The process was in many ways unlike any other search for a vice president in memory — taking place under an unusual public glare fostered by Biden’s early declaration that he would consider only women for the job, a decision that brought on fierce lobbying to further narrow the field by race. Hundreds of prominent Black activists, lawmakers and opinion leaders called on Biden to choose a Black woman, effectively putting him in a political bind as he mulled his most consequential decision as a presidential candidate.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris
(D-Calif.) emerged on top in the end, winning over Biden and his immediate family to become the first Black woman, the first Asian American, the first graduate of a historically Black college and the first Californian since Ronald Reagan to find a place on a major-party national ticket.
Interviews with people briefed on the Biden vice-presidential selection effort described a process Tuesday that was extensive and laborious, with no certainty of outcome, even though Biden eventually landed on the former primary rival many had predicted he would pick from the start.
“A lot of his thought process was who shared his values, who he could work with, who could help him win and who could be ready on Day 1,” the Biden campaign’s co-chair, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) said in an interview after Harris’s selection had been announced. “He was looking at data and looking at track records and looking at a whole bunch of things.”
Race hovered over the interview process almost from the start.
As protests over racial justice swept the nation, one prominent White candidate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), publicly withdrew from consideration, while another prominent Black candidate, Stacey Abrams, announced publicly that she thought a woman of color should be selected.
Abrams and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a disabled Iraq War veteran whose mother was of Thai and Chinese descent, were among the candidates who were interviewed over the weekend. They both received a call Tuesday telling them they did not get the job.
The initial vetting was conducted by a team of four co-chairs, former senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Biden adviser Cynthia Hogan and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.). They logged more than 120 hours meeting with party activists, interest groups and other stakeholders with designs on who could best serve the party and country, according to a person familiar with the process who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
They also met, in pairs, with more than 20 initial candidates, who had been subjected to an initial public records review, and prepared a presentation for Biden and his wife, Jill, to narrow the field. Biden also met individually with each of the co-chairs to solicit additional recommendations.
“We are grateful to the incredibly talented and diverse field of women leaders for their time, commitment, and dedication, and to the hundreds of stakeholders whose valuable input was a critical part of this effort,” the four co-chairs said in a joint statement after Harris was selected. “Vice President Biden’s focus from the very start was on who would be the best governing partner to help him lead our country out of the chaos created by Donald Trump.”
Harris performed well in that initial meeting with the co-chairs, according to a person familiar with how it went, who declined to disclose any of the candidates’ answers to the initial interview questions. The co-chairs described her as having an impressive balance of the presence to take on President Trump and knowledge of the issues. She also spoke in the meeting about her close relationship with Biden’s late son Beau and her personal story of having immigrant parents, a mother from India and a father from Jamaica.
She also continued to work with interest groups outside of the process, courting Black activists during racial justice protests over the summer. Despite a leaked comment from Dodd questioning whether Harris had enough “remorse” for her attacks on Biden during the primary campaign, Biden himself stayed true to his public statements behind the scenes, displaying no lingering grudge.
Long after Harris had accused Biden of offending her for praising segregationist senators and opposing forced busing, the two leaders had found a way to get along, meeting by chance on her husband’s birthday in October 2019 at a private airport terminal on the campaign trail. As Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, shared cupcakes with the Biden team, the two candidates wandered away for a private conversation that helped solidify their bond, according to people who were familiar with the exchange.
Ultimately 11 women made it to the final phase of the process, far more than publicly reported, with Biden conducting one-on-one interviews with each over the last nine days, some in person and some virtually. Celinda Lake, one of the Biden campaign’s pollsters, did research on the best way to introduce each candidate’s personal story, and the campaign prepared rollout strategies, including potential new campaign logos, for all of the finalists.
Each of them also was subjected to an extensive legal vetting, run by former White House counsel Bob Bauer, former Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco and former White House senior counsel Dana Remus, all veterans of the Obama administration.
They oversaw a team of 12 to 15 other attorneys for each candidate who scraped every part of their pasts. The in-depth questionnaire ran more than 160 prompts, according to a person familiar with the process, requiring an enormous commitment of time from the candidates and their staff to fill it out.
The 11 finalists were asked about their past writings, details of arrests or criminal charges, medical records and videos of past speaking engagements. Elected officials were asked about their campaign donor policies, questions were asked about workplace complaints directed at their spouses and the candidates were told to describe the most controversial matters they had dealt with in the course of their careers.
Another question asked about “any organization that would take steps, overtly or covertly, fairly or unfairly, to affect your appointment, including any news organizations,” according to the person familiar with the process.
Once the information was in, Biden consulted individually with his family, including his wife and his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, his longtime friend and adviser Ted Kaufman and his political strategist Mike Donilon.
Other teams of political researchers, meanwhile, began releasing information to the public in an effort to complicate their paths to the nomination. In an effort to help them respond, the Biden team tried to elevate all the women’s profiles, fulfilling what staff described as a Biden promise to enhance each candidate’s public profile. He hosted the candidates on his podcast, at fundraisers and at virtual town halls, while his staff helped place them on television news programs.
Through all of it, Biden faced enormous pressure to narrow his search by race. As far back as April, Abrams laid down a racial marker as well. “We need a ticket that reflects the diversity of America,” she said on ABC’s “The View.”
Several other public and private efforts followed to persuade Biden to pick a Black woman, including at least one that involved former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile, which led to a meeting with Biden himself.
“My advice was sought,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a powerful Biden ally as the House majority whip, who found out about the Harris pick Tuesday from Biden. “I talked to him [Biden] over the past several days more than I talked to him all year.”
At another point in the day, Biden sat down before a laptop at a desk at his home in Wilmington, Del. In front of him was a framed Hagar the Horrible comic strip that has long inspired him, with Hagar shouting up to the heavens, “Why me?!” and an answer coming from the clouds, “Why not?”
Biden had typed notes in front of him on a card of the things he wanted to convey.
“I’m calling you today because I’ve made that first Presidential decision,” the note said. “I’ve decided I’d like you to join this effort to win back the soul of this country and be our nation’s next Vice President.”
In a photo of the moment captured by Adam Schultz, his campaign photographer, Harris appeared on the laptop from her condominium in Washington, smiling broadly.
Annie Linskey, Sean Sullivan, Matt Viser and Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.