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The Debate Over Biden’s VP Pick Is Full Of Half-Truths And Misleading Arguments

People who want Sen. Kamala Harris or another Black woman to be former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate often claim that a Black woman will substantially boost enthusiasm among Black voters. Supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren for vice presidential nominee say that she will help Biden solidify support with younger voters and people who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries. Others say Harris or Warren or other candidates will doom Biden with voting bloc X or fail to help him with group Z.

Almost every case for or against a particular vice presidential candidate comes with an electoral argument. But most of these electoral claims are highly contestable, at best. It’s not that they should be dismissed out of hand. They matter. But as people in the Democratic Party advance their preferred candidates, they’re also doing a bit of hiding the ball. Electoral claims — “Person X will help win Michigan” — are often seen as objective and fact-based, even when they’re flimsy. But there are more obvious, non-electoral, cases for running mates that tend not to be voiced outright.

So let’s unpack some of the pitches being made for vice presidential nominees and what might actually be motivating them.

The case for a Black woman

VP candidate(s) being promoted: Black women such as former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms, U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida, Harris and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Advocates: Prominent Black female political pundits and Democratic strategists such as former interim Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile; political commentators like Jonathan Capehart and Angela Rye; more establishment Black politicians such as Rep. James Clyburn and Rep. Alcee Hastings; other liberal, Black figures such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The main public argument: Black turnout will increase with a Black woman on the ticket.
The real main argument: Representation. Democrats owe this to Black women.

Could a Black woman help boost turnout among Black voters, which dipped in 2016 compared to 2012? Maybe. Some political science research shows that Black people vote at higher rates when a Black candidate is on the ballot, although that finding is somewhat contested, and that research is about voting for a Black candidate, not a white candidate with a Black running mate.

That said, basically the only thing that Abrams, Bottoms, Demings, Rice and Harris have in common is that they are Black, women, and reportedly being considered as running mates by the Biden campaign. It’s really hard to claim that both Demings and Rice — the latter of whom has never even run for elected office — would obviously generate an electoral boost, and that those boosts would be of similar size. If the goal is to pick someone with skill in appealing to Black voters in particular, Abrams would seem to be head and shoulders above the rest of these Black women. She ran for governor and nearly won in a state with a huge Black population, in an election that saw a surge in Black voter turnout that was likely the result of her campaign.

[Related: How Will Biden Choose His Running Mate?]

So why have people been calling for a Black woman generically to help boost Biden with Black voters, rather than homing in on a specific Black woman?1

Because the real case that’s being made is that Biden should pick a Black woman because it’s the just, moral and right thing to do — electoral considerations aside. There are two ideas at play here. First, there is what a Black female vice presidential candidate (and vice president) would mean for Black women in America. Political scientists have enumerated lots of kinds of political representation, and at least two apply here: “descriptive representation,” or how similar an elected official is to the people voting for them (so a Black female candidate’s physical presence would represent Black women), and “symbolic representation,” or what a candidate stands for in the minds of voters (so a Black female candidate could represent a step toward equality for Black women and also represent the political attitudes and behaviors of Black women).2 Both kinds of representation could be achieved if Biden chooses a Black woman as his running mate.

Secondly, Biden choosing a Black woman would be a nod toward both addressing the historic underrepresentation of Black women in high levels of American politics and rewarding Black women for their historic loyalty to the Democratic Party.

“Though we have propped up the Democratic Party for decades, the return on our investment in the party might as well read, ‘insufficient funds,’” Rye and a group of other prominent Black women Democrats wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post in May, urging Biden to pick a Black woman as his running mate.

“Those days are over. We are here to collect,” they continued. “Very simply, Vice President Biden: You owe us, you need us and you must not take our votes for granted — they must be earned.”

The attention on racial inequality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has further galvanized Black Democrats around this view. But there is another huge factor, one that existed before Floyd’s death: the presence of Harris.

A traditional qualification for nomination to the vice presidency is being a sitting or former governor or U.S. senator. And many previous vice presidential candidates had run for president (or at least tested the waters) themselves, both raising their national profiles and usually demonstrating some competency in talking about major policy issues, even if their campaigns were ultimately unsuccessful. But no state has ever had a Black woman as governor, and only two Black women — Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Harris — have ever been a U.S. senator.

