High-Stakes Presidential Matchmaking: A Rubric for Selecting a Running Mate

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Senator Bernie Sanders’ exit from the Democratic Presidential Primary last week makes former Vice President Joe Biden the Party’s presumptive nominee. Sanders will remain on the ballot through the conclusion of state contests in July (see a revised list of postponed and still-to-come primaries) in a bid to exact further leverage on the party platform through ongoing delegate accumulation. In addition to winning the requisite number of delegates (the original 1,991 may be in flux due to bonuses awarded by the Democratic Party to states holding later contests), Biden must navigate campaigning at a time of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, raise significant sums of money for the fall advertising and get-out-the-vote blitz, and pick a running mate prior to the postponed Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.

While there is no shortage of prognosticating as to who Biden will/should select, this post will lay out a rubric to guide his vetting process, a framework I hope is also useful for student inquiries in civics classes. It should be noted that a Vice President’s power is constitutionally limited to presiding over the Senate in a ceremonial role, breaking tie votes in the body, and standing first in the line of succession should the President be incapacitated or die. But recent Vice Presidents, Biden included, assumed more informal power, and their addition to a presidential ticket is often seen as a means of balancing the relative strengths and weaknesses of its top billing.

Biden boasts significant political experience with more than three decades in the Senate and eight years as Vice President. He hails from Delaware, a solidly Democratic state, and his current delegate lead is attributable to his strong support among African Americans, voters 45 and older, and those residing in suburban areas. Given that he’ll be 78 come November 20, the oldest nominee in history, Biden must balance a younger running mate with the need for her to be ready on day one. And I did say “her,” as Biden promised to select only the third female vice presidential candidate ever.

Biden would be smart to revisit how successful presidential candidates in the past weighed these factors in making this most critical campaign decision. The table below lists each winning presidential ticket in the last half century and how the vice presidential pick varied from the nominee.

Year President (Party) VP Pick Regional Ideological Generational Experiential
1960Kennedy (D) Johnson South Moderate

1964 Johnson (D) Humphrey Midwest Liberal

1968, 1972 Nixon (R) Agnew Mid-Atlantic

1976 Carter (D) Mondale Midwest Liberal
1980, 1984 Reagan (R) Bush 41 South Moderate
Congressman, CIA Director, Ambassador
1988 Bush 41 (R) Quayle Midwest Conservative younger Senator
1992, 1996 Clinton (D) Gore

2000, 2004 Bush 43 (R) Cheney West
older Congressman, Cabinet Secretary
2008, 2012 Obama (D) Biden Mid-Atlantic
2016 Trump (R) Pence Midwest Conservative
Governor, Congressman

Regional balance is often a primary consideration in selecting a running mate to expand the electoral map, increasing the ticket’s strength in a battleground state or region. Only Clinton-Gore in 1992 and 1996 parted from this course in pairing to sons of the South. Does Biden look to rebuild the Democrat’s Midwestern “blue wall” in selecting Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, or Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer?

Ideological balance was formerly a strong criterion for constructing a ticket, but perhaps the sorting of the two parties and drift to the respective poles makes this less of an issue nowadays. However, the 2020 Democratic contest was characterized by a fierce battle between progressives like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sanders and the center-left establishment Biden calls home. Is he open to coopting a former rival like Warren to unite the party as Reagan did with Bush 41 in 1980?

Biden describes himself as a bridge to the next generation of Democratic leaders, so a running mate from a different generation seems likely, but this decision is fraught with danger as Bush 41 took significant heat for selecting the largely unknown Indiana Senator Dan Quayle in 1988, not to mention Senator John McCain’s Hail Mary pairing with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008. Former Georgia State Representative Stacey Abrams appears on many 2020 short lists, but does she and others meet the “ready on day one” test?

The historic Obama-Biden ticket was in other respects a blast from the past in pairing two U.S. Senators. Most tickets represent resume balancing as former governors served as presidents for all but four years from 1977-2009 (Bush 41 was the exception) and all sought legislative experience in the vice presidency. President Trump picked Indiana Governor Mike Pence four years ago and it’s perhaps no coincidence that he’s putting his executive experience to use in leading the White House’s COVID-19 Task Force. Biden’s service as VP perhaps mitigates the need for executive experience, but governors are ascendant in leading states’ responses to the pandemic. This includes New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, California Governor Gavin Newsom, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, but only Whitmer and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham meet Biden’s gender criteria.

Demographic balance was omitted from the table above as only Biden was of a different race than the presidential nominee and no successful presidential candidate won with a running mate of the opposite sex. Biden will seek to make history with a female running mate and several women of color populate prospect lists, including Abrams, Lujan Grisham, former UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Florida Congresswoman Val Demmings, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Illinois’ very own Senator Tammy Duckworth, and California Senator Kamala Harris.

In sum, Biden’s running mate will likely offer regional, generational, and demographic balance, while ideological and resume considerations remain open questions, and each of these criteria ripe for application to prospect lists by his campaign and students of politics alike. Stay tuned for future posts on the battle for control of Congress and various Electoral College scenarios that may well inform Biden’s VP pick and join us for our April 21 webinar on Election 2020 titled “End Game.”


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