It’s Time For Another 2020 Vice Presidential Draft

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): You may have thought that with former Vice President Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee our 2020 drafts were finally over. Well, no such luck. There’s still the question of whom Biden will pick as his vice president. We know thanks to his announcement at an earlier presidential debate that he plans to pick a female running mate, but that’s it.

So we’re back with a snake draft of whom Biden should pick for his VP. How it works is simple: Three rounds total, so between the three of us, nine potential 2020 Democratic veeps. And the draft line up is …

  1. Nathaniel
  2. Sarah
  3. Geoffrey

OK, you’re up, Nathaniel.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Ahhh, I wanted the second pick.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Hahaha, really?

nrakich: Yeah — I think there are two equally strong contenders for the first overall pick. But I will go for the more obvious one: Sen. Kamala Harris.

Harris obviously ran for president already, which means she’s been vetted. She has also long been considered a rising star in the party. Plus, she would make history as both the first African American and first Asian American vice president, and African American voters are probably a group that Biden should reach out to given that he won the nomination thanks largely to their support. And this goes without saying, but Democrats will want to try to get African American turnout in the general election closer to where it was for former President Barack Obama than where it was for Hillary Clinton.

There will inevitably be some “ooh, remember how they attacked each other in that first primary debate” chatter, but I think that moment is overblown. Harris was doing what she had to do to win. And both before and after that incident, Biden and Harris have reportedly gotten along quite well.

geoffrey.skelley: Some say the first rule of vice presidential selection is to “do no harm,” and Harris would probably fit that bill on a number of fronts. She’s been in the spotlight and vetted as a former presidential candidate, as Nathaniel said. In other words, she’d meet the “Ready on Day 1” test that I think is pretty key for Biden.

Additionally, California isn’t a swing state, but Harris’s Senate seat would likely remain in Democratic hands. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom would appoint her replacement and when her seat is up in 2022, Democrats would be very likely to hold onto it.

nrakich: Yeah, I think the home-state effect of vice-presidential candidates is slim to none. That’s going to inform a lot of my picks.

sarahf: In their veepstakes feature on Tuesday, Politico set up Biden’s VP decision as a choice between appealing to black voters and appealing to the progressive wing of the party. So if he were to select Harris — whom I agree does seem like a very solid pick for him — I guess that only checks one of those boxes. But arguably, it’s not really possible for Biden to check both boxes with one VP.

geoffrey.skelley: I think the Biden campaign would argue Harris gives them some of both — she is a cosponsor on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All legislation, for instance.

sarahf: That’s true, but I still think about how she infamously raised her hand in one of the early debates to say she supported Medicare for All, only to walk that back later.

nrakich: Yeah, one downside to Harris is that the progressive wing of the party doesn’t really trust her. (Think of the “Kamala is a cop” meme.) But I agree, it’s hard to appeal to both, and I think African Americans are the more important constituency for Biden.

sarahf: Well, and to the point you raised initially, Nathaniel, Biden won the nomination thanks in large part to black Democrats’ support — think South Carolina in particular — so it’s hard to not think that is a major consideration for Biden when weighing options.

But OK, I’m up. Ugh. At least I don’t have to go last in this draft.

geoffrey.skelley: Sigh.

sarahf: So I’m not totally sure I agree with my own pick, but if part of the optics around Biden’s VP pick requires appealing to black voters or progressive voters, I wonder if he can’t try and do both by picking Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

I know Sen. Elizabeth Warren would be a more natural, high-profile pick to represent the progressive wing of the party, especially considering she ran for president, and Pressley is only a one-term House representative, but I’d argue Pressley, like fellow Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, represents a new direction for the party, which I think is an important characteristic for Biden’s VP to have.

I suppose that Pressley’s lack of experience is what hurts her chances to be Biden’s running mate the most. Massachusetts isn’t exactly a swing state either.

nrakich: Bold pick! Although I have learned the hard way not to bet against Sarah in these drafts…

I think Pressley is an interesting choice, but ultimately, I think the lack of experience dooms her. Biden, at 77, is the oldest major-party presidential nominee ever. That means the top consideration for the Biden campaign should be picking someone who will be ready to become president on day one.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Pressley is fascinating, and it’s no coincidence that her name popped up in discussions about what might happen to Warren’s Senate seat if Warren had won the nomination (or maybe the vice presidency, still). But I agree with Nathaniel that Biden is unlikely to pick a one-term House member.

She’s a rising star, but maybe the 2020 election is just too near.

sarahf: The lack of experience definitely cuts against Pressley. But if Biden’s top VP considerations are appealing to black and progressive voters, I think it’s impressive she can check both boxes. I also thought she was a pretty effective endorser of Warren in the primary, but yeah, I admit that I’m not convinced this will actually happen.

