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The Extremely Visible Primary for the Vice Presidential Nomination

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Julia Azari and Seth Masket discuss what this year's veepstakes means for party politics.

JRA: Ok, welcome to our third Mischiefs of Faction party politics chat of 2020. It's April 30, we're still housebound and living with a pandemic, but presidential election politics (sorta) marches on.

Today we're chatting about vice presidential selection.

SM: So, my impression is that we're seeing a more public campaign for the vice presidential nomination than usual. Since Biden functionally clinched the nomination and said he would pick a woman as a running mate, several candidates have made it very plain that they're interested in the job. Stacey Abrams has probably been the most forward about declaring a strong interest in the position and advertising her qualities, but others are in the race, too. Is this a more visible veep competition than typical? And, if so, why would that be the case now?

JRA: It seems to me that this is the case, as a long-time veepstakes-watcher. I haven't seen a formal analysis of google searches or media mentions but it certainly seems like the transition has been, "ok, the nominee will be this centrist old white man, let's start thinking about how the veepstakes could address some demand in the Democratic electorate for someone who is not these things."

In other words, I think the attention to the veepstakes and maybe to some extent the visible efforts to compete for the position are indicators of a process that was weak and a nominee who is weak from the standpoint of the party coalition. E.g. two of the things we argued about in our last chat.

SM: Possibly. I'm particularly interested in the take that Abrams is somehow violating a norm by outwardly seeking this job when one is supposed to sit back and wait to be picked, at least publicly. Am I nuts that people talk about the VP selection the way we might have talked about the presidential nomination in the 1800s?

JRA: No, I was just thinking about that.

We'll have to see how this evolves, but that seems like a reasonable assessment and frankly not a surprising progression. But it's one with very different implications for the president-party relationship.

SM: Also, Kilgore has a piece arguing that Abrams needs to do this campaign more publicly because she's functionally a DC outsider, unlike some of the other contenders.

JRA: Allow me a short tangent about the way presidential campaigning has evolved. As you point out, it used to be a norm violation for politicians to look like they were actively campaigning for the nomination - or even in the general. For presidents to campaign more actively for the nomination, it meant individual candidates becoming more important than parties. For possible VP candidates to do so I think is sort of a response to that - an effort to make the presidency more about a coalition instead of an individual.

But I'm expecting you to come at me more about my claim that this was a weak process and is a weak nominee.

SM: I’m not sure this shows a weak party system or a weak nominee. You can certainly have ambitious politicians within a strong party system. The question is who gets picked and why. But this more overt campaigning for VP may just be kind of a natural progression of the presidential campaign, but it may also be a particular function of this cycle, where you have an older nominee who might legitimately not want to or be able to serve two terms, and in which issues of identity and representation were far more salient than in previous cycles.

JRA: Speaking of that, let's talk demographics and vice presidential selection.

One point I want to raise is that picking a woman running mate has basically been a media stunt historically. And Biden's announcement during the March debate may not have been much different from that. But the norms have (sort of) shifted dramatically in terms of what people expect in terms of representation. I know they all lost, but there were a record number of women and people of color on those early debate stages, in a way that would've been unthinkable in 2004.

SM: I agree with this. It wasn't just that there were a lot of women and people of color on the stage -- many of them plausibly had a path to the nomination and could have won it in a slightly different year.

JRA: The other thing about women as VP nominees is that on mainstream tickets, they have actually been considerably more conservative than the presidential nominee. Admittedly, we only have two instances of this.

SM: That's a really interesting point. The N is small, but both were efforts to balance the ticket both in terms of demographics and ideology.

JRA: The press about Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 is like ALL about her representing Archie Bunker's district and being conservative on law and order issues. The use of a fictional character to describe a real woman candidate is maybe another chat. And Sarah Palin was definitely also a pick to boost McCain's conservative credibility (which I would argue wasn't totally unsuccessful). But this past precedent seems especially important in the context of the 2020 Democrats, because the idea of Biden picking a nominee who is further right than him seems... unstrategic?

SM: If you'll allow a slight digression, I’m increasingly of the mind that the VP contest tends to be covered backwards. Most of the coverage focuses on electability – which candidate helps Biden lock down various states or demographic groups to win in the fall. That effect is probably not zero but it’s small. Some of it focuses on the VP’s policy impact. That’s possibly relevant, and Biden strikes me as a relatively collaborative leader, but one doesn’t need to be VP to be influential on the president. A pivotal or outspoken senator can be just as influential, even more so; a VP can be ignored.

VP is far more important symbolically, in terms of the coalitions and demographic groups that comprise a party.

JRA: I think that's exactly right, and why William Adler and I are writing a book about VP choices and party politics.

SM: So relevant to this, it would seem wise for Biden to pick a running mate somewhat to his left, given that he is on the conservative side of a significant ideological divide in the party.

JRA: Right. And suddenly the choices narrow if his running mate needs to be progressive, a woman and ideally a person of color. That leaves a number of good candidates, don't get me wrong - but it does narrow the selection process.

I want to say 2 things about those features:

1. One question that Adler and I pose in our research is whether it makes sense to think about the ideological balancing game in terms of categories - eg dividing politicians into liberal, moderate, conservative, or to think about ideology as CONTINUOUS - such that Biden's rm wouldn't necessarily need to be a doctrinaire progressive but just pull the ticket in that direction.

2. The race/ethnicity thing is a pretty difficult question. On the one hand, it's not clear that having a person from a specific group is going to address Biden's, or the party's, or the Obama administration's shortcomings on immigration or racial inequities. On the other, having an all-white ticket seems like a blunder.

