Three of the rumored leading contenders — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Karen Bass — each represent different wings of the party that Biden must placate. Warren comes from the ultra-liberal progressive wing, while the selection of Harris would represent an all-out bid to maximize Black turnout nationally. Picking Bass, who serves as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, would be a gesture toward the party’s insiders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who are said to be championing Bass.
What Biden’s pick will not be is an attempt to strive for geographic balance. In the modern digital age, with 24-hour news channels and millions of web pages and social media connections, the whole notion of geography has been weakened, if not obliterated. Far more important for Biden — and for President Donald Trump — is a ticket that keeps each party’s political base satisfied and engaged.
That is not always obvious. It’s still a popular, misguided pastime among political commentators to imagine fantasy football-style hypothetical vice-presidential selections that balance a ticket geographically and/or lock in the ability to win certain states.
But that was mostly wasted ink, say the scholars. “According to our analysis of election and voter data over the course of a little more than the past century, a vice presidential candidate’s state of residence generally has no effect on how a presidential candidate performs in that state. The vice presidential home state advantage is, essentially, zero.”
It’s an easy mistake to make. Political pundits, top consultants and big-money donors — and even the candidates themselves — have long believed in the importance of a geographically balanced ticket. They can point to 1960, when Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts famously picked Lyndon Johnson of Texas as his running mate to pick up electoral support in the Deep South.
The gambit appeared to work. “We couldn’t have carried the South without Johnson,” Kennedy later said, although researchers Kopko and Devine say that internal polls from 1960 show Kennedy was just as popular as Johnson in Texas, and more popular than his running mate in Louisiana.
In 1976, Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter of Georgia went for geographic diversity, picking Walter “Fritz” Mondale of Minnesota for a ticket (famously nicknamed “Grits and Fritz”) that captured the White House.
But the spell was broken in 1992, when Democratic nominee Bill Clinton of Arkansas picked Al Gore from adjacent Tennessee. Pundits were puzzled, but Clinton — campaigning at the dawn of the information revolution — pulled off a victory by picking a candidate like himself: a young, ambitious Southerner.
Ever since then, modern campaigns have been less about regional diversity and more about managing the rivalries, jealousies and ideological division within both major parties — and, most importantly, getting base voters excited and eager to vote.
And in 2016, candidate Donald Trump — a notorious former casino owner and womanizer from liberal New York City — made peace with evangelical Republicans by picking Mike Pence, a born-again, fervently anti-abortion running mate from the Midwest.
All of which brings us to Biden’s choice.
In the end, Biden will choose whichever wing of the party he thinks will give him the biggest boost. His selection will give us a good idea of the messages, strategy and direction of the party as the campaign shifts into high gear for the final 90-day sprint to Election Day.