OK, you’re up Geoffrey!!

geoffrey.skelley: Alright, I think my first pick is a bit predictable, but she would obviously fit in nicely with Biden’s political outlook: Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

nrakich: Oh, bad pick.

Maybe my alternative first choice will still be on the board after all…

geoffrey.skelley: She ran for president and has a long history of doing well in a purple state. Plus, she endorsed Biden right after dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary, so that may have also nicely positioned her for consideration.

And again, if the idea is to do no harm, she’s a fairly safe choice. But whereas I can see some progressives coming around to Harris, it’s harder to see that happening with Klobuchar.

Nevertheless, I think that after Harris, she’s probably the second-most-likely senator to get picked.

sarahf: That’s true, Geoffrey, I don’t see progressives warming up to Klobuchar like they might with Harris. In some ways, picking Klobuchar would be Biden doubling down on his base — i.e., appealing to more moderate voters, right?

Why do you say, bad pick, Nathaniel?

nrakich: I just don’t see what Klobuchar adds. She is incredibly redundant with Biden in terms of ideology and appeal to swing voters. Biden should try to pick someone who appeals to a different constituency.

geoffrey.skelley: There’s a chance Biden will view that redundancy as a good thing, though.

nrakich: I’m also not sure that Klobuchar wouldn’t do any harm … While I could see the left grumbling about, but ultimately accepting, Harris, I think they would be much more actively opposed to Klobuchar, who was always toward the center of the Democratic presidential field.

geoffrey.skelley: That’s fair, but at the same time, I suspect Klobuchar wouldn’t turn off some of the voters in the middle the way Harris might.

nrakich: Also, it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker in the same way it would be for some other potential VP picks (cough Tammy Baldwin cough), but if Klobuchar resigns from the Senate, her seat would go to a special election in November 2022, two years ahead of schedule, putting a Senate seat unnecessarily in danger.

geoffrey.skelley: But that’s a concern with almost every senator outside of Harris!

Democrats have a fairly deep bench in Minnesota, too, so that might not be that risky of a move.

nrakich: Hm, I disagree there. Other senators are on different schedules or hail from bluer states than Minnesota.

geoffrey.skelley: Out of the people likely to get picked, though?

Maybe Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

nrakich: Shhh, spoilers!

geoffrey.skelley: Lol, the Senate special election discussion could take up half the chat.

Anyway.

nrakich: Was that not the plan??

In all seriousness, though, it’s a very important factor in the veepstakes discussion. A President Biden would need every Democratic vote in the Senate he can muster to pass his agenda.

sarahf: That’s a good point, but OK — you’re up again, Geoffrey.

geoffrey.skelley: My next pick is Sen. Tammy Duckworth. The Illinois senator flies a little under the radar, but she’s got a fascinating background as an Asian American veteran who lost both her legs as a helicopter pilot fighting in Iraq. She’s also from a blue state, so her seat would be more likely to remain in Democratic hands (it’s up in 2022).

However, as 2010 showed, weird things can happen — the GOP captured this very same seat that year, formerly held by Obama, so it’s worth noting that Illinois isn’t California.

nrakich: Ah, dammit. Duckworth was my second choice. She would be a great pick, for all the reasons Geoffrey says.

geoffrey.skelley: She also gave birth while in office, the first senator to do so!

There’s just a lot to her story that I could see winning the Biden campaign over.

nrakich: Yeah, she has a great story to tell, on many different dimensions.

And her low national name recognition right now could be seen as a reason not to pick her, but it’s also an opportunity.

sarahf: Right, I mean it’s not like Sen. Tim Kaine had a huge national profile prior to when Clinton picked him in 2016.

nrakich: Yeah, I think people generally overrate people who ran for president and lost when thinking about veep contenders.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, honestly the main reason I picked Klobuchar ahead of Duckworth was Klobuchar ran for president and has more of a national profile. But Duckworth might be the better pick — it’s less clear that she would offend any part of the Democratic coalition.

sarahf: OK, let’s see. It undercuts my first pick (Pressley), but I also think Warren would be interesting. Clearly, I have a Massachusetts bias.

nrakich: Massachusetts bias is nothing to be ashamed of, Sarah.

sarahf: But assuming national profile matters somewhat in who a candidate picks for VP (to be clear, the political science on this isn’t really clear, but it does seem to matter to party elites), Warren has got that covered. And apparently, when Biden was still considering running in 2016, he wanted Warren as his running mate! That’s interesting to me, considering the visible bad blood between the two during the debates (thinking about their heated exchange over who deserves credit for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).

