Monday, July 13, 2020

Joe Biden, Racial Identity Politics, and the Vice Presidential Nominee

Now that Joe Biden has wrapped up the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, everyone is wondering whom he will pick as the Vice Presidential nominee.  Race and gender representation are playing a key role in his decision-making.  The 2020 Democratic primary showcased the excellence of women and people color in politics, and many were disappointed that a 77-year old White male became the Presidential nominee.  Recognizing this, Biden has already committed to choosing a woman running mate, but he still faces difficult choices.  Among the finalists are Black, White, Latina, and Asian American candidates, all of whom are superb.  Biden must weigh a number of different factors: political experience, personal characteristics, and various ideological, geographic, and demographic considerations.  And he may also have to decide between two competing interests: repaying loyal supporters and broadening his appeal to others.

Biden’s most loyal constituency has been African Americans—particularly elderly Black voters.  They have consistently backed Biden by large margins, despite his racial gaffes, and in spite of questions about his record on busing, crime, and other issues.  Biden remained the frontrunner throughout 2019 mainly because of Black support.  His campaign seemed to falter in early 2020, after he finished poorly in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary—where there were few Black voters.  Then, after an endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn, Biden made a spectacular comeback in South Carolina—largely on the strength of Black voters.  This was followed by resounding victories in the Super Tuesday (March 3) and mini-Super Tuesday (March 10) primaries, where Biden again won the Black vote handily.  In those later primaries, he also drew significant support from White and Latina/o voters.  But undoubtedly, Black voters propelled Biden to the nomination.

Beyond Biden, Black voters are the backbone of the Democratic Party.  In recent presidential elections, Democratic candidates have received about 90 percent of the Black vote.  But many Black Americans believe the Democratic Party has not really earned these votes.  While Barack Obama’s historic presidential runs in 2008 and 2012 generated enthusiasm, Black voter turnout was down in the 2016 Presidential election, contributing to Hillary Clinton’s loss.  And Biden still needs to do more to reach younger Black voters.

Biden recognizes that he must not take the Black vote for granted.  Throughout his campaign, he has emphasized his connection to Obama.  He has proposed the comprehensive Lift Every Voice plan for Black America, referencing the Black national anthem in its title.  He has committed to appointing the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Biden has also made racial justice and inequalities a theme in his campaign speeches—even more so since the tragic killing of George Floyd and the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protests that ensued.  In the wake of these protests and the calls for racial justice that they sparked, many analysts believe that Biden will choose a Black woman as his running mate.

Several Black women are major VP contenders.  California Senator Kamala Harris is the most mentioned name.  She was atop the list even before she ended her own presidential bid.  Another Californian, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, has also gotten some attention.  Bass is also former Speaker of the California State Assembly—the first Black woman to lead any state legislative body.  Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice has stellar credentials, particularly in foreign affairs.  She is a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in International Relations.  None of them come from a competitive state that could expand the Democrats’ electoral map—although it is debatable whether a VP pick helps for winning more states.  If it does help, winning Georgia would be a huge boon, and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and state legislator Stacey Abrams—a Yale Law School graduate—has not been coy about seeking the nomination.  Abrams is a particularly dynamic speaker.  Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms could also help Democrats win Georgia.  And even more important to Democrats is Florida, home of U.S. Rep. Val Demings.  Demings was once a police officer and provides a unique perspective for current conversations about police reform.  So there is a diverse range of good candidates just among Black women.  

Other analysts believe that Biden needs to secure votes from the left wing of the Democratic Party.  During her primary campaign, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren generated enthusiasm among young progressives—a group that Biden has struggled with.  By choosing Warren, Biden’s candidacy could draw left-leaning voters who otherwise might not turn out or might vote for a third party candidate.  Warren also has some support among Black voters.

However, Biden might prioritize winning swing voters who went for Trump in 2016.  Each voter that Biden takes away from Trump counts twice: plus one for Biden and minus one for Trump.  And since very few progressives or Black Americans voted for Trump in 2016, Biden would have to look elsewhere to flip Trump voters and gain this double advantage. 

He could try to appeal to White center-right voters in Midwestern battleground states, perhaps by selecting Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.  At one point, she appeared to be high on the list.  But although Whitmer gained exposure through battling Trump over COVID-19 shutdowns, she has faded in the VP conversation.  Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was also once among the leading contenders: she became known through her primary campaign was particularly appealing to moderate Democrats.  However, Klobuchar withdrew from contention last month and said that Biden should choose a woman of colorDemocrats—and interestingly White Democrats even more so than Black Democrats—have echoed this call.

Besides the Black candidates, there are two other women of color on Biden’s short list: Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who is Asian (Thai) American; and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is Latina. [1]  Choosing either of them would break new ground: there has never been an Asian American or Latina/o major party nominee for President or Vice President.

