Choosing a Running Mate Early: Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad

The 2020 Democratic primary field is shaping up to be the largest in modern memory, with no fewer than 15 candidates already running and likely more on the way.  One big name yet to jump in is Joe Biden, the former vice president.  There are indications he’s about ready to announce a run shortly, and to possibly take several unconventional steps in his run – such as naming his running mate early, well before the national convention. 

Biden wouldn’t be the first candidate to attempt this gambit, but it’s never worked in the past.  Ronald Reagan tried it in his run against incumbent President Gerald Ford: before the 1976 Republican convention he named Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his vice president.  Reagan’s intent was to demonstrate his seriousness to uniting the party by choosing the liberal Schweiker, along with possibly grabbing some of Pennsylvania’s delegates at the convention.  The choice backfired, however, as conservative delegates to the convention were disappointed with Reagan’s sudden turn away from pure conservative ideology, and Ford defeated Reagan. 

The other time this move was attempted was more recently, during the 2016 campaign, when Ted Cruz announced that his running mate would be Carly Fiorina.  This move came very late in the process, by which point Donald Trump already had a near-insurmountable lead in the delegate count for the Republican nomination.  Cruz’s move was widely seen as an act of desperation, to change the narrative and convince Republican delegates to the national convention to switch and support him instead, and it didn’t work, either. 

Should we expect a similar move by Joe Biden to be any different?  Most likely, no – an early attempt to devise a ticket more than a year in advance of the Democratic Party’s national convention runs multiple risks.  Most obviously, the political landscape could look completely different by the time we get to the general election period.  At this point in 2015, for instance, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush were the leaders for the Republican presidential nomination.  Predicting which running mate will most help the party’s ticket this far out is likely to be a fool’s errand.  Even if Biden wins the nomination, he might need a different type of running mate to run the election that 2020 shapes up to be at that point in time.  Different characteristics might be needed in different scenarios

Also: most people don’t vote based on the identity of the #2 position on the ticket, ever.  With the exception of Sarah Palin, who likely moved votes away from John McCain, the impact of a running mate is usually on the margins.  (There’s some research suggesting a “home state effect”, where picking a running mate from a particular state can lead to gains for the presidential ticket in that state, but the evidence is mixed.)  And that’s in the general election – we have no idea how primary voters would respond, if at all, to a full ticket running together. 

One small caveat to this general pessimism about the idea: there’s a rumor floating around that Biden might name Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia gubernatorial election last year, as his running mate.  They had a private meeting recently that garnered some attention.  Picking a young African-American woman who’s quite popular in the Democratic Party could work to Biden’s benefit in the short-term, at least, and offset some of Biden’s weaknesses among party progressives on issues such as race relations.  But the long-term effects would still be unclear and unknowable. 

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