What we know about potential vice presidential candidates for Joe Biden

Joe Biden is looking for a running mate, having effectively clinched the Democratic nomination after Sen. Bernie Sanders exited the race.

Biden informed donors last month he was moving ahead with the process even before Sanders had dropped out, according to a pool report. He has a long list of potential candidates he is in the process of winnowing winnowing.

“You have to start now deciding who you’re going to have background checks done on as potential vice presidential candidates, and it takes time,” Biden said during an April donor call. “It’s kind of presumptuous, but sometime in the middle of the month we’re going to announce a committee that’s going to be overseeing the vice presidential selection process.”

Biden has already made a pledge that narrows the field considerably: He announced during the March debate that he’d pick a woman as his running mate. It’s a smart political move; President Donald Trump is considerably less popular with women than he is with men; an April CNN poll showed Biden leading Trump among women by 30 points. Independent women voters helped propel Democrats — and a historic number of women candidates — to the majority in the House of Representatives in 2018. They could do the same for Biden in 2020.

Biden also wants a running mate ideologically aligned with him and someone he can work well with. Some of his advisers, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), are publicly pushing Biden to select a woman of color.

Biden knows well what the vetting process entails; he went through it before spending eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president.

“Joe Biden is familiar with the process of selecting a vice presidential candidate, having been on the opposite end of the process in 2008,” a Biden campaign official told Vox. “Our campaign will run a vigorous vetting process.”

The selection of a vice presidential candidate is particularly important for Biden. At 77 years old (and 78 when he would assume office), he would be the oldest first-term president ever elected. Biden has been clear he wants someone considerably younger and ready to assume the duties of the presidency should health problems or other unforeseen circumstances arise. He’s already seeking advice on this front from Obama.

“The most important thing — and I’ve actually talked to Barack about this — the most important thing is that there has to be someone who, the day after they’re picked, is prepared to be president of the United States of America if something happened,” Biden said.

Do vice presidential picks actually matter?

There’s a prevailing idea that a vice presidential candidate can “deliver” their home state for the party, which could be why a number of people on Biden’s list hail from Midwestern states. But the data supporting this idea is very slim, according to two political science professors — Chris Devine of the University of Dayton and Kyle Kopko of Elizabethtown College — who have been studying it for years.

“We’re pretty skeptical of the home-state advantage too,” Kopko told Vox in a recent interview. “You have to make a lot of assumptions that someone’s going to feel so strongly about their home state, that’s going to override any partisan predispositions.”

Kopko and Devine analyzed election and voter data going back more than 100 years, and found vice presidential candidates usually only make a difference to the outcome of a general election when they are either very popular or very polarizing.

The Wall Street Journal in 2016 also analyzed years of election data and found that even when a vice presidential pick was viewed favorably by voters in their party, a majority of voters ultimately said the VP pick ultimately had no measurable impact on their vote for president.

The real value add of a vice presidential candidate has to do more with what the selection says about the presidential candidate and their judgment. A vice presidential pick sends an early signal about what a future administration might look like.

“It provides some info to voters about how this person would operate as a president, what does he or she stand for, what are going to be the priorities in office,” said Devine.

The fact that Biden is only considering women candidates for his running mate says more about where the Democratic party is at than it does about Biden’s personal convictions, Devine and Kopko said.

“Up to this point it’s seen as picking a woman would be a bold move, an unconventional move, a strong signal,” said Devine. “At this point, I think the script is flipped somewhat, and it would be a slight to have an all-male ticket.”

The real question now is whether Biden will pick a woman of color like Sen. Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams, a progressive like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or a figure from the Midwest like Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The veepstakes list, explained

Biden’s list is still pretty long; he recently said he hoped to narrow it to a “shortlist” of around 12 or so contenders. Here’s a list of potential contenders either mentioned by Biden himself or raised by his prominent allies and advisers.

One young political star, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), won’t be on the list. At 30 years old, Ocasio-Cortez is still five years shy of the age minimum for a vice presidential candidate — not to mention more ideologically aligned with Sanders.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)

Kamala Harris tops many vice presidential lists, for good reason. Biden’s onetime competitor for the 2020 presidential nomination represents California in the US Senate; she was elected to that position after serving as the state’s attorney general. As a black woman, she may naturally appeal to the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency. However, Harris’s criminal justice record as a former prosecutor has not always translated into the easiest relationship with black communities — especially with groups on the left.

Sen. Kamala Harris at the Senate chamber on January 27.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Despite some tense moments between Harris and Biden early in the campaign (she scored a polling bump after criticizing his record on racial issues at the first presidential debate), the two seem to have reconciled. In Harris’s favor is the fact that she hails from California, a Senate seat that will be easy for Democrats to fill. Biden has showered Harris with praise and confirmed she is on the list.

“She is solid. She can be president someday herself. She can be the vice president,” he said in December. “She can go on to be a Supreme Court justice. She can be attorney general. I mean, she has enormous capability.”

Harris has also shown she’s not afraid to go toe-to-toe with members of the Trump administration or Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Having a vice presidential nominee who is a fighter can satisfy the base and leave Biden free to pitch himself as the commonsense unity candidate going up against Trump.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)

In order to win the presidency, Biden needs to win the Midwest. Amy Klobuchar could help him do that.

Another one of Biden’s former 2020 opponents, Klobuchar has already proved her worth to Biden. When she dropped out and endorsed him, she delivered him an important boost in her home state of Minnesota on Super Tuesday in March. Biden has credited her with his key win in that state. It begs the question of whether she could do the same in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during a campaign event in Keene, New Hampshire, on February 10.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

The case for having Klobuchar on the ticket as vice president is not unlike her original pitch for why she should be president: electability in a spot where Democrats needs it most.

Sure, Minnesota is seen as bluer than Michigan and Wisconsin because of the influence of the relatively large and thriving Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton won just nine of Minnesota’s 87 counties, whereas Klobuchar won 51 of them two years later. There are a lot of red areas in the state, and Klobuchar is beloved in many of them. It’s a decent test case for the senator’s electability argument, and could make Klobuchar an appealing pick.

Another thing Klobuchar has going for her is she’s a good match for Biden ideologically, and at 59, she’s considerably younger. Klobuchar is not without baggage, given past allegations about her mistreatment of staff — but voters didn’t seem to care about that when she was running for president. Perhaps more worrisome is her lack of traction in black and brown communities around the country, an area of strength for Biden.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI)

Gretchen Whitmer’s political star is rising, and Biden is taking notice.

Whitmer is the 48-year-old Democratic governor of Michigan and served as the state Senate minority leader years before that. She’s a pragmatic, middle-of-the road governor focused on health care and infrastructure whose 2018 campaign slogan was “fix the damn roads.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2018.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Michigan is one of the states representing Democrats’ recent troubles (and possible redemption) in the Midwest, and Biden’s path to the White House runs through it. Whitmer could be a big asset in this endeavor. She worked to appeal to Michigan’s Republican and independent voters in the 2018 election, where she beat the state’s Republican then-attorney general Bill Schuette by 9 points. Whitmer won counties that went for Trump in 2016, showing her appeal across party lines.

“We are a state that goes back and forth; we are not a state that comfortably fits into one party or another,” she told Vox in a 2018 interview.

As Detroit has been hit hard during the coronavirus crisis, Whitmer has become a fixation of Trump’s as she’s attempted to secure more federal aid and health care equipment for her state. Whitmer is far from the only governor (Republican and Democrat alike) to call for more help, yet Trump has reserved some of his worst insults for her. He called her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” in a tweet, and said he had a “big problem” with the “young … woman governor” in Michigan.

Biden recently invited Whitmer onto his weekly podcast, where he called her “one of the most talented people in the country” and a “friend.” In addition to talking about the challenges facing the country, the two seem to have an affinity for each other; Whitmer recounted how Biden shared Fig Newtons with her and her daughter during a campaign stop.

Whitmer seems to have a lot of what Biden is looking for in a running mate, although she has spent fewer years in higher office than some other contenders. The larger question might be if she’d accept (she has already said “it’s not going to be me”), or if Democrats would be willing to jeopardize a key governor’s seat.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

If Biden wants to do some serious outreach to progressives, Elizabeth Warren is the obvious choice.

Warren’s campaign was the tireless policy machine of 2020, churning out plans for everything from pandemic preparedness to debt-free college. Biden recently backed a Warren plan that allows student debt to be canceled during bankruptcy — a notable move, given a famous policy disagreement between the two on a 2005 bankruptcy bill. He also mused to Axios in December that while he would add Warren to his VP list, “The question is would she add me made to her list.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Concord, New Hampshire, on November 13, 2019.
Sarah Rice/Getty Images

Warren may be the choice for uniting the ideological wings of the party, and picking her would certainly say something about where a Biden administration would be willing to go policy-wise. But electorally, it might make more sense to go with a woman of color, or a moderate from the Midwest rather than an unapologetic liberal Democrat representing Massachusetts.

And then there’s the question of whether Warren would actually want the vice presidential job. As Vox’s Emily Stewart wrote, Warren’s time setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau demonstrated her executive leadership and knack for “pulling administrative levers.”

With this in mind, Warren actually might be more at home — and have more of an impact — as a Cabinet pick like Treasury secretary or secretary of education, where she could actually enact a chunk of her broad regulatory agenda.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)

The two-term senator from Wisconsin checks a whole lot of boxes. She made history in 2012 as the first openly gay senator. And even as Republicans spent millions to try to oust her in 2018, she cruised to reelection, beating her Republican challenger by 11 points.

Wisconsin Republicans were hoping to prove the state was red once and for all in 2018, as Vox’s Dylan Scott wrote. Instead, Baldwin hung on and former Gov. Scott Walker (R) lost to Democrat Tony Evers, showing signs of life for the Democratic Party there. Baldwin ran — and won — on the issue of health care. Her fight in the Senate to protect those with preexisting conditions is personal; she has a preexisting condition from childhood.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin is a two-term progressive from Wisconsin and made history in 2012 as the first openly gay senator.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In addition to proving her staying power in a Midwestern swing state, Baldwin has serious progressive bona fides, even if they don’t get as much attention as Warren’s or Sanders’s credentials. Like Michigan, Wisconsin is crucial for Biden to win, and Baldwin could give him a boost.

But taking her away from the Senate could be risky for Democrats; Wisconsin voters will by no means automatically elect another Democrat to take her place.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)

There’s been a lot of push and pull between a woman of color and a woman from the Midwest — Tammy Duckworth is both.

A Thai American who made history as the first US senator to give birth while holding office (and then spoke to the challenges of taking maternity leave while holding that office), Duckworth is helping change one of America’s oldest institutions. She cast a vote in 2018 while holding her newborn baby.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) is an Iraq War veteran and the first US senator to give birth while holding office.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Duckworth has an impressive résumé; she’s a military veteran who flew Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq and had a double leg amputation after her helicopter went down.

The senator from Illinois is also unapologetically moderate. In the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise primary win in 2018, Duckworth questioned whether that brand of progressivism could be replicated in more moderate parts of the country.

“I think it’s the future of the party in the Bronx.” Duckworth said, adding, “I think that you can’t win the White House without the Midwest, and I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams

Abrams, a voting rights activist who narrowly lost a bid for Georgia’s governorship in 2018, has been generating VP speculation for some time.

Abrams came within 1.4 points of being America’s first black woman governor in 2018, but now that 2020 is here and there are two Senate races in her home state of Georgia, she’s showing few signs of wanting to run in either one. Even with her relative lack of experience in higher office, she’s very popular with black women. A March poll done by She the People, an organization for and by women of color, found Abrams was the clear first choice among its respondents — even over Harris.

Stacy Abrams narrowly lost her bid to become the first black woman governor in 2018.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As Abrams continues her work on the issue of expanding voting rights for voters of color, she’s still very much in the mix when it comes to vice presidential names. Even though Abrams initially brushed off talk of being considered for Biden’s vice president, she seems to be coming around to the idea.