What Warren would bring to the ticket is an ideological balance that I think few other candidates could give Biden, but I could also see her being a potential general election risk for Biden. I’m also not sure if the other constituency she appeals to — college-educated whites — is where Biden needs the most help?

geoffrey.skelley: Warren would certainly meet the Ready on Day 1 test, plus she’d unify the party pretty well. I do wonder if she’s a case where the Biden campaign might be concerned that the VP pick outshines the presidential nominee. That’s on top of the concerns that her progressive views might alienate some in the middle.

nrakich: Yeah, Warren was also pretty high on my board. If you decide your goal is to appeal to progressives, there’s no better choice (other than, I guess, Sen. Bernie Sanders, although that isn’t going to happen for many reasons). She has the experience to be president and demonstrated that she has a loyal following with her strong presidential campaign.

geoffrey.skelley: That’s true, but there is still the always-thorny electability question about whether Warren’s progressive positions would harm Biden’s attempts to have a broader appeal.

nrakich: Yeah, I wonder how that would play, Geoffrey. In this age of polarization, it’s debatable whether a presidential nominee on the ideological extremes still puts the ticket at a disadvantage; would a vice-presidential nominee on the extremes do the same thing? I’m not so sure.

geoffrey.skelley: I will say that a Warren pick would be interesting in that, at 71 years old by Election Day, Warren would be less likely to end up running for president should Biden win, so the VP pick wouldn’t necessarily be a launch pad for the next presidential contender.

nrakich: Eh, I don’t know, she could probably run in 2024 if she wanted. (I think there’s a strong possibility that Biden would not run for a second term.)

geoffrey.skelley: That’s true, but with most of these other names, the VP would very likely run in the future if the ticket won — or even if it didn’t. But we’re probably getting a little ahead of ourselves here.

sarahf: OK, Nathaniel, you’re up with your second and third picks!

nrakich: OK, next on my list is Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. She has risen quickly in the Senate ranks; though she was just elected in 2016, she has already become chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. (I guess you could ding her for being inexperienced, but she was also state attorney general for two terms before that — in other words, she’s as experienced as Harris.) And, as a Latina, she would bring some racial diversity to the ticket, although I don’t want to imply that means she will automatically boost the ticket with Latino voters. Latinos are not a uniform group, and picking a Mexican American woman from the West wouldn’t necessarily resonate with, say, Cuban American voters in Florida.

(And, for you Senate special-election nerds, Cortez Masto’s seat will be up for election in 2022 regardless, so the only difference will be whether it is an open seat or not.)

geoffrey.skelley: Definitely a good pick. She’s under the radar, sort of like Duckworth, but has a very strong resume and a history-making backstory.

But with the Senate stuff, you wonder if the Biden team’s mindset is, ‘Look, we’ll probably lose the Senate in 2022 even if Democrats overcome a tough map to narrowly gain control of it in 2020, so we should make the best pick regardless of what that means for the Senate.’

nrakich: Yeah, maybe. But there is definitely a downside to picking someone like Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who I suspect will go unchosen in this draft. Baldwin’s seat would go immediately to a special election in 2021, and Wisconsin of course is a purple-to-light-red state. So that would cripple Democrats’ hypothetical Senate majority almost right away.

sarahf: That’s a good pick, Nathaniel, and could be a good way for Biden to broaden his base, considering his struggle to win the Latino vote in Nevada relative to Sanders. Although, of course, that has its limitations. What do we know about Cortez Masto’s politics, though? Isn’t she more of a moderate Democrat?

geoffrey.skelley: According to VoteView.com’s ideological scoring, she’s more or less around the middle of the Democratic Party, maybe slightly to the left of it.

nrakich: I think because she is unknown to many voters, she (and/or Biden) could define her ideology however they want, which I think is a plus. (Although she is a member of the establishment, as evidenced by her leadership of the DSCC.)

sarahf: OK, last round — take us away, Nathaniel.

nrakich: For my last pick, I’ll go with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She’s arguably the best pick among Democratic governors, many of whom were just elected in 2018 and therefore aren’t that experienced. However, Lujan Grisham also served six years in the House of Representatives, so I think her combined experience passes the bar. Plus, as a Latina, she is Democrats’ only nonwhite woman governor.

sarahf: I was wondering if we were going to get around to including any governors in this draft!

geoffrey.skelley: I think some folks may be surprised she was the first governor taken!

But agreed, she has an experience level that surpasses some other newly-elected 2018 governors.

nrakich: Yeah, even though many governors are getting high marks for how they’re handling the coronavirus crisis right now, Democrats’ gubernatorial bench is just pretty weak thanks to their drubbings in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Plus, Democrats really love picking senators as running mates — 15 of the last 18 Democratic vice-presidential candidates have been senators!

sarahf: Is that some foreshadowing of your last pick, Geoffrey?

geoffrey.skelley: I guess that may depend on what you do, Sarah!

sarahf: So for my last pick, I’m going to go with Stacey Abrams. Working against her is the fact that she probably has the least amount of government experience of all the picks named. Yes, she was a Georgia state representative for 10 years, but she isn’t currently a public official. That said, her 2018 gubernatorial bid against Gov. Brian Kemp was close, which is impressive in a red state like Georgia.

It’s a testament to how skilled of a politician she is too, considering she’s been able to stay in the national conversation, even though she’s not currently in office. The way she’s breaking the (unspoken) rules by actively campaigning for VP is fascinating to watch, too. She had this powerful line in a recent interview where she explained her decision to push for the job, saying, “If you don’t raise your hand, people won’t see you.”

I understand how her outspoken desire for the job will be portrayed as a power-hungry move and alienate some in the party because it violates the norms around how nominees pick their running mates, but I could also see that drive resonating with a lot of voters.

nrakich: Yeah, Sarah, I’m also fascinated to see where her unorthodox strategy of campaigning for the job leads. But ultimately, I think Abrams would be a bad pick for Biden because there would be lots of questions about whether she is prepared to step into the role of president.

geoffrey.skelley: “Unorthodox” is the right word — it’s atypical for someone to actively seek the vice presidency in the press.

nrakich: I could see it rubbing a lot of people the wrong way, but also, I think there would be a racial and gendered element to any criticism. Would a white man be criticized for being outspoken about his ambitions?

sarahf: Exactly, Nathaniel, that’s why I think it’s so interesting to see Abrams campaign for the job in this way. You’re right that it probably does irritate some party veterans, but I think it’s a powerful message that could resonate with a lot of rank-and-file voters.

geoffrey.skelley: Abrams could be an energizing force for Biden’s campaign, too. She’s only 46 and has such a strong profile built off her narrow loss in the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia. Maybe there’s a case that she helps Biden with black voters and younger ones whom Biden didn’t do as well with during the primary.

sarahf: True. But OK, Geoffrey, take us home! Last pick!

geoffrey.skelley: Alright, for my last pick, I was a bit torn because there are a fair number of directions I could see the Biden campaign going. But I’ll pick “that woman in Michigan” — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Her experience level is a question mark — she only won her office in 2018. But she’s had a lengthy political career in Michigan, and if her approval holds up on her handling of the coronavirus crisis despite becoming a national political figure, maybe that strengthens her resume enough.

While I, too, am skeptical of there being a significant home-state benefit to vice-presidential picks, Whitmer is from Michigan, a state Trump very narrowly carried in 2016. And more broadly, she might serve Biden well in the region as a whole. She’s also only 48 years old, making her one of the younger possibilities we’ve mentioned today. That could give the ticket a nice generational balance.

nrakich: Yeah, on the experience front, I dunno… She might get a pass from the media or low-information voters because she’s been governor during this time of crisis. And she was the Democratic leader in the Michigan Senate, which isn’t nothing. But I just don’t know if that’s enough to be prepared to be leader of the free world.

Her handling of the coronavirus crisis may not be the selling point that many analysts assume it is either. She got in trouble recently for giving a no-bid state contract for tracking coronavirus cases to Democratic-connected firms. That’s the kind of rookie mistake that comes with inexperience.

Plus, how would it look for her to take a leave of absence from the governorship amid a pandemic to go campaign?

sarahf: One other thing that’s been weighing on me as we’ve chatted about Biden’s potential VPs is the kind of weird place we find ourselves in. On the one hand, we know Biden is going to pick a woman, but we just don’t know who.

And that’s complicated because whomever Biden picks, she’ll be tasked with defending his alleged track record with women, which is daunting — there’s the inappropriate touching claims from earlier in 2019 and now former Biden staffer Tara Reade has accused Biden of sexual assault. That’s something that his VP, especially because she will be a woman, will have to speak to no matter who she is.

nrakich: Yeah, I’ll be watching how these latest allegations play out.

For whatever reason — no room in the coronavirus news cycle? media bias? Trump and Republicans aren’t harping on it? — Reade’s allegations haven’t gotten a lot of traction yet. But with Business Insider finding someone whom Reade told about the alleged assault at the time, it seems like they aren’t going away either.

So far, though, female politicians (not that women are the only ones who care about this issue), including some we mentioned in this chat, are still supporting Biden, or at least aren’t saying anything about the accusations. Hillary Clinton even endorsed Biden on Tuesday.

sarahf: Yeah, it’s hard at this point to say how this will all shake out for Biden. If more women step forward or if we get more corroboration around Reade’s allegations, I have to think this causes Biden serious trouble. But even if that doesn’t happen, whoever Biden’s VP is will have to talk about his relationship with women, and as Rebecca Traister wrote for New York Magazine, that might be a hard pill to swallow.