This isn’t the first time that someone has thought of an early vice presidential selection. There have been early running-mate announcements at the state level, and in April of 2016, you’ll recall, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) named Carly Fiorina as his running mate in a last-ditch attempt to revive his rapidly fading campaign. In the summer of 1976, Ronald Reagan named Sen. Richard S. Schweiker (R-Pa.) as his running mate when he was challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination.
Nevertheless, this may be the first time that anyone has considered naming a running mate before even entering the race. In addition to just doing something attention-grabbing, the easy way to look at the idea of Biden joining up with Abrams is that she’s a contrast to him in many of the ways that make him vulnerable to criticism in the Democratic Party. Her age, gender and race could help him deal with the questions that primary voters are likely to have about the less admirable parts of his record, such as his role in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings or his work on the punitive 1994 crime bill.
But I’d like to focus on something else, which is that Abrams and Biden have fundamentally different ideas about how Democrats can win elections. That, more than anything else, would make them an odd pairing.
This gets to one of the most important questions that Democrats confront in 2020 and beyond: Is it more important to persuade Republican-leaning voters to change their minds and come over to vote for a Democrat, or to mobilize Democratic-leaning voters, including those who may not even be registered yet, to get to the polls? Although it’s easy to say “They should do both,” the truth is that the two paths dictate very different kinds of decisions.
Biden plainly thinks that persuasion is the route to victory. Indeed, that’s one of the primary rationales for his candidacy, that this son of Scranton who calls himself “Middle-Class Joe” can connect with the regular (i.e. white) folks who helped Donald Trump get elected in 2016. Everything that cuts against a Biden candidacy is, some think, outweighed by his potential for winning over Trump voters.
There is no single figure in the Democratic Party today who more clearly represents the opposing view than Abrams. Even before she decided to run for governor of Georgia, she created an organization in that state whose goal was to register voters who weren’t part of the system, primarily voters of color.
Her theory was that, particularly in a Southern state where white voters are so firmly wedded to the GOP, Democrats needed to expand the electorate in order to win, and that there were hundreds of thousands of people just waiting to be turned into voters. That didn’t mean she didn’t talk to white voters, but she also didn’t try to find some middle ground that was meant not to offend them.
And even though she fell short, she mounted an extraordinary campaign that created huge turnout and came far closer to winning than recent Democrats had following the theory that they had to be centrists in order to compete. Now she has created an organization to focus on guaranteeing voting rights and counter Republican voter suppression.
You can look at the entire 2018 election as a validation of the mobilization theory. Although there were more liberal and more moderate Democrats who won, they all benefited from high turnout, which topped 50 percent nationwide, compared to 36 percent in 2014 and 42 percent in 2010, elections in which Democrats got blown out.
I’m skeptical about whether Biden is interested in, or capable of, implementing a mobilization strategy. Although he leads in many early polls as primary voters are getting to know the candidates, I haven’t gotten the sense that too many Democrats are over the moon with excitement about a Biden candidacy. That’s one of the elements you need for mobilization in a presidential race: not just a plan to do the organizing work necessary, but someone at the top of the ticket who gets your party’s voters excited, the way Barack Obama did in 2008 and, unfortunately, the way Trump did in 2016.
There was certainly a time when persuasion was just as important as mobilization, if not more. But with the intense polarization and negative partisanship that characterize our politics right now, persuasion has become harder than ever. It’s why Trump, despite being possibly the most odious human being to have ever run for high office in America, held just as many Republican voters as previous GOP nominees had, despite the efforts Hillary Clinton made to persuade them to cast just one vote for a Democrat.
All of which is to say that if Biden still thinks that the way to win the White House is to pull white voters across the center, he’s probably wrong. Though maybe he understands that, and is ready to pursue a different strategy that expands the electorate. We’ll have to ask him once he becomes a candidate.