Kamala Harris has an edge in the Veepstakes, according to political science research

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The 2020 Democratic “Veepstakes” is now officially underway. Given that Biden often refers to himself as a “transitional” candidate, his choice of vice president is all the more important given that his running mate will be seen by many as the “heir apparent” to succeed him as president a stronger degree than is normally the case. Also, if elected Joe Biden will be the oldest president ever to assume office and Social Security actuarial tables say that he has roughly a 1 in 4 chance of not making it to the end of his first term in office (so to speak) which may affect his decision to run for a second term in office. So who will Biden choose as his running mate?

Political scientist Jody Baumgartner has studied the vice presidency selection process at length. Looking at veep choices since 1960, he found that there are five key factors that tend to predict who “wins the Veepstakes” from the initial shortlists for both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates alike:

  1. High media exposure: all other things being equal, those who are more prominent and visible in the media for a year or more before the nominating conventions tend to be tapped as a running mate.
  2. Previous experience in the federal government by way of the Senate, House of Representatives, or other federal-level appointment.
  3. Military experience tends to give potential candidates a boost.
  4. Age: all other things being equal, younger veep candidates tend to have an edge over older candidates.
  5. Gender/racial/ethnic balance: if the presidential nominee is a white male of northwestern European ancestry, veep candidates who are not one of those three things tend to have an edge (and vice versa).

All together, Baumgartner found that these five factors reliably predicted vice presidential selections about 70% of the time from 1960-2016.

What is surprising from Baumgartner’s analysis is what does not tend to consistently predict someone getting the vice presidential pick, given how often these factors are brought up by media pundits: candidates who will provide geographic balance or are from a what is considered to be a “swing state” in hopes of delivering the state’s electoral votes. Similarly, veep nominees tend to come from smaller and larger states alike and are no more likely than not to have had state-level government experience (governor, state legislature, etc.). They also tend to be about as likely as not to be among the presidential nominee’s competitors in the primary, and the idea of “ideological balance” makes a different about as often as it doesn’t.

How does Biden’s shortlist this year stack up against these five key factors? I looked at the six shortlist candidates most frequently brought up over the past month: Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Val Demings, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and former state Rep. Stacey Abrams.

 

Harris Klobuchar Warren Demings Whitmer Abrams
New York Times mentions 01/01/2019-05/29/2020 1583 1415 3574 241 347 244
Prior service in Senate/House/other federal appt Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Military experience? No No No No No No
Age 55 60 70 63 48 46
Gender balance? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Racial/ethnic balance? Yes No(?) No(?) Yes No Yes

 

Biden has pledged that his vice president will be a woman and none of the leading candidates have military experience, so all six candidates are equal on those two factors.

Stacey Abrams has a clear edge when it comes to her age and adding racial/ethnic balance to the ticket but has no federal government service experience and relatively low media visibility compared to some of the other candidates.

Gretchen Whitmer’s only key advantage (in terms of Baumgartner’s factors described above) is that she is younger than most of the other candidates, but also lacks federal government service and does not add racial/ethnic balance to the ticket.

Val Demings has an edge when it comes to adding racial/ethnic balance to the ticket and she has previous federal government experience. She is also the least visible of the six candidates here, at least as measured by NYT media mentions.

Elizabeth Warren has a strong edge when it comes to visibility and prior federal government experience. Her DNA test showing some Native American ancestry notwithstanding, she is no longer emphasizing a non-white ancestry and so wouldn’t balance the ticket in that respect. She’s also older than the other five candidates by at least ten years.

Amy Klobuchar is about middle of the pack on these factors: she has previous federal government experience and is younger than some of the candidates but older than others as well. She has a high-ish level of media mentions/visibility. According to Baumgartner’s research, “racial/ethnic” balance is defined as not being of “northwest European” ancestry, so technically Klobuchar’s Slovenian ancestry would qualify, but similar to Elizabeth Warren, this is not something she is emphasizing and so likely would not boost her chances here.

On balance, Kamala Harris seems to fit Baumgartner’s veep selection model the best of these six candidates. She has relatively high visibility/media mentions, she has previous federal government experience, she’s a notch younger than the average age of the six candidates, and adds clear racial/ethnic balance to the ticket.

It’s interesting to note that the strongest candidates, according to Baumgartner’s model, are the same as are currently leading the betting markets: Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Comparing the two, Warren has the edge when it comes to visibility but Harris has the edge when it comes to age and racial/ethnic ticket balancing.

Given these considerations, I’d say that Harris has about a two-in-three chance of getting the nod as Joe Biden’s running mate this year, and perhaps even odds of being the  Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 given Joe Biden’s advancing age.

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