The fact that California Sen. Kamala Harris is Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee is undeniably historic. She is only the third woman to run as vice president on a major-party ticket, and of the two main parties, she is the first Asian American and the first Black woman to run in the general election as president or vice president.
As my colleague Perry Bacon Jr. noted on Tuesday, Biden’s choice could also have ramifications that extend far beyond the 2020 election. If Biden wins in November, his VP pick could go on to become the first woman president. That presents a number of challenges, which we’ll discuss later, but first, let’s look at the track record of VPs making it to the Oval Office.
Since John Adams first held the VP post in 1789, 14 of 47 vice presidents have gone on to become president,1 making it the most likely — albeit still far from certain — stepping stone to the White House. The number of vice presidents who have sought the presidency has really skyrocketed in modern times, too. Of the 13 VPs since the end of World War II (excluding Vice President Mike Pence), eight — or more than half — have gone on to become their party’s presidential nominee. However, as you can see in the table below, far fewer — just three — have won a presidential election, and just four have become president at all. Biden, of course, is hoping to become the fifth modern VP to accomplish this feat.
|Vice President||Party||Won nomination||Won pres. election|
|George H.W. Bush||R||✓||✓|
That’s not a great batting average, especially when you consider that both Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford first became president because their predecessors could not finish their terms — in Johnson’s case, because John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and, in Ford’s case, because Richard Nixon resigned. At 77, Biden is the oldest major-party nominee in history and, if elected, would be the oldest president to hold the office, so without getting too macabre, there could easily be a scenario in which his VP must finish his term.
Biden’s advanced age has understandably prompted many to assign huge importance to his vice presidential pick and what it might signal for the future of the Democratic Party. Even if Biden wins and serves out his term, it’s not clear that he’d run for a second one. He has portrayed himself as a transitional candidate, describing his campaign as a “bridge” to the next generation of Democratic leaders, so it’s entirely possible that Harris, who is 55, will be thought of as the future of the party no matter what.
Harris is likely eyeing a future White House run, too. For one thing, she campaigned for it in 2020. And, as we mentioned at the outset, it’s pretty common for VPs to run. Just three of the vice presidents since 1948 — Spiro Agnew, Nelson Rockefeller and Dick Cheney — didn’t seek the presidency after serving as VP. But that doesn’t mean if Harris were to run it would be easy. It turns out that running for president after being VP is kind of a mixed bag.
Take someone like Ford. After assuming the presidency in 1974 when Nixon resigned, Ford mounted a run for a full term in 1976, but it was hardly a coronation. Before he won the GOP nomination, he had to fend off a serious primary challenge from Ronald Reagan that went all the way to the national convention. Some elected vice presidents, like Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore, have had an easier time winning their party nominations against weak opposition, but others, like Alben Barkley and Dan Quayle, didn’t even make it to the general election.
It’s impossible to say which of these comparisons might prove most apt for Harris — we don’t even know if she’ll be vice president — but it’s not hard to imagine her facing a major intraparty challenge in the future. For one, we’ve never had a woman vice president, let alone a woman president — and past elections have shown us just how challenging it can be for a highly qualified woman to win. For his part, Biden has sparked criticism for botching the selection process — the only thing we knew up until Tuesday was that he would pick a woman to be his running mate — making the conversation less about his running mate’s credentials and more about whether she was the “right” kind of woman for the job. It’s also possible that four years from now, the Democratic Party will have moved even further to the left, and Biden and Harris’s more moderate politics will have fallen out of fashion, encouraging a primary challenge.
Nevertheless, if Harris does become vice president, it undoubtedly raises her odds that she might one day occupy the White House and lead the Democratic Party in a presidential election. Even after her underwhelming 2020 bid, one only has to look at Biden’s career arc to see how Harris’s presidential aspirations could benefit from serving as VP. It wasn’t until Barack Obama made Biden his vice president in 2008 that he established a strong enough profile within the party to become its preferred choice in 2020. (His two prior presidential bids were unsuccessful.) It is, of course, too soon to say whether Biden will win in November, but he could become the 15th vice president to reach the White House. And someday Harris could easily become the 16th.