It won’t be long now before the political world begins the quadrennial festival of pointless yet momentarily diverting speculation on whom the presidential nominees will choose to be their running mates. So let me suggest a radical idea before that process gets underway: The candidates should choose someone who would actually — are you ready? — do a good job as vice president.
Sounds crazy, I know. But it’s something almost no one talks about when debating this decision. And the guy who has the job now is a good example, believe it or not.
Before we discuss Joe Biden, there’s something important to understand about the “veepstakes”: Almost everything you’ll hear about how the nominees should make their decision is wrong. (I should mention that more detail on what I’m discussing here can be found in an article I wrote for the latest print edition of the American Prospect; the article isn’t online yet, so you should immediately head down to your local newsstand to procure a copy.)
It’s wrong because the choice of a running mate makes little or no difference to the outcome of the election. Should the candidate pick someone who comes from a swing state? No, because it won’t matter — while the nominee might get a boost of a couple of points in their own home state (above what a generic nominee from their party would get), vice presidential nominees don’t bring in any home-state votes.
Should the candidate pick someone who’ll help them unify the party after a contentious primary season? No, because in most cases the party is going to unify no matter what. We live in an era of negative partisanship in which voters’ dislike for the other side is a more powerful motivating factor than their affection for their own party. Republicans are unusually fractured this year, but if they come back together it will be over their shared hatred of Hillary Clinton, not because of a vice presidential nominee. Democrats, on the other hand, will be unified by Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Don’t believe the Bernie Sanders supporters who are saying they’ll never vote for Clinton — almost all of them will, just as the Clinton supporters who said they’d never vote for Barack Obama in 2008 did in the end.
Should the candidate pick someone with an interesting demographic profile? No, because as with all the other considerations we’re discussing, in the end the difference that could make will be minuscule next to how voters feel about the person at the top of the ticket. That isn’t to say it would have zero effect if, say, Clinton picked a Latino as her running mate, but the effect in persuading more Latinos that they should vote for the Democratic ticket will be so small as to be barely worth considering.
All of this is why political scientists who have studied this question have been almost completely unable to locate a significant effect of vice presidential choices on the final outcome of the race. The outlying case is Sarah Palin, who likely cost John McCain a point or two. The other running mate who might have made a small difference is Dan Quayle in 1988. But both of those were picks that went horribly wrong; what you won’t find is a running mate who actually helped the candidate at the top of the ticket in any meaningful way.
So if you’re Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz (I won’t pretend to know what bizarre calculations might be whirring through Donald Trump’s mind), that means you should just pick someone who would actually be good at being vice president, and as long as the person isn’t a political disaster during the campaign, you’ll have done yourself a favor. Which brings us to Joe Biden.
John Harwood (who has really been killing it with these) has an interview with Biden out today, and from Biden’s answers, it’s obvious that he still hasn’t quite made peace with the idea that he’s never going to be president. When asked about his “Goofy Uncle Joe” persona, he said: “if you notice, I beat every Republican in every poll when they thought I was running. You notice that my favorability was higher than anybody that’s running for office in either party.” He also vigorously defended not only his record as a senator but the administration’s accomplishments. Which you’d expect, but what most people don’t realize is that Biden has been an extremely effective vice president.
Thanks to his decades in the Senate, Biden came to the job with a deep understanding of the way the federal government operates, which enabled him to oversee projects that spanned different agencies and different branches. Most importantly, he was in charge of implementing the Recovery Act, which was one of the administration’s great unsung successes. It involved a huge amount of work and coordination, and by every account Biden performed exceptionally well at it. Just the fact that they managed to distribute over three-quarters of a trillion dollars without any major scandals of graft or theft was an extraordinary accomplishment.
And perhaps most critically for a vice president, Biden has kept a strong relationship with the president throughout the last seven years, which many VPs can’t say (most notably, Dick Cheney was hugely powerful in George W. Bush’s first term, but lost favor in the second term). That isn’t to say he hasn’t had some Bidenesque screwups along the way, but he seems to have done about as good a job as President Obama could have hoped.
To what degree Obama knew that would happen when he picked Biden isn’t clear — though as someone from Delaware who had run a couple of weak runs for the White House, Biden didn’t look like electoral gold at the time, so Obama couldn’t have been worrying too much about getting a boost to the ticket. And it can be hard to predict how someone will do in a job they haven’t done before. But if the 2016 candidates take a good look at history, they’ll realize that there’s little to be gained by worrying too much about how their running mate will affect the election’s outcome. Pollsters will tell you that after a running mate gets picked, the candidate will get a bump in the polls for a few days based on all the positive news about the choice, and then the race settles right back down to where it was before.
I realize that means the millions of words that will be spilled on the veepstakes will all be for nought. I’m not telling anyone to stop speculating and musing. Go right ahead; I might do some of it myself. But we shouldn’t forget what actually matters about the choice.