Feingold. For number of reasons. 1. He’s from wiscounsin a Midwestern swing state a state that Trump won in 2016 he could her win that and other Midwestern states. 2. Yes it is true Warren doesn’t have much of a working class constituency but Russ Feingold does he’ll help her win over those voters. 3. He brings a lot of experience to the ticket he served in the senate for 18 years and knows the ins and outs of how Washington works. 4. He sat on the Foreign relations, judiciary, intelligence, and budget committees. He brings so much foriegn policy experience to the ticket which Warren lacks. He was also the Chairman of the constitution oversight very important since it’s the VP who swears in the senators. 5. He has a history of being a maverick in the senate and signed many bipartisan legislation very appealing to help win over independent voters. 6. He was an envoy to the Great Lakes of Africa under the Obama Administration so he knows firsthand what it’s like to work in a cabinet. 7. Russ Feingold is a progressive like Warren and with him on the ticket it would prove to Bernie Bro’s she’s not good sellout to the establishment and she’ll win them over. 8. He has a history of fighting against corruption something that’s been Warren’s campaign theme who better than to have a partner by your side helping you fight corruption. 9. It also brings in diversity a woman and a Jewish man on a ticket. 10. Russ Feingold is not serving any positions of power right now so picking him will not effect the senate like others would. WARREN/FEINGOLD 2020!!!!!!

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