With the results out of the most recent Democratic Party primaries in America, it now looks all but certain that Joe Biden, former Senator and Vice President, will win the nomination after taking a commanding lead against Bernie Sanders.
With this out of the way, his campaign moves on to the next issue: winning the presidential election. However, that’s much easier said than done amid a host of issues facing the likely nominee, and the decisions he takes in the next few months, most notably who he picks as his Vice President, will be pivotal.
The Vice Presidential pick is important for a candidate – this person becomes one of the faces of their campaign, and therefore is a significant statement of intent as to the direction the candidate plans to take in the election.
It takes on even more importance here – if elected, Biden would become the oldest President to ever enter the role, and with questions surrounding Biden’s health and mental well-being becoming increasingly louder in recent weeks, this Vice President would be more likely than ever to have to step up to the Presidency itself, and will need to be more central to the campaign than ever before.
Biden is taking the reigns of a divided party. With a wide field of candidates having competed in the primary, Biden does not command the loyalty of all Democrats yet. As a right-wing Democrat, Biden faces having to win over the revitalised American left that opposes him on a variety of issues, key among them being Biden’s opposition to universal healthcare and serious action on climate change, and that calls into question his record over his previous opposition to desegregation measures and support for the Iraq War.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was able to keep the votes of 75% of Bernie Sanders’ primary supporters, but Biden will have a tough time keeping this many; the position of the American left has hardened since then, with many seeing Biden as too conservative.
There is therefore a strong temptation for Biden to make concessions to his left, as Clinton refused to do, in order to convince this voting bloc to vote for him rather than stay at home or vote third party, and a Vice President from the left of the party could be a key part of this, signalling that all parts of the party will be represented in the new administration.
There is also a temptation, however, to move in the opposite direction. A key part of Biden’s pitch to Democrats was that he is well suited to win over more moderate Republican voters who are unhappy with Trump; primarily the more middle-class group who dislike Trump’s perceived disrespect for his office and desire a return to ‘business as usual’.
Whether these voters will back Biden is uncertain, though, as many Republicans who denounced Trump throughout the 2016 primary still showed up to vote for him in the end. It may therefore be the case that Biden needs to pick someone to his right; this would be anathema to those on the party’s left, but may allow Biden to consolidate the centre ground of American politics and win that way.
It’s a more conventional strategy for American politics, and has the benefit of not upsetting many of Biden’s millionaire and corporate backers. Biden has even indicated that he is open to this kind of move, stating last December that he would consider choosing a Republican as a running mate.
So who should he pick? There are convincing arguments to be made for both of these cases, but I think that there’s a stronger one for the former, and it comes down to the electoral map.
Along with the aforementioned middle-class Trump backers, there is also a more working-class group who are dissatisfied with his economic record. This group is one of the most significant voting contingents in the 2020 election, as they were the most significant group to swing away from Obama and towards Trump in 2016, handing him key states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.
With the fact that under the American system the most votes in a state takes the entire state, the geographical concentration of these voters means that winning them back is a much more efficient way of delivering the electoral college votes that the Democrats need to win. These voters still find themselves in a financially precarious position despite Trump’s promises to the contrary; picking a left-wing Vice President that pushes Biden towards promising a higher minimum wage and a job-creating programme under the Green New Deal drawn up by progressive Democrats could be crucial in securing their votes.
In contrast, picking a right-wing Vice President offers them nothing – in this scenario, they’d likely be just as poorly off under Biden as under Trump, and have no incentive to switch. Additionally, the moderate Republicans that Biden would be courting with a right-wing VP are much less geographically concentrated, meaning that although they may translate to more votes there’s no guarantee that they’d translate to more states.
In the end, though, I think he’ll do neither. Moderate Democrats like him have learned remarkably little from Clinton’s failure, preferring to blame their defeat in 2016 on Russian interference rather than a bland policy offering that didn’t address the issues facing the American people.
With this, and the fact that Biden’s campaign team has many figures in common with Clinton’s, I think he’ll make the same mistake she made in choosing someone ideologically similar to him, and believe that he can win this year without moving too far in either direction. Whether he can or not remains to be seen as the American election rumbles on.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr