22 Mar 19
Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Thursday, political Twitter was abuzz with the news that former Vice President Joe Biden (a still undecided 2020 Democratic contender) was considering launching his campaign with Stacey Abrams, a rising star in the Democratic Party who narrowly lost Georgia’s governor race last year, as his vice president pick.
The news has both been criticized as a tokenization of Abrams and celebrated as a strategic move for maybe both of them, but what do we make of it?
And setting aside some of the thorny issues this raises for Biden, how common is it to launch a presidential campaign with a vice president already picked?
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I don’t recall an obvious precedent for this. In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz said he would make Carly Fiorina his vice presidential pick if he won the GOP nomination, but that was a last-ditch move in April 2016 when it was clear he was going to lose the Republican primary.
julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Not common.
But maybe this is a case where the norm — picking your VP later in the presidential season — isn’t necessarily the most logical practice. Under current norms announcing a VP so early looks like a desperate ploy for media attention (and not an unsuccessful one), but it also raises an interesting question: Why not pick a VP early so that voters have time to make a more informed decision? Political scientist William Adler has written on the perils of picking a running mate early, but maybe that is a norm that should change.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Yeah, the “desperate ploy” thing seems a little circular to me. It’s a desperate ploy because the media decides it’s a desperate ploy? There’s not really any objective basis for that statement, though, insofar as I can tell.
It’s an unusual ploy, though, which means it’s hard to characterize when candidates have used it, since it’s so rarely been tried.
For Cruz, it was a desperate ploy, I suppose, because his chances of winning the primary were quite small at that stage.
sarahf: Right, so because most campaigns aren’t launched with both a president and VP pick out the gate, what would incentivize Biden to do that even if it risks coming across as hamfisted?
natesilver: Well, one incentive is Stacey Abrams. I don’t think this is really a discussion if, I don’t know, Biden is running with California Rep. Eric Swalwell as his running mate or something. Abrams, on the other hand, is high-profile, talented, could be a very effective surrogate and could obviously help him with black voters.
I don’t know why she’d be eager to do it, though.
perry: There is a charitable way to view this. The Democratic Party in some ways is more a a coalition of groups than a movement based on ideology. It includes whites/non-whites, liberals/moderates, women/men, young/old in a way that the GOP does not. (Put another way, the GOP is more homogenous.) And a Democratic ticket is always a bit of an attempt to build a coalition. So Biden signaling early on that he respects the party’s younger, non-white, female and more liberal people is a good thing for him to do. And also, Biden was on a coalition ticket before and played the lesser role, while Barack Obama represented the non-white, younger part of the party. I don’t necessarily begrudge him for now wanting to be in the lead role.
julia_azari: One of the first things I saw this morning was about a one-term pledge associated with the Abrams idea. This sounds like it would be effective but has some … off-ramps in practice.
sarahf: I understand the advantage this poses for Biden, but why Abrams would prefer this to launching her own campaign (maybe she’s concerned the field is too large) or running for the Senate in Georgia (Georgia is still a very red state) is less clear to me.
perry: Would Abrams consider being Biden’s VP if he was the nominee in June 2020?
Yes. So in some ways, we are just moving up the timetable. It seems like she wants to be president, and this is a pretty direct way to get there.
natesilver: Well, maybe. But shouldn’t she preserve the option of being someone else’s VP? Or more to the point … running herself?
sarahf: Right, like if I’m Abrams, why not shop around for another ticket if being VP is an attractive next stop for me.
Why commit now? What does she have to gain?
perry: But is Biden actually saying that they are running on a joint ticket from Day 1? Or is he saying that he will pick Abrams no matter what, unless she is otherwise occupied?
If it’s the latter, then on some level, Abrams is a free agent, except for not running for the Senate in 2020.
Biden met with Abrams last week, but at least according to Abrams’s camp, Biden did not formally request to run on the same ticket. Lest we forget, people close to Biden floated something like this with Elizabeth Warren in 2015.
So I get the sense people close to Biden, if not Biden himself, are trying to figure out how to present him in a way that acknowledges that that the party is no longer one of old white guys, even as Biden is an older white man.
julia_azari: The vice presidency is a weird place for a rising star — former House speaker Paul Ryan (and the other half of the Romney-Ryan presidential ticket in 2012) was somewhat unusual in that regard. In modern politics, the VP nominee has often been either someone plucked out of more obscurity (such as Sarah Palin) or someone who has already retired from Congress.
natesilver: And Abrams has quite a bit to lose by committing to Biden, I think. If Biden flops — and there’s a 75 to 80 percent chance he won’t be the nominee, per prediction markets — she could wind up being this weird footnote in a Fiorina kind of way.
perry: But announcing a presidential ticket early could be a good idea. What if Warren or Kamala Harris or Beto O’Rourke or Bernie Sanders came out with a running mate too? That’s not the worst idea, to me.
