Defeating Trump – The VP Sweepstakes

[This is the third in a two-part – yes, I said two part – series on the U.S. Presidential election 2020.  Now that reality has made it all more complicated, the analysis had to evolve.]

So now it is down to two:  Joe Biden, who seems intent on self-destructing even as the voters back him, and Bernie Sanders, that old “socialist” Senator from Vermont.  Biden will be 78 on inauguration day in 2021, while Sanders – 14 months older – will be 79. 

It is hard to imagine who Trump would prefer to face.  Both have weaknesses he can exploit, yet both poll well in hypothetical head to head elections against The Donald.  In part, that is because Trump has weaknesses Joe and Bernie can exploit.  And, of course, Old Orange Hair is going to be 74 on inauguration day in 2021, so not exactly the fountain of youth himself.

All of this rampant senescence means that the role of Vice President is going to be even more important in 2020 than in any other year since…well…forever.  Unless something miraculous happens, the U.S. will inaugurate its oldest ever President on January 20, 2021.  Even Ronald Reagan, in his second term of office, was not that old when he was inaugurated.

Selecting a Running Mate

So let’s speculate on vice-presidential candidates.  Just for fun.

Ignore the Republicans.  Yes, yes, I am aware that Donald Trump is planning to dump poor Mikey Pence on July 16th (the date the Democratic presidential candidate gives his acceptance speech), and replace him with Nikki Haley.   Haley, of Sikh descent, is only 48, and hopefully will be able to deliver her own state of South Carolina, and well as some votes from women and from younger voters.  South Carolina is not in play in any case (reliably Republican in 2020), and Haley is unlikely to deliver either young or female voters that would otherwise vote for Uncle Joe or Uncle Bernie.   Of course, Trump didn’t need Mikey to deliver Indiana either, so go figure.

Anyway, the Trump ticket doesn’t matter.  Voters will vote for Trump, or against him, and their vote would be the same if the VP candidate was the neighbourhood dachshund.  (Although there is no truth to the rumour that replacing Trump with a dachshund would be a step up in presidential quality.  Bite your tongue.)

There are approximately 260,000 Americans who would like to be considered for the second spot on either a Biden or Sanders ticket, that being roughly the number of politicians in the U.S.A. right now who are Democrats or their fellow travelers.    There may be another 50,000 or so who are not currently politicians, but still think they could do the job (like Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer). 

In order to narrow it down, Joe and/or Bernie will have to apply some screens.  What are the must-have or wanna-have attributes in a vice-presidential candidate?  Well…

  • Credible president.  In the famous words of Adlai Stevenson (mocking the vice-presidential candidacy of Richard Nixon), the Vice President is “a heartbeat away from the presidency”.  Sarah Palin, for example, was not a credible president.  (Neither was Nixon.)
  • Demographics.  Many pundits are already talking about the necessity for the Democrats to have a woman, or a person of colour, or even better a woman of colour, as the VP on the ticket.  The spectre of one old white man going up against another old white man is just too much for many in the party to bear.  Choose the right person, they say, and they might even bring you some additional votes from demographics you can’t get yourself.
  • Geography.  A VP from a swing state is good, but only if they can deliver the state.  The problem, of course, is that many Democrats come from solidly blue states.  Quelle surprise.  A VP from California is not going to help you win California.  Maybe you’ll win by 35% instead of 30%, as Hillary Clinton did, but you get the same 55 electoral college votes.  Trump won 93 electoral votes from five states (Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) that Obama won in 2012.  Can you help deliver some of those states?
  • Skillset.  Despite the complaint of many VPs that the job doesn’t include any actual responsibilities (John Nance Garner said the role is “not worth a bucket of warm spit”), a VP whose skills complement the President can be an advantage, both during the election campaign and in the White House thereafter.

Joe Biden’s Choices

Wikipedia lists about forty individuals that might be considered as running mates for Joe or Bernie, but in reality at least half of them are not realistic. 

The most obvious choice for Joe (and maybe even Bernie until she endorsed Joe the other day) is Kamala Harris.  African-American, a woman, very good on her feet, she seems to tick all the boxes, until you look a little deeper.

Harris is from California, so she is not going to help you by delivering a swing state.  While she is a woman, and the right age (55), she never resonated with the suburban white women that you really need to get, and African-American women will already vote for Joe in massive numbers.  For whatever reason, she didn’t attract young voters, and with her middle of the road views she certainly won’t help to energize the Bernie Bros.  She does provide a hard edge, on contrast to Joe’s “guy next door” backslapping.  Voters will believe she can get shit done, and roll over anyone who gets in the way.  They just won’t care as much, because the VP job is not so much about doing things. 

Elizabeth Warren is in a slightly different situation.  She also won’t help you win a swing state.  Even Joe beat her in her own state of Massachusetts, which is reliably Democratic anyway, and there is no future in which the Democrats win her birth state of Oklahoma.  She does attract suburban white women, and she has a level of gravitas that many find is lacking with Joe.  Despite her age (70 – she fits in well here), she has some support among younger voters, particularly younger women, a lost cause for Joe. 

Warren’s biggest advantage, though, is that she is markedly to the left of Joe.  While they would have to work that out between them, her ability to keep Bernie’s supporters in the fold is likely much better than anyone other than Bernie himself.  And, keep in mind, people will see in her a serious potential president, if that “heartbeat” eventuality happens.

One problem with choosing Warren as VP is that she would be a wonderful Secretary of the Treasury, but perhaps she could do that too.  Who says a VP has to just sit around waiting for the president to die?

Two other names come up if Joe believes that Texas is credibly in play.  Beto O’Rourke, while another white man (not really optimal), is at 47 able to attract a much younger demographic than Joe, including a strong following in the Latino parts of the state.  He gave Ted Cruz a real battle in the 2018 Senate race, so you have to wonder if he might deliver enough new votes for Joe to take Texas, a state that has slowly been moving toward the Democrats over the years.  Trump had a 9% lead in Texas in 2016, which hasn’t elected a Democratic president since Jimmy Carter.  Can O’Rourke change that?

Sobering facts:  Hispanic voter turnout in Texas in 2016 was 40.5%, compared to non-Hispanic white turnout at 63%.  Trump won Texas by 808,000 votes, but getting the Hispanic turnout up to 63% could erase that differential and more, particularly when you take into account the changing demographics (both ethnicity and age) in that state.

So maybe a better Texas bet would be Julian Castro.  At 45, he is also young, and while he doesn’t resonate as much with younger voters as O’Rourke, he would likely still bring a bunch.  His further advantage (aside from being a Latino of Mexican descent – although not really fluent in Spanish) is that he is a progressive, and he supported Warren after dropping out of the presidential race.  After Warren, he is the running mate most likely to bring Bernie Bros to Biden.

Castro’s problem is that so many people get the impression he is not ready for prime time, sort of a Latino version of Dan Quayle.  He seems to be that guy whose heart may be in the right place, but who maybe gets by too often with smiles and nice talk rather than action.  He was on the short-list to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, but was not selected.

Another high profile person (along with Harris) to endorse Joe is Cory Booker.  Booker, for seven years a Senator from New Jersey, and for seven years prior to that the Mayor of Newark, was a presidential candidate and is a politician with – except for his first mayoral bid in 2002 – a strong winning record.  He even speaks Spanish better than Julian Castro.  At 50, he is right in the age sweet spot.  His policies, although very liberal, are still considered pragmatic.  He might feel more comfortable with a progressive, but endorsing a moderate like Joe would not have been a stretch.

The most obvious strike against Booker is his unusual personal life for a politician (i.e. a bachelor with no kids).  Although rumours that he is gay have proliferated through his career (he is too woke to deny them), his girlfriend is Rosario Dawson.  Still, there is a persistent sense that he’s “not like the rest of us”.  That could hurt the ticket in middle America.  This is exacerbated by the fact that he has been an elected politician for almost all of his life, since the age of 28.  (Of course, that is true of a lot of the vice-presidential hopefuls.)

