What Voters Could Biden's VP Pick Mobilize?
With Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee, there has been speculation about who he will choose to be his running mate. Biden has pledged that his vice-presidential pick will be a woman stating, “There are a number of women who qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my vice president.” After making this commitment in mid-March, journalists and political pundits wasted no time generating lists of qualified women who Joe Biden could potentially choose to be his running mate.
Despite pundits and party elites placing an outsized level of importance on the VP pick, rarely has a vice presidential running mate had more than a trivial impact on an election outcome. However, we arguably face the most important and consequential presidential election in modern history. In the context of global pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of Americans, devastated the economy, left millions of Americans unemployed, and pushed our healthcare system to the brink, Biden’s pick for VP choice may be perceived as far more meaningful than in past elections. Furthermore, given Biden’s age, there is a distinct possibility that whoever he chooses will be running a presidential race in 2024.
So much of the perceived strategy of Biden’s choice hinges on what we think is more crucial to Biden’s success- “persuasion targets” verses “turnout targets.” Is the goal to increase turnout among younger voters and voters of color? Given the difference in turnout between 2012 and 2016 among black voters and the expanding Latino electorate in key states, this is a prudent goal. One of the most defining divides in the Democratic primary was the age difference in support for Biden, with voters under 45 more likely to have supported Bernie Sanders and voters over 45 more likely to support Biden. Furthermore, young voters (who are also more likely to be voters of color) simply turn out to vote at much lower levels. Polling shows that Biden has a huge lead over Trump with young voters, but this issue will inevitably be one of turnout.
But is the more important goal to target persuadable voters? These voters would include white voters in the Midwest (many who voted for Trump in 2016), white suburbanites, moderate and conservative voters, as well as Independents. Despite changing demographics in the U.S., white men still make up about one-third of the electorate. In 2018, 41% of white men voted for Democrats and undoubtedly helped contribute to their success. Polling shows that the split among white voters by college education is essentially the same as it was in 2016; whites without a college degree support Trump over Biden by about 30 points. However, the same polling also highlights the fact that Biden has not significantly increased support among whites with a college degree.
Speculation about the veepstakes is likely to pick up even more momentum as former Vice President Biden recently announced a panel of advisors to aid him in the selection of a running mate. Although there are many think pieces devoted to discussing who would be the smartest strategic pick for Biden, most fail to substantively discuss or provide data on what kind of voters each potential VP nominee might attract. Using relevant data from recent surveys, elections, and each potential VP’s past successes, I evaluate the types of voters each VP pick might be able to mobilize and how much of a boon that potential mobilization would be to the Biden campaign.
1. Stacey Abrams
Stacey Abrams rose to national prominence when she ran as the Democratic candidate for Georgia governor in 2018. While some of the other potential running mates under consideration have remained coy about any vice-presidential ambitions, Abrams has been open about her desire to serve as Biden’s VP. She has noted her history of fighting to protect the right to vote, her experience serving as her party’s minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, and has argued that it would be a mistake for Joe Biden not to pick a black woman like herself. Abrams told Jake Tapper on CNN, “As a young black woman, growing up in Mississippi, I learned that if you don't raise your hand, people won't see you, and they won't give you attention.”
Given Abrams newcomer status to national politics, there are limited data points to draw from that speak to the types of voters she might bring into the fold. But her past performances offer some insights. Abrams lost her gubernatorial bid to then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp by a thin margin. Kemp was overseeing the election that he competed in and enforced some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, resulting in allegations of voter suppression. Despite this, more black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Latino voters turned out in Georgia’s 2018 midterm election than in the 2016 presidential election. Georgia was the only state where midterm turnout was greater than presidential turnout among voters of color. This speaks to Abrams’ ability to mobilize voters of color who might otherwise stay home on Election Day. Additionally, Abrams achieved this without losing the support for white voters. She won a larger share of the white vote than President Barack Obama. In the Data for Progress poll, 17% of black voters chose Abrams as their preferred VP nominee (second only to Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren at 22%). Furthermore, a plurality (21%) of black voters felt that Abrams would be the most effective in implementing policies as VP.
2. Senator Tammy Baldwin
Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has largely flown under the radar in the veepstakes discussion and has been left out of most national polling. Wisconsin is emerging as one of the most crucial (if not the most crucial) battleground state in the 2020 election. Baldwin has been in the Senate since 2013 and is the first openly LGBT member of the Senate. Although she lacks name recognition nationally, Senator Baldwin won her 2018 race by double digits. This is no small feat in a purple state like Wisconsin where Democrat Tony Evers beat Scott Walker in the 2018 gubernatorial race by a razor thin margin (slightly over 1%). In fact, about 8% of voters split their ticket and supported both Walker and Baldwin. Exit polls show that 10% of Republicans and 59% of Independents or non-affiliated voters voted for Baldwin. This fact speaks to Baldwin’s ability to put together a coalition that includes both progressives, Independents, and even some Trump supports. Another potential strength is her progressive bona fides. She is one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate. This could mobilize progressives who feel lukewarm about Biden.
