We’re finally at the precipice of the moment we’ve spent the entire year talking about: presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick.
It’s been a wild year, beginning with a competitive Democratic primary, where we talked about our thoughts on whether the Democratic vice presidential candidate was already running and then unveiled our Vice Presidential Tracker to keep track of the strongest vice presidential candidates for each given nominee. We checked in with how the potential vice presidential picks stood after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and then compared the similar picks for the last two standing candidates after Super Tuesday, Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Finally, when Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee, we evaluated his ten strongest candidates, added some big names to the tracker, and lamented the decision by one of the strongest candidates to step out of the running. Never mind the litany of world-shaking news events that have transpired in the last eight months, the world and the 2020 election is now very different looking compared to where we were back then.
But now, in early August, we’re in the prime season to find out who Biden will choose. So it’s time to check in one last time at where things stand in our tracker and what we can expect from Biden’s looming announcement.
At the time of publication, the generic ballot has moved further in Democrats’ direction, corresponding to a general widening of Biden’s lead over Trump nationally over the summer. This has shifted the margins of some of the potential running mates in some of the closer states like Arizona, Michigan, and New Hampshire. We also know that several of our higher ranked individuals will not be under consideration after opting out on their own accord, such as Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. Several are excluded by Biden’s own promise to pick a woman, but remember that what our metric tracks is simply the strongest picks mathematically; names are not removed simply because they won’t be considered or chosen, as this is not a model for statistical probability, but rather one that determines the combined presidential ticket’s strength. That’s why Cortez Masto, Klobuchar, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro remain highly ranked. Fundamentally, they’re all from competitive states, are not up for reelection, and complement Biden’s experience well, making them strong candidates regardless of whether or not they’re actually being considered by his campaign.
Rounding out the top tier of the list are names that are probably familiar to anyone who has been keeping an eye on the veepstakes: California Senator Kamala Harris (i.e. the most obvious choice), New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and former Secretary of Homeland Security and former Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano. There are a couple of names that score well mathematically but aren’t receiving a lot of press attention, like Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono and New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, but they’re not exactly the non-starters they seem. Then there are names like Cortez Masto and Klobuchar, who we have been consistently touting as top choices for many of the last few months, but who have bowed out.
Finally, there’s another big name that, once again, we were ahead of the curve on identifying and who is now starting to make headlines as a strong contender: Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth would be notable in that she would defy the expectations for Biden’s running mate. Unlike most of Biden’s top picks, Duckworth has military experience, can speak with authority on military and veterans issues, as well as on issues related to Americans with disabilities (Duckworth lost both of her legs in the Iraq War after the helicopter she was piloting was hit with a rocket propelled grenade) and women’s issues. The Illinois-Delaware mix would be reminiscent of the Obama-Biden campaign, and of course, while not a swing state, Illinois is in the all-important Midwest, and the region of a vice presidential pick does matter to a degree.
Biden’s reported shortlist includes some other names that are lower on our tracker, and I believe there’s merit in justifying why our model (which operates entirely on objective mathematical metrics, as opposed to punditic analysis) has these names lower. For example, Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, who might make sense because of the importance of winning Wisconsin, but is being kept down by her high level of federal experience, which combined with Biden’s equals 65 total years in the federal government). Baldwin is also liable to slip further if the election narrows, as she is technically just outside the cusp for counting as a competitive seat thanks to a very wide Democratic lead in the generic ballot margin and the fact that Wisconsin’s margin is only one point more Republican leaning than the nation as a whole.
Florida Representative Val Demings and former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams both score low on our tracker because they do not meet the minimum viable office qualification, which significantly handicaps their scores. Sorry, but a vice presidential candidate with less than 8 years experience in the House or without any service as a Senator, cabinet member, or military commander is just incredibly rare. It has only happened once in the last 19 open vice presidential picks, and that was Geraldine Ferraro, who still has six years more minimum required experience than Abrams, and two years more than Demings.1Don’t worry, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg falls to the bottom for the same reasons and scores far worse than each of them, because Demings and Abrams are both still mathematically more qualified than he is.
Lastly, the two hotter names that don’t make it very high on our list: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. I’ve faced flak for the relatively low ratings for a Biden-Warren ticket that the tracker has been generating, but the truth is that there is little numerically there for Biden. Warren brings no outsider experience, which is a problem when you’re running with someone who has 44 years of federal experience, her home state of Massachusetts is almost comically noncompetitive,2Donald Trump won about 33% of the vote in Massachusetts in 2016, which was only five points worse than the state’s former governor Mitt Romney got in 2012. and to top that off (though the tracker is not explicitly docking her for this thanks to how incredibly uncompetitive Massachusetts is), the governor is a Republican — meaning Democrats would temporarily lose a Senate seat were Warren to win the vice presidency. Our tracker is also not counting for ideological differences, of which large ones are also quite rare when it comes to Democratic presidential tickets, but that is also a reason to be bearish on Warren. Rice is docked in the ratings for similar reasons: she has plenty of federal experience, but very little outsider experience to complement Biden; her home “state” of DC is even less competitive than Massachusetts.3Rice does, however, have Maine connections and could credibly claim to “run” from Maine, as she considered doing so in this year’s Senate race there.
So, with only a couple of weeks, or maybe just a couple of days, remaining before we find out who Biden’s running mate will be, keep in mind the disparate strengths of the field. Just because a choice feels good, doesn’t mean the fundamentals are there. It’s often said that the first rule of vice presidential picks is “do no harm”, and that is more a matter of fundamentals and what we’ve expected historically from running mates than a flashy name. That’s why this model strips it down to numerical data, and it’s also why we’ve been bullish on some choices that it took a lot of other media sources time to come around on, like Tammy Duckworth, Janet Napolitano, and Catherine Cortez Masto. The combination of both solid fundamentals and consistent attention paid to Kamala Harris is a good sign for her prospects. Just don’t be surprised if Duckworth, Whitmer, or Lujan Grisham end up getting the nod; they’re all fundamentally strong candidates to run alongside Joe Biden.