Joe Biden

What Biden Really Needs From a VP Pick

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August 7, 2020

We are in an incredibly volatile time and a stable political environment. President Trump's political standing, while still weak, seems to have stabilized. Yet, at the same time we don't seem to be making any real progress in getting the COVID-19 crisis under control. 

Every one of our major normal political touchstones (campaign rallies, political conventions, and non-stop campaign process stories) has been eliminated or greatly altered. This means political reporters, activists and cable news chatters are bereft of much of their traditional sustenance. 

But, one campaign staple has remained: the hand-wringing and over-analyzation of the Vice Presidential vetting process. 

I usually avoid getting sucked into the VP speculation frenzy. No one votes for — or against — a presidential candidate because of his/her running mate.

That's doubly true this year. The race for the White House isn't so much between Biden and Trump; it is between Trump and not-Trump. Or, as Kabir Khanna, an election analyst for CBS news put it: "While most Trump supporters say they're mainly voting for him because they like him, about half of Biden voters say opposition to Mr. Trump is driving their vote. Together, this means that across parties, most voters are basing their decisions mainly on how they feel about the president. Biden backers appear to express less enthusiasm, in part, because they are driven more by antipathy toward Mr. Trump than loving their candidate."

But, won't this the lack of "enthusiasm" for Biden's candidacy hurt him? And, can't the right VP pick help to mitigate that? 

 For one, we know that anger — not love — is the greatest motivator for voting. And, we know that there's more deep antipathy to Trump than strong approval for him. In the latest Fox News poll (July 12-15), 45 percent of Americans strongly disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president; that's 17 points higher than those who strongly approve of the job he's doing. 

That gap — with more strongly disapproving than approving of Trump — has been there since the beginning of his presidency.

Veteran pollster Mark Blumenthal argues that it's misleading to assume that enthusiasm to vote automatically translates into the intent to vote. For example, when respondents of the Economist/YouGov survey were asked if they are "enthusiastic" about their candidate, "better than two-thirds of Trump supporters (68%) felt "enthusiastic" about him compared to 40 percent of Biden supporters who felt the same about him." So, a win for Trump, right?

But, when you drop the word "enthusiasm" from the question and replace it with the word "important" ("how important is voting for President this November,"), the gap disappears. Just as many Biden voters (92 percent) as Trump supporters (91 percent) consider voting this year to be very important. Blumenthal also points to recent studies by CBS and the Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group which found that a person's stated enthusiasm wasn't predictive of whether they showed up to vote. 

It's also true that younger voters, and especially younger voters of color, have long been cool to Biden's candidacy. Putting a Black woman on the ticket doesn't suddenly turn them into Biden stans. But, it does at least say to these voters that he understands the important role that Black voters and, specifically, Black women play in the party. Putting the first woman of color on a major party ticket would also help mute the very unhistoric candidacy of yet another older, white guy. 

At this moment of racial reckoning, it would be riskier for Biden not to choose a woman of color as his Vice President. The choice of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or Sen. Elizabeth Warren feels like the political equivalent of 'not reading the room.' 

Given Biden's age, his VP pick will also get more attention than usual from voters. After all, it's not inconceivable that this person will be asked to step in to take over the most stressful job in the world. This isn't the time for outsiders. Someone who understands how Washington works — and has been a part of it — is a plus. The four most-oft mentioned Black women; former UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Reps. Val Demings and Karen Bass and Sen. Kamala Harris, all have Washington experience. But, none of them have been tested and vetted the way Harris has. She didn't run a flawless campaign. But, she has experience on the presidential stage that the others don't. She's not a household name, but she is familiar. And, while she doesn't have the depth of White House experience as Rice, she has notably less baggage. According to press reports, Harris's biggest drawbacks are that she is overly ambitious, opportunistic and disloyal. These are things insiders care about; regular voters could care less. They just want to be assured that their president is loyal to them

Biden is in the enviable position of leading this race with less than four months to go. He doesn't need to convince voters that Trump isn't doing a good job — a majority already feel that way. What he does need to do is assure them that he isn't a risky pick. One way to do this is to pick a VP that voters see as capable and experienced enough to take over if he can't continue to do his job. It's really not any more complicated than that. 

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik