Robert Alexander is a professor of political science and founding director of the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University. He is also the author of “Representation and the Electoral College.” Follow him on Twitter: @onuprof. David B. Cohen is a professor of political science and assistant director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron. Follow him on Twitter @POTUSProf. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
The selection of a running mate is among the biggest decisions a presidential candidate will make during their candidacy. The decision is particularly weighty when one realizes that one in five US presidents have not completed their full terms.
At 77 years old, if former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, wins the 2020 presidential election, he would be the oldest person ever elected president, surpassing President Donald Trump who set that mark in 2016 at age 70. And Biden has not committed to running for a second term if he were to win in November.
Biden already made history by committing to choose a female running mate. Fortunately for him, there are a number of talented and experienced women who are legitimate contenders for the spot. We believe California Sen. Kamala Harris, Florida Rep. Val Demings and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice should be at the top of Biden’s list.
An emerging consensus is that Biden should select a woman of color. University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball ranks all five of Biden’s top vice presidential choices as women of color, with Harris, Demings, and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth leading the way. USA Today’s Jill Lawrence argues that Biden should choose either Harris or Demings.
Generally, the most important factor in choosing a running mate is how that choice shapes perceptions of the presidential nominee. Whether they choose a strong vice presidential contender or not says a lot to voters about the type of decision-making they can expect if the candidate wins office. Harris, Demings and Rice are all very accomplished and would be strong voices in opposition to the Trump-Pence ticket.
We concur with 538’s Perry Bacon’s assessment that choosing a Black woman is an important acknowledgment of both descriptive (how much a candidate looks like the electorate) and symbolic representation (how a candidate exemplifies an idea that resonates with the electorate). Such a choice would likely shore up positive perceptions of Biden among the Democratic base — a base riled by racial unrest and protests across the country. Failing to do so may dampen turnout among marginal voters that could prove costly in a close contest.
Other factors driving the vice presidential selection process include: counterbalancing, geography and qualifications. Harris, Demings and Rice are able to satisfy all of these criteria.
Counterbalancing has most often worked as a means to balance ideology on a ticket–linking a moderate with a more conservative or liberal candidate and vice versa. More recently candidates have been mindful of other factors such as age, race, gender and religion. Former President Barack Obama’s selection of Biden was one means of balancing age, race and experience.
Geography is valued in how a vice-presidential choice can improve the ticket’s chances to win those states essential for an Electoral College victory. While research suggests that running mates rarely carry a state for a ticket, it is a calculus all campaigns consider. The selection of Harris, Demings or Rice could boost turnout in important swing state urban areas with large African-American populations such as Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and so on.
The qualifications of a nominee are critical given that they are one heartbeat away from becoming president. Voters must have confidence that the running mate is up to the task if the occasion calls for it. Biden’s advanced age and lack of commitment about a potential second term makes his selection truly an heir apparent.
Harris, Demings and Rice are all qualified to be president and could assume the job on day one if necessary — and this is perhaps the most important reason why they should be seriously considered. All have experience at the federal level and each check important boxes relating to a battle with the Trump-Pence ticket.
Harris has shown herself to be particularly impressive in Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings (particularly with Attorney General Bill Barr and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh). She also competed for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination and ran successfully statewide for both Attorney General and US Senator in California, a state with the fifth largest economy in the world and a population of 40 million.
Although Demings has had a relatively short political career, it is very impressive. She had an important role as an impeachment manager in the Senate trial of Trump and hails from the important swing state of Florida. Demings rose through the ranks to become Chief of the Orlando Police Department before being elected to the US House. Both Harris’ and Demings’ first-hand experience with the criminal justice system would be beneficial when addressing potential policing reforms in a policy area likely to be a major issue area for the duration of 2020.
While Rice has never held elective office, she has an abundance of high-level policy expertise after having served in both the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations. Her experience as the national security adviser and as ambassador to the United Nations during the entire Obama presidency provide Rice with qualifications at the highest levels of both domestic and international affairs.
The ability of Democrats to turn out voters of color in November is crucial and one of the keys to a Democratic victory. This is especially significant given that around 9 out of 10 African-Americans generally vote for Democrats.
Notably, African-American turnout in 2016 declined for the first time in a generation, dropping nationally by 7 percentage points from 2012 to 2016, according to Pew Research Center. The decrease was especially marked in several critical swing states.
According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, African-American turnout fell by 19 points in Wisconsin, 10 points in Ohio and 9 points in North Carolina. While less pronounced decreases were evident in Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania, White turnout actually increased in these critical states. Trump flipped Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania from Obama’s column to his own, winning each of these states by around 1 percentage point or less of the vote. Less than 80,000 votes (out of more than 13 million votes cast) in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin made the difference between a Trump presidency and a Hillary Clinton presidency. This underscores just how important every single vote was in these critical swing states.
The selection of Harris, Demings or Rice would make a compelling statement during this tumultuous time and serve to provide a balance for Biden. Pairing a woman of color with a 77-year old White man would not only make history, it could also stimulate turnout levels among African-Americans similar to those witnessed in 2008 and 2012 — something Democrats likely need to have happen to ensure victory in 2020.