3. Senator Tammy Duckworth
Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth is another woman on this list who has made history. She won her 2016 election and became the second Asian American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, the first woman with a disability to be elected to Congress, and the first Senator to give birth while in office. Duckworth is a combat veteran and was the first female double amputee from the Iraq War (her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by Iraqi insurgents). She served in the house for four years before running for the Senate. Although Duckworth has not been included in many national polls, YouGov polling indicates that she is slightly more popular among millennials and men. In her 2016 Senate victory, she won only 17 out of Illinois’ 102 counties. Duckworth won by huge margins in terms of total votes in urban counties which secured her victory. According to CNN exit polls from 2016, she did particularly well among non-white voters, and notably, voters without a college degree as well as moderates and Independents.
Senator Duckworth previously served as the Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She has a long history of advocating for vets. Although the relationship between electoral victory and candidate military experience is nuanced, researchers have found that people use candidates’ military service to make inferences about defense competence and interventionism that can lead to higher support among some groups of voters. Other work has found that voters overwhelming perceive candidates with military experience to be more competent in handling national security and defense issues. It’s difficult to extrapolate what this might mean in terms of any potential benefit to the Biden campaign. However, Duckworth’s distinct lived experience as a veteran, Asian-American woman, a person with a physical disability, and a new mother, might appeal to voters seeking representation and recognition in the next administration.
4. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham
Another governor that has garnered attention as a potential veep choice is New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. Lujan Grisham became the first Latina Democratic woman governor in 2019, after serving three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite holding these posts, Lujan Grisham’s national profile remains relatively low, reducing the amount of data from which to draw in predicting her influence on a presidential ticket. Elected from both a majority-Latino district and state and as the former head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Lujan Grisham would bring strong ties to the Latino community. This might help a Biden presidential ticket with mobilizing Latino voters. In the presidential primary, Sanders did far better with Latino voters than Biden. A recent survey from Latino Decisions shows support for Biden at 59% among Latinos, compared to just two months ago when it was at 67%. According to New York Times, Latinos are expected to be the largest nonwhite ethnic voting bloc this fall. Latino support in key swing states like Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania could be decisive for Biden.
It’s also worth noting, given the current public health crisis, that Governor Lujan Grisham began her career as a health commissioner in Bernalillo County and ultimately was appointed as New Mexico’s Secretary of Health. Lujan Grisham has also been garnering high approval ratings (62%) for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
5. Senator Kamala Harris
Out of all the potential VP nominees, the one that has perhaps been cited the most as a likely pick is Senator Kamala Harris. In a March 2020 YouGov poll, 18% of Democratic primary voters selected Kamala Harris as their preferred choice for Biden’s running mate (second only to Warren). In the Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, Harris was in the middle of pack with 10% of respondents choosing her as their preferred VP running mate. Her support, also in the Harvard poll, remains relatively stable across age groups, although older voters preferred her slightly more than younger voters. There was also a notable gap in support for Harris across racial lines with 16% of black voters selecting her verses 9% of white voters. However, it’s unclear how much of a benefit this is to the Biden coalition given his already deeply entrenched support in the black community. It’s also not a given that Kamala Harris, a black woman, would mobilize black voters. During the presidential race, Harris, as well as the only other black candidate in the race, Cory Booker, were unable to make inroads in South Carolina, a state where African Americans are about a third of the population and an even larger proportion of Democratic voters. One promising data point for Harris is that, in the March YouGov poll, she garnered the highest support among Hispanic voters (26%) in VP selection. The Latino vote will be an essential voting bloc in 2020.
Based on these data points, it’s clear that while Democratic primary voters have generally warm feelings towards Kamala Harris, but her support among other groups suggests that she might have trouble generating enthusiasm outside of the existing Biden coalition.
6. Senator Amy Klobuchar
Another potential VP pick is Senator Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar has 63% favorability among Democratic primary voters according to the latest YouGov poll. The moderate Minnesota senator displays major strength among older voters, particularly those 65 and older. In the Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, Klobuchar was the preferred VP choice for 19% of respondents 65 and older (the most popular choice among that age group) and 12% of voters 50-64 compared to only 3% of voters 18-34 and 5% of voters 35-49. These numbers indicate that Senator Klobuchar will better mobilize older voters. In the YouGov poll, she is the second highest in support from Democratic primary voters age 65+. However, it’s important to note that generally, these voters are already mobilized. We know that older people go to the polls at significantly larger numbers than younger people. According to CNN exit polls during the midterm election, 56% of voters were over age 50 and 26% were 65 or over. By comparison, only 13% of voters were under the age of 30 and this was considered a high turnout for young voters.
Klobuchar clearly appeals to older voters but it’s unclear that would be a significant benefit to the Biden coalition. It is worth noting that in the Harvard poll, Klobuchar was tied with Sanders as the preferred candidate of voters who voted for Trump in 2016, suggesting she could pick off some Trump voters. During the presidential primary, where Klobuchar hit a stumbling block was with voters of color. She out-performed expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire (overwhelmingly white states), but failed to mobilize voters of color, particularly black voters, in Nevada and South Carolina, effectively ending her presidential bid.
7. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto made history when she became the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016. She served as the Attorney General of Nevada from 2007 to 2015 but has not yet achieved much of a national profile. Cortez Masto was included on the most recent Data for Progress poll where she garnered only 1% of support from Democratic voters, most likely a result of her low name ID. As one of the very few Latina women in Congress and as a statewide representative of a state where Latinos are 29% of the population, Cortez Masto has the potential to and experience in mobilizing Latino voters. Her knowledge of and popularity in a swing state like Nevada is also worth weighing in considering her benefit to a presidential ticket.
8. Senator Elizabeth Warren
It was only a month and a half ago that Senator Elizabeth Warren, once a front-runner, dropped out of the presidential race. A little over a week ago she endorsed Joe Biden and when asked by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC how she would respond if Biden asked her to serve as vice president, Warren responded “Yes.”
Warren has been the leading woman candidate among Democrats in two recent polls. In an April 2020 Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll, 13% of all respondents chose Warren as their preferred VP pick. This is second only to the 20% of respondents who chose Senator Bernie Sanders. When Data for Progress listed only women contenders in another April 2020 survey, 31% of Democratic respondents chose Warren, with Senator Kamala Harris coming in second with 18% of support. Notably, 42% of Democrats identified Warren as the potential vice presidential candidate most ready to be president. In a recent YouGov poll, Elizabeth Warren had the highest favorability (77%) among Democratic primary voters. Other YouGov polling suggests similarly positive feelings for Warren. A plurality of Democratic primary voters in a March 2020 poll said that Biden should select Warren as his VP.
These data points highlight that the Democratic base generally has warm feelings towards Warren. However, conventional wisdom during and after her presidential bid was that the Massachusetts senator does better with women, more educated voters, and more liberal voters. The extant data seems to bear this out. Out of the five women candidates who were included as response options in the Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, the gender gap in support was the largest for Elizabeth Warren with 15% of women selecting Warren as their preferred pick compared to 11% of men in the survey. Similarly, YouGov polling from March indicates that among Democratic primary voters, 29% of women and 25% of men think that Elizabeth Warren should be selected as the nominee for vice-president. According to NBC exit polls, this gender gap was consistent in almost every presidential primary contest as well. In the presidential primary, Warren lost in her home state and struggled to win support among white men without college degrees (although Warren did do better with college-educated white men than with working class white women underscoring the complicated gender dynamics at play). Another weak spot for Warren is with Independent voters. Exit polls from her 2012 campaign for the U.S. Senate showed that her that her opponent, Scott Brown, did better with Independent voters, particularly men. This weak spot played out in the 2020 presidential primary in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and several other Super Tuesday states.
9. Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been floated as another potential running mate for Joe Biden, particularly as she rose to national consciousness because of her response to the Covid-19 pandemic and her outspoken criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis. Whitmer has a long and successful electoral history, having served three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives and two terms in the Michigan Senate before her gubernatorial run in 2018. Given Michigan’s status as a crucial battleground state and the fact that Trump won Michigan in 2016 by the narrowest margin in the history of the state, it makes sense that Governor Whitmer is on the short list.
Whitmer is rated favorably by 47% of Democratic primary voters, although it’s important to note that over 40% were unfamiliar with her. She is also popular in her state. Despite criticism from some Republicans over her aggressive response to Covid-19 and protests over the stay-at-home orders, Whitmer’s approval rating is 60% in Michigan (15 points higher than Trump’s approval rating in the state). With limited data, it’s difficult to discern what types of voters might be energized by Whitmer as a VP pick. In the Data for Progress poll, only 3% of Democratic voters chose Whitmer as their VP choice, which is likely a product of low name ID. However, her win in 2018 demonstrated her ability to put together a diverse coalition of black voters, suburban women, blue collar workers, and even voters in conservative parts of the state.
What does it all mean?
When considering the potential VP nominees (although this list is not exhaustive), the various data points we can draw from, the voter bases that Biden needs to reach, the idiosyncrasies of this particular election environment, and the dubiousness of the importance of the VP pick, it’s difficult to extract any conclusions about who is the best strategic choice for Joe Biden. What does seem instinctively true is the heightened importance of this choice in this particular moment and the long list of highly qualified women who would bring myriad benefits to the presidential ticket.
Furthermore, given the recent allegations of sexual assault against Joe Biden, all of the women on this list will have to thread the needle between supporting Biden without being perceived as being dismissive of the allegations. As Rebecca Traister outlined in her article in The Cut, any woman who accepts Biden’s invitation to be his running mate will become ensnared in this controversy.
For both Biden and the potential VP nominee, there will be trade-offs. Ultimately, it’s less about who Biden chooses and more about the voters she will bring along.
 It’s worth noting a few caveats regarding the Harvard CAPS/Harris poll. The summary data available for this poll includes preference for each candidate across various demographic groups. Survey respondents including Republican, Democratic, and third-party voters and we were unable to restrict our analysis to only Democratic voters.