SM: On point 1, I think this is a good question. I can think of several candidates who would pull the ticket somewhat to the left. But in terms of coalitions, does the candidate have to be just to Biden's left, or does she have to be in Bernie Sanders' faction? (That would be more a dichotomous variable if the latter.) Kamala Harris has a range of policy stances, and she's pretty definitely to Biden's left. But if she were named, would that keep some Sanders people voting for Biden who otherwise wouldn't?

JRA: Right. That seems unlikely to me that Harris would help in this particular way. We're also talking as if these effects are real and distinguishable from zero and that's not entirely clear. But I do think these signals matter.

And if the election looks to be close, everything will matter. I think this seems less likely than it did a few months ago, but not outside the realm of possibility, I guess.

And Bernie Sanders' faction is pretty small (if not .... just Bernie Sanders.) There are lots of progressives who wanted to see a candidate further left than Biden. But I think the Sanders core movement identifies itself in a very specific way.

SM: On that last point... how useful is it to try to appeal to Sanders' faction? There are certainly some of Sanders' supporters who have made it clear they're uninterested in a Biden candidacy (although quite a few others, including some very prominent people in the Sanders campaign, are working with Biden now). Could Biden actually win some of them back by naming, I don't know, Nina Turner as his running mate? Or Susan Sarandon? Would it even be worth it? (I'm kind of kidding about Sarandon.)

JRA: I have my doubts that this matters much to people on the left who are clearly taking a stance against Biden, but I think a more progressive running mate could (maybe) be the difference between a former Warren supporter making calls for Biden or not.

Or canvassing or whatever.

I think the people you're thinking of have made up their minds, Susan Sarandon or no.

SM: Sounds right. Should we discuss the Reade allegations at this point?

JRA: Yeah, let's do that.

SM: In our chats and elsewhere, I've defended Biden as a good choice for nominee, satisfying a number of coalitional demands and being seen as "electable" in a year when that was an overwhelming priority. But obviously, the party didn't want to find itself in the position of addressing allegations of sexual assault by its de facto nominee right now.

Two things in particular stand out about this to me:

This was not really a point of discussion during the invisible primary. Yes, maybe a few folks brought up Biden being "handsy," but from the interviews I did for my book and from other discussions I've followed, this was not paid attention to as a story. And while some concerns were raised about Biden, this was not among them.

Prominent women within the Democratic coalition - Pelosi, Abrams, Gillibrand, Hillary Clinton, et al. - have publicly endorsed Biden even since these allegations got written up in the NYT and the WaPo. Abrams and Gillibrand, in particular, have specifically called the allegations baloney. We've seen in the past that it's possible for prominent Democratic women to push someone to step down over allegations like this, but they're not doing that, and indeed they're moving in the other direction.

JRA: These things are both important and I don't know what to do with them. I wish there were more reliable data to assess this, but anecdotally on social media and such, I am finding the reactions to fall along motivated reasoning/political lines to some degree. Those who were inclined to support or at least be ok with Biden are satisfied with the prominent endorsements from Democratic women, less inclined to believe the allegations. Republicans and leftists are more inclined to believe them.


SM: Exactly so.

JRA: Regarding 2, I find Gillibrand's decision somewhat compelling given her history and convictions, but I'm also reminded of what the Democratic party was like in the Clinton years. Lots of women, including prominent feminists, came to Clinton’s defense and downplayed the abuse of power element of his affair with a much younger White House intern.

Regarding 1, I mostly just find it very strange that if this happened and people had some inkling of it, no one was willing or able to do something about it - encourage Biden not to run, consolidate around someone else, etc. I mean, if that's true, then parties are even weaker than I thought. And the idea that this happened and no one had any clue about it seems even less plausible.

I'm not sure where that leaves us.

SM: On your last point there, to the extent party insiders gave it any thought at all, I can only assume they made some calculation like, "I don't think this is real, and Trump and his allies will make up something horrible about our nominee no matter who it is, so let's just go with who we want." But again, I don't think they really gave it much thought or even knew about it.

JRA: I know you spent time with them and so maybe it makes better sense to you but there's like no theory of the party end of it that makes sense to me.

SM: This doesn't speak particularly well for party strength, I'll grant. I could imagine people within the party assuming that Biden had been pretty thoroughly vetted after two previous runs and eight years as VP.

JRA: That's fair. And the Obama team probably did a thorough vetting (though they had some early nomination issues with their vetting, like Tom Daschle).

SM: I think this also ties into what we were discussing earlier -- these allegations probably don't substantially affect the general election. But they damage the party coalition and slight a significant part of that coalition on an issue of tremendous salience.

And, as I think we discussed in our last chat, this will be the main part of the VP nominee's job -- reassuring Democratic women voters and rebutting allegations.

JRA: Yeah. And that starts to look a lot like bringing in a woman, possibly a woman of color, to clean up another mess.

SM: Somewhat of a side note -- I remain surprised that Trump hasn't brought this up yet. He might think that this is more damaging to Biden if other Democrats are making the accusations, and that's true, but that also assumes a level of message discipline I don't think Trump is capable of.

JRA: And it's not entirely obvious to me that any of this changes whether the allegations are true, which is perhaps the most damning thing in the whole mess. At least as far as the political system is concerned. I think the Bill Clinton-related message muddling was probably effective in 2016, even if that's an unpopular view.

SM: Correct. And chances are we'll never know for certain. There will be no courtroom confessions after which we can all live happily ever after.

JRA: Words for the era.

Well this has been a sufficiently fucking depressing chat.

SM: Well, on the bright side, we went an hour without talking about the pandemic.

JRA: Fair! Any final thoughts?

SM: A strong party would have taken these allegations seriously early on. And I also think this party would have taken these allegations seriously early on if they'd even known about them. But a strong party would have also known about them.


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