That’s not why he would be a poor choice.  He is up for re-election as U.S. Senator from New Jersey, a seat that is now considered “Safe Democratic”, but has historically gone back and forth.  If the Democrats want to get control of the Senate, they can’t afford to lose Booker’s seat.  If Booker is the candidate, he wins in a walk.  If it is anyone else, the result is not so clear.  While the potential Republican challengers are not a strong bunch, there is no obvious replacement for Booker on the Democratic side.  (Bill Bradley is 76, so he is young enough to run for President, of course, but he is probably too old to step in for Booker in the Senate race.)

A dark horse candidate would be Susan Rice, former Ambassador to the United Nations and former National Security Advisor under Obama.  Rice, who has endorsed Biden, is well acquainted with him as they both worked in the Obama White House.  She is 55, and as a woman of colour may be a counterpoint to the relentless old white male theme of the election. 

Despite that, she is unlikely to be selected.  Aside from being the quintessential Washington insider, she also has lots of baggage that could hurt the ticket when Trump gets his hands on it.  Remember Benghazi?  Many Republicans said Benghazi was her fault.  Later she was embroiled in a controversy when she wanted to disclose confidential information in intelligence reports.  She is often cast as a person not liked by colleagues, and in fact withdrew from contention as Secretary of State under Obama because she would not get confirmed.  She also scrapped a bid to run against Republican Senator Susan Collins when it became clear that she could not win it. 

In short, Rice is not going to be Biden’s choice.

What about Buttigieg, Steyer and Bloomberg?  No, no, and no, for all the same reasons that they were never going to win the presidential nomination.  (Bloomberg’s money, however….well, certainly.)        

That leaves two women from swing states, both of whom have endorsed Joe. 

Amy Klobuchar is the long-serving Senator from Minnesota, a swing state that went to Clinton by a thin margin in 2016.  She can certainly deliver that state, and even made a credible showing of her own presidential campaign.  At 59, her age is just about right, and Biden knows her well from working with her when she was a senator and he was Vice-President.

Klobuchar is somewhat to the left of Joe, but certainly nowhere close to Bernie in her views.  She is a much more pragmatic politician, seeking lots of little wins rather than going for the big ones.   Thus, she is not going to be much help getting the Bernie Bros to turn out to support Joe.

What she does have going for her is two things.  First, she has almost no baggage.  In many ways, her CV reads like the perfect politician, a winner many times, someone who gets things done, and a person entirely free of scandal.  Second, she is likely to be able to appeal to the suburban white women that would otherwise not support Joe.  She won’t help with the African-American voters, but Joe doesn’t really need much help there. 

Would the American public look at her and say she is a credible president?  Except for Elizabeth Warren, she likely does better on this metric than anyone else.  Her only real problem is that sometimes she appears to be too nice.  You feel like she wouldn’t have a chance against Trump.  She would wilt under the pressure.  However, as long as Joe is responsible for dealing with The Slimeball ©, she might be a good addition to Joe’s ticket.      

Another possibility that is not much discussed is Gretchen Whitmer, the newly elected 48-year-old Governor of Michigan. After fifteen years in the Michigan House and Senate, she was elected Governor in 2018, winning every single district.  Not much doubt she can deliver Michigan in a presidential campaign, and her profile may even help with Wisconsin next door.  (She would be a better choice than Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, for both those reasons.)

Like Klobuchar, Whitmer could help Joe with white women, but she is not likely to help with progressives.  She has opposed Medicare for All, but fought hard for the expansion of Medicaid, and is generally a staunch moderate on most issues.  Her views, and those Joe has espoused, are pretty similar.  Many of her issues in the past have been ones of particular concern to women, including expanding the availability of childcare and full-day pre-kindergarten. 

Her biggest drawback is that she has only been governor for a little over a year.  Republicans will certainly make a big deal over whether someone with no national experience, and little experience being the person at the top, is ready to step in if Uncle Joe falters.

Whitmer is therefore another credible choice, so don’t be surprised if Joe nails down those 16 electoral votes by choosing her as his running mate.

Bernie Sanders’ Choices

Let’s be clear.  Bernie was never going to win the Democratic nomination for president.  The Democratic establishment is not in a million years going to put a wild card like Bernie up against the 2016 wild card, Donald Trump.  They will just look at the states that might be in play, and conclude that Bernie has no chance of winning them.

Florida?  Seriously?  Pennsylvania, Joe’s home state?  Politics is “the art of the possible”, and for Bernie those two states are not possible.  Sometimes honesty has a price.  Bernie’s comments on Castro’s Cuba, and on fracking, were honest and probably even right, and they will get Bernie more votes in New York and California (which the Democratic candidate wins anyway).  But these 49 electoral votes in Florida and Pennsylvania, which were close for Clinton and wins for Obama, are not available to Bernie.  Sorry.

Can Bernie change this with his selection of running mate?

Elizabeth Warren is a little more moderate than Bernie, but still well to the left of Joe.  Many Bernie supporters are already talking about a Bernie-Liz ticket.  Although that would be more ideological than political (she can’t bring any swing states, or black voters, or any other voters that don’t otherwise support Bernie), there is some logic to it.

That is not going to happen, for perhaps a sadly mundane reason.  Elizabeth Warren wants to be president.  She explored the possibility in 2015, and has thought about it many times since.  She is 70, so this year is her last chance.  Which presidential candidate provides her best chance of being a heartbeat away from the presidency?  The answer is obvious.

Thus, Warren will not accept a partnership with Bernie.  Unless Biden chooses another running mate soon, Warren will endorse Joe Biden within the next couple of weeks, because that’s her last remaining route to the presidency. 

Many people are saying the best political choice for Bernie is Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state minority leader and long time member of their House of Representatives.  Abrams lost a close contest to be Governor of Georgia against the incumbent, Brian Kemp, amid accusations by Abrams and others that he cheated in his oversight of the election in which he was involved.  Abrams is currently suing the state of Georgia for that election result.  She also founded and heads Fair Fight Action, a national organization to fight voter suppression.  Before her political career she was a tax lawyer (so she can’t be all bad).

Abrams has endorsed Bernie and supported him actively, and her political views are certainly similar to his.

Could Abrams help Bernie win Georgia?  Trump won those 16 electoral college votes by a 5% margin over Hillary, meaning Bernie/Abrams would have to shift at least 220,000 votes.  That is a big nut, but keep in mind that, even with rampant voter suppression, Abrams only lost to Kemp by 55,000 votes.  For context, Kemp won the previous time around, in 2014, by 200,000 votes, and the time before that, in 2010, by 250,000 votes. 

Joe will be writing Georgia off, and Bernie would too, unless Abrams is his running mate.  With Abrams, Georgia may be in play.  (Mississippi, where she grew up, is a lost cause.  Wisconsin, where she was born, does not see her as a Wisconsinite.)

Abrams may also help Bernie with African-American voters, especially women, throughout the country.  Bernie has had some difficulty connecting with them.  Abrams could therefore help Bernie in Florida and Pennsylvania.

So what’s not to like?  The real problem is that Abrams has been a “rising star” for years, but right now she’s out of office.  At 46, she still has lots of time, and she would be a stronger candidate if she had a broader political resume.

Julian Castro would be a bold choice for Bernie, just as with Joe, but that is probably not to be.  Bernie doesn’t appear to need much help with Hispanic voters (except in Florida), and Castro would not help him with his main weakness, African-American voters.  Ideologically Bernie and Castro are fairly close, true.  On the other hand, both are seen as talkers, and Bernie would benefit from someone on his ticket who is known to be a doer.

Could Castro help deliver Texas?  See above.  The answer is a very tentative maybe.

An even bolder choice would be Andrew Yang.   

Get off the floor.  That is not as silly as it first appears, and there is no call for laughing at this highly serious analysis.

Yang is from New York, so can’t help much there except to be the contrast to the other New York rich guy.  He is one of the youngest of the potential running mates, and his persona resonates well with young urban voters.  That may help a bit in Austin, and Madison, and Phoenix, and Detroit, all in potential swing states.  However, those voters are Democrats anyway, particularly if Bernie is the presidential candidate.   The big benefit would be if Yang could increase turnout in those areas.  Sadly, that is exactly what Bernie expects to do himself.

What Yang does offer is pragmatism.  His style is about decisiveness, not ideology or theory.  He is a real doer.  Voters who are hesitating about Bernie the revolutionary may be comforted by the presence of Andrew the practical.  We can’t actually deliver Medicare for All right now?  OK, what can we deliver?

