Biden: Does it Matter?

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

August 25, 2008

As Barack Obama began his search for a running-mate, he faced many strategic options:

Would he give top priority to party unity, as Ronald Reagan did in 1980 when he turned first to former president Gerald Ford and then to his toughest rival for the nomination, George H. W. Bush? If so, Obama might well have turned his attention to Hillary Clinton.

Would he underscore his message of youth and change, as Bill Clinton did in 1992 by selecting Al Gore? If so, he might well have chosen the 46 year-old governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine.

Would he use his pick to strengthen his chances in a key swing state, as JFK did in 1960? If so, he might have asked the governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, to reconsider his refusal even to be considered. Or he might have looked at Florida senator Bill Nelson, or New Mexico governor and former presidential candidate Bill Richardson, or Colorado senator Ken Salazar. He might even have selected Evan Bayh, the former two-term governor of—and now senator from—the suddenly competitive state of Indiana.

In the end, Obama did none of these things. He chose someone whose strengths complement rather than underscore his own. Joe Biden is a Catholic from Scranton, PA with substantial blue-collar appeal; he has been in the Senate for more than three decades; he has substantial experience and expertise in foreign policy, and he is a passionate speaker and campaigner—hot where Obama is cool, free-wheeling where Obama is disciplined, comfortable on the attack where Obama prefers to remain above the fray.

Will it make a difference? Political scientists have looked long and hard for evidence of a vice-presidential effect on the electorate, and they haven’t come up with much. The test case was 1988, when Michael Dukakis selected an eminently qualified (and highly presidential) Texan, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, while George H. W. Bush chose a young and inexperienced Indiana senator, Dan Quayle. Bentsen memorably demolished Quayle in their only debate. Nonetheless, Bush, who had trailed by as much as 17 points in mid-summer, took the lead by late summer and never gave it up.

One thing is clear: Biden does nothing to brighten Obama’s prospects in the Electoral College. If the Illinois-Delaware Democratic ticket ends up with 260 electoral votes and falls just short in Indiana or Virginia, there will be an orgy of second-guessing of what Bayh or Kaine might have done.

Obama’s selection of Biden, who passes with ease the threshold test of presidential credibility, may have the effect of pressuring John McCain to do likewise. As the American people are well aware, McCain at age 72 would be the oldest man ever to assume the presidency, and he might well serve for only one term (if that). His vice president might have to step into the Oval Office, and would be seen as the heir-apparent for the leadership of his party. These considerations could improve the vice presidential prospects of someone like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who looks and sounds like a president and who campaigned with some effectiveness for this year’s Republican nomination.