So Harris, unlike all but one other Black woman in U.S. history, has the most traditional qualifications to be the vice presidential nominee. In other words, this is a unique opportunity for anyone who wants to see a Black woman on the national ticket or serving as vice president — and they know it. Anyone who is making a case for a Black woman to be Biden’s running mate is implicitly making a case for Harris — she is by far the most qualified candidate, at least by the criteria historically applied in the veepstakes.

The case for not-Warren

VP candidate(s) being promoted: Abrams, Bottoms, Demings, Harris, Rice.
Advocates: More centrist white Democrats such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar and ex-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
The main public argument: A Black woman must be on the ticket in the wake of the Floyd protests.
The real main argument: They oppose Warren being on the ticket on policy grounds.

As we wrote earlier this year, there is some evidence that a VP nominee can boost the ticket by about 2 or 3 points in her home state. But much of the veepstakes, before Floyd’s death, revolved around fairly weak claims made by reporters, columnists and various Democrats and Trump-skeptical Republicans that choosing a nominee from the Midwest such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan would boost Biden throughout that region. At the same time, some Democratic Party big donors argued that Warren specifically would hurt Biden electorally, so he should pick basically anyone else — even as polls suggested that a Biden-Warren ticket was just as strong as or stronger than a ticket pairing Biden with other potential vice presidential candidates.

The Floyd protests and the resulting conversation about racial issues has tamped down talk of Democrats picking a white Midwestern woman.3 The post-Floyd focus on racial inequality effectively ended Klobuchar’s chances of being the vice presidential nominee. She had been the top prosecutor in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, which is now at the center of America’s debate on race and policing. Civil rights activists have criticized Klobuchar for rarely bringing charges against police officers in incidents when they injured or killed civilians. So Klobuchar on Thursday announced that she no longer wanted to be considered for the vice presidency (she seemed very unlikely to be chosen) and urged Biden to “put a woman of color on that ticket” in part to “heal this nation right now.

Other white Democratic moderates and white, Trump-skeptical Republicans are making the same case now too — or least hinting at it.4 (Despite Klobuchar’s use of the term “woman of color,” the push is really for a Black woman. We should emphasize Harris is both Asian American and Black.)

I’m skeptical of the sincerity of the people pushing for a Black woman now and tying the push to the Floyd protests. The representational case for a Black woman makes some sense and was being made by many prominent Black Democrats like Clyburn and Rye before Floyd’s death. But the idea that a woman (or person) of color will heal the nation seems fantastical. (Were these people alive from 2009-2016?) And the idea that Abrams, Bottoms or any of the other Black women being considered have roughly equal abilities to heal the nation in the midst of the Floyd protests (which is why advocates of this idea don’t feel the need to name a specific woman) seems fairly unfounded too.

[Related: Our 2020 National Polling Averages]

So what’s actually going on here? An-Anybody-But-Warren campaign, with people wary of the Massachusetts senator becoming the vice presidential nominee arguably finding a new rationale to prevent her from being on the ticket.

Warren has been clashing with America’s political and financial elite for years. Many of those people are wary of her becoming the vice president for a 77-year-old man who may not seek a second term, meaning she might very well become president.

But her critics have little incentive to make that case in a straightforward way. It’s less controversial to publicly say, “We need a Black woman like Harris because America is divided on racial issues,” than “I oppose the fairly popular idea of a wealth tax because many of my clients in my lobbying job are very wealthy, so I don’t want Warren anywhere near the White House.” But making the first argument accomplishes the goal of the second.

A lot of Democrats opposed Sanders and Warren on ideological grounds during the primary, and those people haven’t gone away. I can’t prove that those people were lying or being disingenuous in touting Klobuchar or Whitmer’s appeal to moderate voters or Warren’s potential electoral downsides before Floyd’s death. Perhaps their interest in a Black woman as VP is sincere now.

But take Klobuchar as an example. She cast Warren as too liberal throughout the Democratic primary when the two women were rivals, blasted Medicare for All, which Warren supported, and never embraced other Warren-backed ideas like a wealth tax or breaking up Facebook. And Klobuchar, who has long positioned herself as a more centrist Democrat, has probably read Biden’s list of potential running mates like you and I have, and that list doesn’t include more liberal Black women like U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee or Ayanna Pressley.

Inherently, then, Klobuchar’s plea to pick a woman of color is also a call to pick someone like Harris or Rice, who have each taken fewer very-liberal stands than Warren — and I suspect Klobuchar knows this.

The case for Warren

VP candidate(s) being promoted: Warren.
Advocates: Progressive activists like actress Jane Fonda, grassroots organizer Taj James, former Labor secretary Robert Reich, Columbia University law professor Timothy Wu, leaders of progressive groups like African Communities Together, Democracy for America, the Sunrise Movement, Win Without War.
The main public argument: Warren will boost the ticket electorally.
The real main argument: They support Warren on policy grounds.

Progressive groups like Data for Progress and Indivisible are releasing polls and surveys that make three core arguments:

  1. Warren is the most popular VP choice among Democrats, particularly younger Democrats, voters who supported Sanders during the primaries and core party activists;
  2. Warren is about as popular a VP choice among Black voters as any of the other potential candidates; and
  3. Warren is more popular than Harris specifically with young Black voters, who Democrats are hoping to get to turn out to vote in higher numbers and who seem kind of blah about Biden.

The progressives’ arguments are supported by some other polling as well. So they have a point. These surveys are useful in that they illustrate that Black political figures like Clyburn pushing for a Black woman on the ticket are not necessarily representative of Black voters overall, particularly younger ones. This polling, along with Warren’s popularity with some prominent Black progressives — which Klobuchar lacked even before Floyd’s death — help explains why the Massachusetts senator has not felt pressure to back out of the VP process even as more people call for a Black woman to be picked.

That said, the pro-Warren electoral argument from progressives is fairly weak. Looking at the data, it doesn’t appear that Black Democrats are really clamoring for Warren to be the VP. What’s most clear is that none of these potential VP candidates, neither the Black ones nor the non-Black ones, are the clear choice for Black Democrats. Harris, Klobuchar and Warren all did terribly among Black Democrats when they ran for president themselves.

Also, of course Warren is ahead of Bottoms and Demings among Black Democrats in polls about the vice presidency! Bottoms and Demings have not been major figures in national politics until recently, so many Democrats, Black and non-Black, likely have no idea who they are!

What’s really going on here: Progressives want Warren because she has a more liberal record than any of the other potential vice presidential candidates being considered.


What if the people who want a Black woman on the ticket as a show of appreciation for Black women just said that and left the predictions about Black turnout out of it? What if the centrists just said they don’t want Warren because she is too liberal? What if liberals just said they want Warren because she is a lefty?

Here’s why: The Democratic Party struggled to resolve major divides about policy and identity during the 2020 primary. Those divides still exist. Biden won the nomination because various factions in the party were able to agree that they were uncomfortable with Sanders being the party’s standard-bearer. But the more liberal and more centrist wings of the party still disagree on policy — and some of the party’s Black activists still feel like the party’s largely white leadership takes Black support for granted, and therefore does little to advance Black interests. That’s what the veepstakes is really about. Debates over electoral strategy obscure an argument about values and ideals.


FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Progressives challenge the Democratic establishment

Footnotes

  1. I’m referring in this section largely to people who were calling for Biden to pick a Black woman as his running mate even before the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests.

  2. There’d also be the possibility of “substantive representation,” or the extent to which an official acts for a voting group’s best interests (so a Black woman vice president could advocate for the policy preferences of Black women within the White House, depending on the role she had.

  3. Biden’s big lead in the polls — both nationally and in some Midwestern swing states — without having chosen a VP from that region may also be contributing to the sense that he doesn’t need to pick someone like Whitmer.

  4. Democratic Sen. Chris Coons and ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who has been critical of Trump and served as secretary of defense in Barack Obama’s administration, both made recent comments to The New York Times implying that Biden should choose a Black woman as his running mate.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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