The last time a VP pick was instrumental to a race was 1960, when Texas Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson helped put John F. Kennedy over the top by attracting votes from the South. There have been plenty of strong candidates and incredibly flawed VP picks since then, but none have helped determine the outcome of the presidential race. Put another way, John McCain didn’t lose because he picked Sarah Palin in 2008, but it sure didn’t help.
All of this is not to say the VP pick is not important. The decision — once a means of finding ideological or regional balance — is increasingly a test of the candidate’s judgment and an early indication of the kind of administration he intends to run.
Bill Clinton, for example, was widely expected to choose someone from the more liberal wing of the Democratic party and not another son of the South. But by choosing Al Gore, he made a broader and bolder statement; this campaign was about generational change and a new style of leadership. Both Clinton and Gore were younger men in their mid-40s who brought more physical energy to the race than George H. W. Bush, then in his late 60s. The contrast fueled the narrative that America needed new, younger leadership.
More importantly, Clinton and Gore were comfortable with each other and shared the same basic world view. The same was true for Barack Obama and Biden and, for better or worse, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
Ultimately, the success of a VP pick comes down to these two factors: whether the two running mates share a genuine and comfortable partnership, and whether the VP reinforces the broad message about how the presidential candidate intends to govern.
Getting the vetting right is an important test of competency. And that’s especially important in this election cycle. Biden is running as the candidate who won’t make the mistakes the Trump administration made from day one. Messing up the VP would seriously undermine the whole competency narrative.
It’s age-old wisdom that the vice president also has to be the attack dog, but that has been less true in recent years and mostly irrelevant this year. The main issue in this campaign is Trump. Biden’s pick will help serve as a contrast to the incumbent and demonstrate the ability for the Biden administration to hit the ground running on day one.
Biden’s vice president will, of course, need to appeal to core Democratic constituencies, minority communities and women. Biden has a wealth of choices on that front and it’s hard to see, as long as the vetting is done properly, how he could go wrong.
McCain shocked the political elite by picking Palin as a way of shaking up the race. Walter Mondale did the same by picking Ferraro in 1984. And Clinton surprised the country by picking another Southerner. For Biden, the task is different. Biden’s challenge is just the opposite. His pick needs to be designed to maintain the structure of the race rather than changing the dynamic. The very last thing he needs now is to spring a surprise on all of us.