“I would be honored to be on the campaign trail as a running mate,” Abrams recently told Pod Save America. “That is a process you can’t campaign for and I’m not campaigning for.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV)

While Catherine Cortez Masto may not be as well-known as her Senate colleagues Harris and Warren, she’s a highly influential member of the governing body.

She is the former Nevada attorney general, and the first Latina elected to the US Senate. She’s close to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada — a friend of Biden’s and a still-powerful Democratic leader. Cortez Masto is also the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is viewed as a fundraising juggernaut for the party.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) is the first Latina elected to the Senate and the former Nevada attorney general.
Tom Brenner/Getty Images

The 2020 primary showed Biden had significant ground to make up with Latino voters in Western states; Sanders trounced him in Nevada, Colorado, and California after shoring up Latino support in those states. Biden may be able to count on black voters, but getting Latino voters to turn out for him isn’t a sure bet.

Cortez Masto could be a key player on that front.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM)

In the same vein, Biden may also want to take a look at New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the first Democratic Latina governor in the US. Before she was elected governor in 2018, Lujan Grisham was a member of Congress, serving as the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is a former chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images

Even though New Mexico is no longer considered a swing state, the governor’s mansion was under Republican control for 8 years. Lujan Grisham flipped it from red to blue. She also led the influential Congressional Hispanic Caucus during the Trump administration’s family separation policy — and was a loud voice against the administration’s treatment of migrants.

“We’re doing everything we can to stop the president and Homeland Security from continuing to enact pain using the terminology for zero tolerance for anybody breaking the law,” Lujan Grisham told the Associated Press in June 2018.

Lujan Grisham has proved she’s electable in her home state, but it might be tough to introduce her to the rest of the country.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

One of Biden’s earliest supporters, Bottoms has stuck with the former vice president from the beginning. She endorsed him after the first Democratic debate, rather than throwing her support behind Harris or Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), the two black candidates running at the time.

Her reasoning was a belief that Biden was best positioned to beat Trump in a general election. Even when things looked shaky as Biden was faltering in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Bottoms was one of the main surrogates campaigning for him in South Carolina, the state where he staged his comeback.

One of Biden’s top allies, Jim Clyburn, is pushing Biden to choose a woman of color as his running mate. And Clyburn has made it clear he thinks Bottoms could be the woman for the job.

“There is a young lady right there in Georgia who I think would make a tremendous VP candidate, and that’s the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms,” Clyburn told the Financial Times in a recent interview.

Rep. Val Demings (D-FL)

The lone House representative on this list, Demings has developed a high profile in Congress in a relatively short time. She was one of the impeachment managers selected by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to present the case against President Trump to the US Senate.

Rep. Val Demings served as one of the impeachment managers in the case against President Trump.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Before she was a member of Congress, Demings had a background in law enforcement. She was the first woman chief of police in Orlando, Florida. Even though she’s not as well known as some other names on this list, the fact that she hails from the Orlando area is politically important — it’s a swing part of a key swing state Democrats would like to win back in 2020.

Demings’s role in the impeachment trial lends her some name recognition, but impeachment could be ripe for Republican attacks; Democrats might avoid wading into that area and instead focus on issues like health care. Demings recently said she’d be up to take the slot if Biden asked her.

“I love being a member of Congress,” Demings recently told Florida TV station WFTV-9. “But if asked, I would consider it an honor.”

Former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano

Napolitano’s name has been floating around a bit — albeit much less than some other more high-profile contenders. Napolitano served as Arizona governor from 2003 to 2009 before making the transition to Barack Obama’s cabinet, working as the director of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2013. Napolitano hasn’t been in office for years, but she has valuable national security experience and led a red state as a Democrat in the mid 2000s.

While there’s been a lot of talk about the importance of midwestern swing states in the 2020 election, Arizona is just as important. Arizona used to be reliably Republican, but it is diversifying and Democrats had some notable success in a key 2018 Senate race. They could pick up a second Senate seat as well this year, and election forecasters say Arizona will likely be key to Biden’s electoral college math in November. Napolitano is an unknown for a lot of people outside the state, but if Biden is serious about winning there, she could be an asset.

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