Senator Duckworth has gotten media attention lately, after Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson questioned her patriotism.  Asian Americans are a smaller constituency than Black or Latina/o Americans and are concentrated in solidly Democratic states such as New York, California, and Hawaii.  Nevertheless, Duckworth has a compelling personal story.  She is a combat veteran who lost both of her legs in the Iraq War.  She has worked in both the Illinois and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and could help with much-needed Democratic outreach to veterans—a group that includes13 percent of the voting population.  Duckworth also served in the House of Representatives, and she has a close relationship with the Bidens

But the most intriguing candidate for me is Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.  Compared to the other candidates, she has not gotten much attention, and outside of New Mexico, few people know her record.  But Lujan Grisham already made history as the first Democratic Latina Governor in the U.S. [2] Moreover, nearly 30 percent of Latina/os voted for Trump in 2016, and Biden is underperforming among Latina/os.  If Lujan Grisham could appeal to Latina/o swing voters in Arizona and Texas, Democrats would benefit immensely. [3]

Lujan Grisham would bring a variety of executive, administrative, and legislative experiences to the ticket.  As former Secretary of Health for New Mexico, she has a nuanced understanding of health care and social services—which may be particularly useful as America grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.  She served as a U.S. Representative from 2012 to 2018, where she was Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and dealt with the range of domestic and foreign policy issues.  Lujan Grisham’s dynamic presence would also complement Biden’s low-key manner: she is an engaging public speaker who comes across as knowledgeable, energetic, and passionate. 

As Governor, Lujan Grisham has demonstrated her leadership capacities and her ability to unify the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party.  During her first year, she signed progressive legislation on renewable energy, gun safety, labor rights, and minimum wagesLujan Grisham has a 59 percent approval rating as Governor.  She has received national praise for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Mexico.  Such leadership is important to Biden: he has emphasized that he wants a VP who is “ready to be President on day one.” 

All of the VP candidates could make good leaders and have the potential to run for President.  But contrary to popular belief, the Vice Presidency has not historically been a great stepping stone to the Presidency.  More often than not, voters want a change from past administrations.  In the last 60 years, only one of four sitting VPs who ran for President was successful: George H.W. Bush in 1988.  The other three lost: Richard Nixon in 1960; Hubert Humphrey in 1968; and Al Gore in 2000.  Nixon did win the Presidency in 1968, eight years after leaving the VP office—but he actually defeated the sitting VP, Humphrey.  Walter Mondale also lost in 1984, four years after leaving the Vice Presidency.  Gerald Ford, who was initially VP and became President after Nixon’s resignation, lost as an incumbent to Jimmy Carter.  And even George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992.  Overall, since 1960, sitting or former Vice Presidents have lost six of nine presidential elections.  Biden is trying to be the exception rather than the rule. 

The Vice Presidency does bring name recognition and status within one’s own party, which can provide an initial springboard.  Sitting or former VPs have been quite successful in gaining their own party’s nomination, as we see with Biden himself.  Visibility is even more important for women and people of color, who face greater barriers in the process.  But what may be an advantage for winning a party’s nomination can be a disadvantage in the general election.  And there are other effective pathways to the White House—six of the last seven Presidents never served as Vice President.

For all of the media attention given to Biden’s VP choice, his promise to appoint the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court would have a more lasting impact.  The biggest long-term political obstacle for progressives is not the Presidency or Congress, both of which change hands fairly regularly, but rather the composition of the Supreme Court.  Supreme Court Justices serve for life, and if Biden picks a Black woman in her 40s, she could be on the Court until 2060.  Trump’s appointments have moved the entire federal judiciary in a decidedly conservative direction, endangering progressive policies such as affirmative action and a woman’s right to choose.  Recapturing the federal courts, beginning with Biden’s first Supreme Court appointment, should be progressives’ number one priority. 

Nevertheless, the Vice Presidential nomination is Democrats’ most immediate concern.  Although Biden has to make a difficult decision, he does have a slew of excellent candidates to choose from.  Women and people of color have made their mark on the 2020 presidential campaign.  We see this not only through the diverse range of candidates, but also through the unprecedented attention given to race and gender issues by all of them.  Regardless of who Biden chooses, this campaign season has changed America’s political landscape for the better.


[1] Another Latina, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, was also a contender but withdrew from consideration in May.

[2] Susanna Martinez, a Republican who was also Governor of New Mexico from 2011 to 2019, was the first Latina Governor in the U.S.

[3]  Florida also has a large Latina/o population, although many are of Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Central American ancestry—having a different political history and identity than Latina/os in the Southwest and West coast.

Acknowledgment: I thank Kemi Martin for her insightful feedback on this blog post.

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