It would give voters (and me) a sense for how they’re trying to balance the different parts of the Democratic Party.
julia_azari: Yeah, that was my point earlier. It’s not a bad idea on the merits, but because Biden has taken some stances that have negatively impacted black Americans, it sends weird signals in context.
But also everything is weird this year.
perry: Right, the reason this is getting covered as a bit token-ish is, of course, because of Biden’s past. A spokesman earlier this month said that Biden still believed his stance of opposing busing was right. This is also the man who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversaw Anita Hill’s testimony in the early 1990s.
natesilver: Yeah. Look, right now there are three white guys who are leading candidates (Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden) and a couple of others who have an outside chance to win. Any of those white guys could find Abrams to be a rather intriguing choice, for racial/gender balancing and for other reasons. A Beto/Abrams ticket could be sort of the modern equivalent of Clinton/Gore, for instance, doubling down on a young ticket of “outsiders.”
Bernie/Abrams is kind of an interesting ticket, too, especially since he hasn’t always done great with African-American voters. So why lock yourself into Biden?
julia_azari: Yeah, but why lock yourself into being a VP at all?
sarahf: I guess because you and your advisors think Biden has a reasonable chance of winning so why pass at the chance?
perry: Abrams has to figure out: Would Biden actually listen to her? Does he respect her? Or is this just him picking a black person who’s also a woman and a younger person as window dressing?
julia_azari: The role of VP has a lot of ambiguity.
You can be a serious governing partner or you can go to state funerals that the president doesn’t want to attend.
And it can be hard to carve out your own political identity afterward. Just ask Presidents Al Gore and Hubert Humphrey. 😉
sarahf: To the earlier point about why we’re having this conversation … say it was Sanders and not Biden, do you think the reactions would be similar here?
natesilver: I’m not convinced that the reactions are Biden-specific. Maybe there’s more salience to Biden’s VP pick because he’s old and/or will potentially take a one-term pledge. But mostly it’s just very unusual to pick a VP in advance and that’s why it’s being scrutinized.
perry: Sanders has been somewhat clumsy in how he talks about race so I think the question of tokenism would be just as strong with him. That said, it would have the same advantages for Sanders — he would be reaching out to part of the party that he is not a part of.
natesilver: By the way — it’d also be a different situation if, like, we’re in November/December, Biden is now up to 36 percent in the polls, seems pretty likely to be the nominee, is running a much stronger campaign than in 1988/2008, and thinks Abrams could put him over the top. That makes a lot more sense for her, and maybe for him, too.
perry: She would also have a sense of what kind of campaign Biden is running.
Abrams has specific issues (namely voting rights) that she has been very passionate about that don’t fit neatly with the what I assume will be Biden’s approach: projecting bipartisanship and an appeal to Obama-Trump voters in the Midwest. Abrams would probably want to make sure Biden’s campaign would appreciate her speaking to those issues first.
That said, Biden has pretty high favorability with black voters, so I don’t know if he needs Abrams.
But OK, we agree that this is not great for Abrams, but probably is for Biden (if she said yes)?
sarahf: I’m not sure how Biden loses in this. It’s a question of what Abrams wants to do and if it’s smart for her.
natesilver: Keep in mind that Biden, again, has only a 20-25 percent chance to win (per prediction markets). That’s pretty unlikely. So it makes sense for him to take risks!
perry: So is this good for the Democratic Party if it happens?
The other candidates?
julia_azari: Well, it’s possible that all the candidates will pick running mates and then we’ll have 40+ people in the mix.
sarahf: Just think, we could launch a separate “theory of the case” series on VP picks!
julia_azari: I would contribute to that series.
natesilver: I think there might be a world in which there’s a shift in norms from naming the VP only after you’ve clinched the nomination. You do it at some point earlier in the process. I think that might serve the best interests of voters; depending on when the VP was announced, some voters would know in advance who the VP was instead of having to guess.
julia_azari: Yeah, I think that’s right, and these norms have shifted recently. I think John Kerry started the current norm of announcing a VP pick a bit before the convention.
natesilver: But does this particular instance make sense or advance the interests of the Democratic Party? I’m not sure. I don’t like the idea that — to be honest — Beto gets to run his own campaign, but Abrams (who has similar credentials in many respects) has to be the No. 2 to a different white guy.
That said, there’s one other issue we haven’t focused on much, which is that leaving the VP slot open could give you a lot of leverage in the event of a contested convention.
Or rather, filling it in advance could cost you that leverage.
julia_azari: Ooh the contested convention dream! (Please this time …)
Like, what happens if Biden has 40 percent of the delegates and — I don’t know — Julian Castro is in second place with 30 percent. Castro agrees to encourage his delegates to vote for Biden if he gets Biden’s VP spot, but Biden has to kick Abrams off the ticket first? How’s that work?
sarahf: It doesn’t.
julia_azari: It could even pose an issue in the less formal winnowing process between now and the convention.
perry: I don’t know if Biden is being presumptive (and acting like he is the frontrunner) or not. If he is assuming Abrams is not running for president or is not a strong candidate who could be polling ahead of him in a month, it is presumptive in that sense.
But I actually think this is a sign of Biden’s weakness as a candidate that he wants to get a younger, perhaps more dynamic figure running with him. And if I’m one of the other candidates, I might be happy that Biden and his advisers are already kind of nervous about being the older white man in the primary and feel like they need to add some juice.
natesilver: I suppose I’d posit a subtle distinction between being a sign of weakness and looking desperate.
Like, it can be Biden acknowledging that he has some challenges, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would look bad to voters.
But again,if Abrams is such a strong candidate that she’d move the needle all by herself as a VP — and maybe she is — shouldn’t she run for the top of the ticket instead?
julia_azari: Biden picking Abrams at the normal time is acknowledging that he has some challenges. But IMO making a pick this early has a whiff of desperation and seeking attention.
But I have become a broken record or whatever the kids who don’t know what records are say now.
natesilver: People listen to CD’s now, Julia — not records.
julia_azari: Thank you, Nate, for the update to 1997.
natesilver: Beto and Abrams both performed very well as compared to the usual baselines in 2018, both in terms of coming so close to winning in a red state and getting a huge turnout. And I think Beto has had a good debut, all things considered. So Abrams should think about running too!
perry: I have in my head that there is only room for one black person to run and do well. That may be true, but the Democratic Party is about 20 percent black — so three black candidates in a field of 15-20 is fine.
And Abrams does have something special. She ran in 2018 and did really well, gaining a national following. She is a Southern black woman with a very distinctive narrative — she would be unique to this current field of candidates.
natesilver: Yeah, it’s hard to put my finger on, but I think she has a pretty different constituency than Harris and Booker. I’m not quite sure what Booker’s constituency is, by the way — I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that he’s one of the campaigns that could go in a lot of different directions.
julia_azari: She’s more outsider-y.
If anyone can come up with a better word for outsider-y please help.
perry: At the same time, Abrams will have to deal with the Democratic voters-as-pundits/electability experts asking “Can she win white voters in the Midwest?”, which is problem many of the female candidates face. Also, Abrams has maybe a 45 or 48 percent chance of being a senator?
That’s pretty good. She might think the Senate is boring, but it’s still a national platform.
natesilver: I’d say lower than that. Georgia is still a red state, albeit verging on purple, and she’s running against an incumbent, albeit not an especially scary incumbent.
One thing I would say: The candidates with relatively nontraditional credentials (Pete Buttigieg, Beto, even Andrew Yang!) seem to be doing fairly well so far. And that works for Abrams too, potentially.
julia_azari: This is a problem throughout the Democratic field, no? People from states that are still pretty red don’t have other pathways to advancement (I’m thinking Buttigieg, Beto and Julian Castro).
natesilver: Yeah, in a world where 75 percent of states are super polarized, you aren’t going to have a lot of Democratic senators/governors in red states, or a lot of Republican ones in blue states.
And the ones you do get are going to be the Charlie Baker/Joe Manchin types who are probably too centrist to run for their party’s presidential nominations.
So I do think you have to give credit to candidates who come close to winning office in these states, or who hold some lesser office.
julia_azari: Right. So geographic polarization has helped expand presidential fields, maybe?
natesilver: I do think that’s a trend. Voters and the media can vet over the next 15 months whether, say, Buttiigeg has the requisite experience and skills to become president. But I don’t think that he should be preemptively disqualified because obtaining higher office in his home state would be difficult.
sarahf: Which could make a national office like the presidency or vice presidency extra attractive. It’s just a matter of what Abrams’s decides to do. Speaking of which, how should Abrams treat this?
perry: I would be very surprised if Abrams committed to being Biden’s running mate this early.
He will face plenty of pressure to pick a woman and person of color if he is the nominee.
So Harris and Abrams, if they are not the nominee themselves, will be high on his list no matter what.
natesilver: It’s hard for me to imagine that Abrams lands in a spot where she’s willing to commit to running for VP, but not running for president.