Biden’s Choice: Selecting the most consequential Vice-President in US history

July 31st 2020 - 11:58

As the race for the White House heats up, former Vice President Joe Biden is set to make one of the most crucial choices in his campaign: his vice president. In an election year filled with consequential decisions, this might be the most important one. With the US facing a myriad of challenges, both foreign and domestic, the Office of Vice President is set to be a pivotal cog in a Biden administration. Will Biden pick a VP that can travel the world trying to restore America’s image abroad? Or will Biden focus on foreign policy himself and leave the domestic heavy lifting to his running mate? Either way, whoever is chosen by Joe Biden is likely to be one of the most powerful vice presidents in US history and it will have ramifications far beyond the 2020 election.

So how is this kind of decision made? There are three different questions to consider:

  • How ready is this person to become president?
  • Is there a good working relation?
  • How do the politics play out?

The Vice Presidency is often described as being ‘a heartbeat away’ from the presidency. No less than 8 vice presidents have become POTUS upon the death of the president, among them some of the most consequential in history, including Johnson and Truman. If the 78-year-old Biden takes office on January 20th, 2021, he would be the oldest president ever inaugurated. While the Biden campaign has not officially acknowledged it, there is the widespread perception that he will be a one term president. This could be because he does not finish his term, or because he will not stand for reelection in 2024. This means that Biden’s VP is either the assumed front runner for the Democratic nomination or the actual president by 2024. Biden is not only picking a running mate, but a potential president in waiting. Readiness to assume the Office of the President is therefore the number one concern in selecting a running mate and has been explicitly stated so by Biden himself.

The second consideration is whether the candidates get along and have similar worldviews. The power of the executive branch has grown dramatically in the modern era, and the VP is often involved in some of the most critical decision making. The relation can vary from a close confident and advisor to a semi-autonomous office within the White House. A good working relationship and convergence on how they want to approach issues is therefore a strong factor in selection. Modern vice presidents tend to hold their own policy portfolios and have considerable influence. Dick Cheney had an instrumental role in the response to 9/11, Joe Biden was tasked with dealing with Afghanistan, and Mike Pence has been designated as the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Given the considerable turmoil the US finds itself in, it is likely that Biden’s vice president would hold a large policy portfolio with considerable autonomy. Trust, synergy, and a good working relation are crucial for this.

Finally, there is the politics of the selection. While this often gets the most attention, it is arguably the least important consideration. There is the common misconception that vice presidents are chosen to provide an electoral advantage to the ticket, for instance by picking a candidate from a swing state. Data indicates that this ‘home field’ advantage is not very strong and has even occasionally had a net negative effect. However, the VP selection is very important in shaping how voters perceive the ticket. In 2008 John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as the running mate, made voters less likely to vote for him. It fed into political optics that McCain had poor political judgement and that he had, as an old candidate himself, picked a potential successor that was unprepared to do the job. Similarly, Obama’s selection of Joe Biden was partly driven by Biden’s years of experience in the Senate and to offset the perception that Obama was too young and inexperienced.

The VP selection is important in what it says about the ability to make good decisions. This includes whether the VP meets the moment in terms of domestic social and political movements as well. For example, there is considerable pressure from the progressive left to pick a woman of color, given the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Another thing to consider is that when a VP is elected, they need to vacate whatever previous position they held. This means that a senator will have to give up their seat. Given the narrow balance of power in the Senate, this could potentially set off a competitive special election and tilt the Senate.

Fortunately for Joe Biden, there are plenty of strong women to choose from. Whoever he selects will be only the third woman to be nominated for vice presidency. She will be the most consequential nominee in modern history. And should Joe Biden win the White House from Trump in 2020, she will likely be a uniquely powerful vice president. As with everything this year, the stakes have never been higher.


Paul Verhagen is a data scientist at HCSS, and a domain expert on US presidential politics. He is co-author of the book Het Amerikaanse Presidentschap, which looks at the institution of the American presidency, and a frequent media commentator on US politics.

Photo credit: Phil Roeder

Paul Verhagen is a data scientist at HCSS, and holds a Master’s degree in Environment and Resource Management from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree at Amsterdam University College majoring in theoretical physics and philosophy. Paul has attended exchange programs in Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Prior to joining HCSS, Paul interned at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he worked on global cyber capacity.