Keeping an Eye on Vice Presidential Picks After Iowa and New Hampshire

It took a few days, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of errors, and some late nights, but we finally have the results from both the Iowa Democratic caucuses and the New Hampshire Democratic primary. The Iowa caucuses, the 89th Academy Awards of its time, what with a miscalled winner and a lot of confusion,1Good thing the caucuses didn’t accidentally pronounce someone dead, that would have been awkward. seemed to ultimately (if anticlimactically) deliver a split verdict for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The New Hampshire primary, on the other hand, went off more or less without any drama, but reiterated the idea that this is a crowded, close, and increasingly splintered race with Sanders and Buttigieg neck and neck winning around 25% of the vote each, the only other candidate eligible to receive delegates being Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who came in a close third. After some stunning underperformances by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, there’s a big question about how this race shapes out as it moves into larger and more diverse states in the coming weeks before culminating in a make-or-break Super Tuesday.

With the first two major races in, it’s time to take a look back at our Vice Presidential Tracker, which we’ve been updating after each contest. This is our first analysis on how it’s looking since voting has begun, and while Iowa and New Hampshire are important simply because they are the first states in the primary, they are by no means representative of the demographics of the Democratic Party, and represent a very small fraction of the delegates that will ultimately determine the nominee. Nonetheless, because we know this, and our favorite election modelers over at FiveThirtyEight know this, we track our rankings against their candidate’s probabilities of reaching a delegate majority. You may recall (or not, because it’s long and starts to talk about math) in our methodology that the “Rank-Score” for the potential vice presidential nominees runs the VP Score through every single possible nominee weighted by their odds at securing a delegate majority and thus becoming the nominee. So, let’s take a look at where we are as of February 15, the weekend after the New Hampshire primary.

Let’s start with the ostensible front-runners. The odds of either Sanders (36%) or Biden (13%) being the nominee are at just under 50% at the time of publishing this article. These two front-runners are unique in that, ideology aside, they are relatively similar in what they each bring as nominees. They’ve both been in the federal government for over 25 years, they are both white and male, and are from very small, very liberal states. This also means that so long as one of them gains at the expense of the other, the vice presidential standings won’t change that much, since you’re running each potential VP pick through the strengths for Biden and Sanders adjusted by their odds of getting a majority of delegates. This is why Senators Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth, Mazie Hirono, and Catherine Cortez Masto, along with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro round out the top five. They are each also individually in the top five strongest picks for both Biden and Sanders. In the senators’ cases, they are each relatively new-on-the-scene (Hirono is the only one so far to have faced reelection as a senator), and are prominent women of color in the Democratic Party. Castro has an advantage in that he’s not up for any kind of reelection and is from a large “swing” state (how contentious Texas will really be in a close presidential year is a matter for debate, see: Beto O’Rourke). Castro and the senators are all of course non-white, which boosts them when we’ve got white men as the frontrunners for the nomination, but another key thing they all share is that they on average have about twice as much non-federal experience as they have federal experience, which balances nicely against Sanders’ and Biden’s decades in federal service. 

Potential VP Gain from State Federal XP (years) Non-Federal XP (years) Gain from XP Score with Biden Gain from XP Score with Sanders
Harris 1.79 3 13 24.43 31.74
Duckworth 1.02 11 17 16.62 22.10
Hirono 0.09 14 22 11.41 17.28
Cortez Masto 8.23 3 8 23.92 35.97
Castro 3.09 3 9 24.81 35.18

Harris coming out as a heavier front-runner than the rest of these (she’s rank-scored at almost 40 points) is not a surprise. Recall that even though she’s not from a close state (California’s partisan lean in the tracker at this moment is 24 points Democratic), she is from the largest state, which does ever so slightly factor into her score (when in doubt, bigger is better); this also of course boosts Illinois Senator Duckworth and Castro, both of whom are from large states. Senator Cortez Masto gets an added boost in that she is from a close state, Nevada, but loses a good chunk of her score in the coefficient of our calculation due to the risk of her seat being filled by a Republican in a coming election.

Considering she’s been floated as a Biden running mate pretty heavily, I would say that Harris being in the top five is a good indication that the tracker is generating feasible and relatively intelligent results. Considering Castro is also frequently mentioned as a running mate for some of the remaining candidates, his presence in the top five is also encouraging. The top five picks at the moment reflect a good balance of geographic diversity as well, balanced strongly against the eastern frontrunners.

Closing out the top ten in our overall standings we have another notable name: presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar is buffeted by the competitiveness and medium-size of her state, Minnesota leans Democrat by only 2 points and carries 10 electoral votes.

As we approach the Nevada caucuses, South Carolina primary, and then Super Tuesday, the one potential VP to watch closest is Mazie Hirono, who is in the top five strongest picks for not only Biden and Sanders, but also the former mayors in the field, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg. Buttigieg could get traction for squeezing Sanders’ lead in New Hampshire and eking out victory in Iowa, and Bloomberg could start to figure in more heavily what with his unofficial entry into the contests on Super Tuesday. Hirono has received little mention as a possible vice presidential pick, but this looks to be an oversight, as her metrics are good, and she’s been increasingly outspoken about the current administration and the high profile events of the last few years, slowly gaining more name recognition within the party. Her balance of just enough state and federal experience makes her worthy of any shortlist by these septuagenarian frontrunners, and by any up-and-coming mayors who lack much experience at all.

That said, if the Klobucharge (ask my editor, but I stand by I came up with this before the other news outlets did after the New Hampshire primary) proves pervasive and Amy Klobuchar begins gaining traction, or if Elizabeth Warren makes a comeback, we’ll see some new names bumping into the top ten. Tim Ryan and Julian Castro will probably pass over the senators as the highest ranked in this case, and we could see New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and some former Obama administration cabinet members nudge out a few of the governors rounding out the current top ten.

Other Updates

I dropped businessman Andrew Yang off the tracker as he dropped out of the presidential race on the night of the New Hampshire Primary. I have not added him to the potential vice presidential picks, but if one of you Internet people read too much into his ominous tweet, drop me a line and I’ll throw him in there for you.

Due to recent speculation, I added Hillary Clinton as a vice presidential candidate, maybe you’ve heard of her? She is actually a fairly strong running mate for Pete Buttigieg, so keep an eye on him (and her) if Buttigieg continues to do well in the primary.

Now that FiveThirtyEight is tracking specific candidates under it’s “All others” on their primary forecast, we will be using those numbers for each specific potential nominee instead of applying the broad odds for that category at large to each candidate not listed in their overall tracker.

Remember that the state metrics for candidates will all adjust over time as the generic ballot changes. I update this after each primary as well, but it can have a miniscule impact on the competitiveness of various states and, at the margins, can even make a state fall just into our out of the “competitive” range, which could substantially affect a specific VP pick.