For exactly those reasons, of course, Bernie will not choose Andrew Yang.

On the hustings in Michigan, Bernie revealed his new endorser, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.  Jackson, who is from Michigan, showed up in Grand Rapids to talk about how Bernie has been there for black folks for decades. 

Bernie needs help attracting African-American voters?  Maybe Jesse can help? 

This is not to be.  Jackson is also 78, and is for that reason alone disqualified from being a heartbeat away from the presidency.  He is also old news to most African-Americans.  Yes, a distinguished record, but he first ran for president himself in 1984.  African-Americans listen to other voices today.  Jesse Jackson no longer has the influence he once had.

Catherine Cortez Masto is the recently-elected Senator from Nevada, a state Clinton barely won in 2016.  She is of Mexican and Italian descent, and at 55 is a good age for a vice-presidential running mate.

Cortez Masto comes from a political family, and grew up knowing people like Harry Reid, the iconic Nevada Senator and former Senate Majority Leader.  Reid, who first became Lieutenant Governor of Nevada in 1971, when Cortez Masto was 7, endorsed her to take over his Senate seat when he retired in 2016.  She then won, but with a less than overwhelming margin.    

A moderate, Cortez Masto is more often touted as a running mate for Joe than for Bernie, particularly since Joe needs more help with Hispanic voters and her political positions align with his.  However, she is not likely to be on Joe’s short list.  Bernie, on the other hand, could choose her as a moderating influence on his public image, and in order to improve his changes with female voters.

Bernie is not likely to do that, but one can hope, right? 

Finally, there is Andrew Gillum,  the former Mayor of Tallahassee and recent loser in the Florida gubernatorial campaign against Republican Ron DeSantis.  Gillum, the youngest of the vice-presidential hopefuls (40), and who has in the past been endorsed by Sanders, is a strongly progressive Democrat but still a little more moderate than Bernie.  In the 2018 election for Florida governor, he lost by 0.4%, just 33,000 votes out of the more than 8 million cast. 

In many respects, Gillum has a resume similar to Abrams:  a political scientist, not a lawyer like Abrams, but like Abrams he was in local politics for most of his life (since age 23), then had a failed but close run for governor.  The difference between them (aside from Gillum being a black male, and Abrams a black female, and Abrams having graduated from Yale), is that Gillum has a good chance of delivering Florida if he is on the ticket.  Not guaranteed, by any means, but he has demonstrated that a democratic socialist voice can be heard in Florida if you take the right approach.  

And Then There Were None

Predicting the result here is difficult. 

The more important choice, of course, is Biden, because he is the odds-on favourite to become the next presidential nominee.  His smart selection is Elizabeth Warren, because she adds intellectual capacity and toughness that are not Joe’s strengths, and she energizes the Bernie Bros.

However, because Joe is not actually the smartest person in the world, he probably won’t pick Warren.  He is very political, though.  Therefore, he is more likely to select Amy Klobuchar to help him get Minnesota, or Gretchen Witmer to help him get Michigan.  Both would be solid choices, especially if he is confident he can get Pennsylvania and Wisconsin without anyone’s help, which is probably true.

In one sense, Bernie’s selection of running mate is more meaningful, because he is now the underdog. 

In a general election, Bernie will have a reasonable shot at taking Michigan and Wisconsin, with 26 electoral votes, because Jill Stein’s votes in those places were well in excess of Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton.  If Bernie can’t get those Stein votes, he shouldn’t be in the race.  But, unless he can get Florida or Pennsylvania, he still doesn’t have a legitimate path to victory.

Only Gillum offers him a reasonable shot at Florida (not a lock, by any means), with the hope that Gillum would also help Bernie get the support of black voters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  It still means Bernie has to win states that won’t like some of his policies, but Gillum at least improves his chances (from zero to something a tiny bit higher). 

It turns out, analyzing the vice-presidential sweepstakes is much harder than predicting the results of the presidential election. 

In the end, there is just as much likelihood that Bernie will select Jesse Jackson, or Joe will select Susan Rice.  The machinations going on behind the scenes could produce any number of completely improbable results, and an interesting presidential election this year.

     –    Jay Shepherd, March 10, 2020

About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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