In a historic decision, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has selected Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his pick for vice president, making her the first woman of color to be nominated for national office on a major party ticket. With just under two months left until voting begins, political analysts are trying to assess what impact Harris will have on the upcoming 2020 election.
LaFleur Stephens-Dougan is an assistant professor of politics and her research interests include racial attitudes in America and black political thought. She is an affiliated faculty member with the School’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics.
Brandice Canes-Wrone is the Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs and the director for the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics. She has written extensively on U.S. elections, among other political issues.
Lauren Wright is an associate research scholar and lecturer in politics and public affairs who has taught courses on women in the political sphere and the American executive branch.
Q. Why do you think Harris was chosen over other close contenders, including Susan Rice, Val Demmings, and Elizabeth Warren? What does Harris bring to the table that the others do not?
Stephens-Dougan: Harris was chosen over other contenders for a variety of factors. Biden already committed to naming a woman on the ticket, but he was facing increasing pressure to pick a Black woman as his running mate. Given the focus on a Black woman as the VP choice, Elizabeth Warren was not an option. Susan Rice had the baggage of the 2012 Benghazi attack, and she has never run for elected office. Val Demmings, similar to Harris, has a law enforcement background (an asset), but she has less experience and name recognition relative to Harris. Harris brings to the ticket relative youth, political experience, and a law enforcement background, which will help to combat charges of the Democratic ticket being too liberal or beholden to people of color.
Canes-Wrone: Biden would like to resurrect the Obama voting coalition of 2008 and 2012, which did not materialize as expected in 2016. Harris offers a strong possibility to do so given her national profile, experience, race, and ethnicity. Other major contenders were either less tested on a national scale or, in Warren’s case, risked alienating the more ideologically moderate parts of the Obama coalition. The fact that Harris and Biden’s son Beau were close as attorneys general adds a personal dimension that further suggests the two of them will work well as a team.
Q. What implications does this have for the Biden campaign? How might it influence voter turnout in November?
Stephens-Dougan: I think Harris was picked to help bring some energy to the ticket. Anyone other than a Black woman as the choice for VP would have underwhelmed many Black voters. It’s not that they would have defected to Trump en masse, but they would have been less enthusiastic and less likely to turn out. The Biden campaign is probably hoping that the Harris ticket will help to recreate the Obama coalition and turn out the Black vote. Recall, Black voter turnout was notably lower in 2016 than in 2012 or 2008. It’s also worth noting that some progressives, including many young Black progressives, were not enthused about Harris during the primaries, so it remains to be seen whether she will generate sufficient levels of enthusiasm among young people, in particular.
Q. Harris is also the first female VP pick since Sarah Palin. Has public perception of female candidates changed since then? Will Harris find more success than Palin, who was arguably not taken seriously as a prospective VP?
Canes-Wrone: Research suggests that female candidates on a major presidential ticket — not simply Geraldine Ferraro and Palin but Hillary Clinton in 2016, too — faced challenges specific to women. Still, there are important candidate-specific differences. Palin was less tested on a national scale, as was Ferraro. Hillary had all the benefits and baggage of the Bill Clinton presidency, just as Jeb Bush did with Republican voters in the 2016 primaries with respect to his brother. What sorts of gender-specific issues might Harris face? Research suggests that when voters assess candidates for executive office of equal experience and qualifications, female candidates tend to be judged more critically than male ones. But as the adage about outrunning the bear goes, she doesn’t have to outrun all of the bears, she just has to outrun Trump.
Q. How important are VP selections when it comes to presidential elections?
Wright: Studies generally show VP picks have little impact, if any, on election outcomes. But Biden’s choice of Harris is a helpful window into what his campaign perceives his strengths and weaknesses to be. Clearly, they are prioritizing experience on the national stage in high-pressure campaign events where Harris has demonstrated an impressive ability to command the spotlight and think quickly on her feet. But as I write in a recent op-ed, the Biden campaign needs to also account for sexism and racism in the electorate, which is notoriously difficult to detect in surveys, and our country’s history of applying unfair double standards to women candidates.
Q&A Today is a series of interviews with School of Public and International Affairs experts addressing current events. These are the opinions of the faculty and do not reflect or represent Princeton University or the School of Public and International Affairs.