Only a few times in US history has the choice of a vice presidential candidate made much difference in who wins the White House.
This is one of those times.
If Joe Biden is to defeat Donald Trump, the two groups of people most essential to the Democratic coalition – African Americans and white suburban women – must turn out in maximum numbers on Election Day. The running mate who can best help him do that is Stacey Abrams.
Trump is sitting on a mountain of cash and has at his disposal a very sophisticated digital operation ready to make sure that every potential Trump voter makes it to the polls on November 3. He is also set to unleash a campaign of personal attacks on Biden aimed at discouraging potential Democratic voters.
Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 was due largely to her failure to get left-leaning white Democrats and young African Americans to warm to her.
Conventional wisdom credited Trump’s crucial upset wins in a trio of traditionally Democratic states – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – to the defection of white working class voters. But the real story was that many apathetic or disgruntled Democrats either didn’t vote or else cast protest ballots for candidates from the Libertarian, Green and other minor parties.
The outcome in those three states was very close; Clinton lost them by less than 78,000 total. Meanwhile, protest candidates got nearly 734,000 votes.
“Election outcomes in key states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona,” political analyst Rachel Bitecofer wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, “all come down to the same thing: the percentage of Democrats and left-leaning independents that end up casting ballots compared with the percentage of Republicans and right-leaning independents that do so.”
Abrams, 46, minority leader in the Georgia state House of Representatives for seven years, in 2018 came within a hair’s breadth of being elected the first African American woman governor in the United States.
She is a charismatic, exciting personality with a track record of persuading black voters to register and to turn out. Black turnout in the 2018 Georgia governor’s race grew by 40 percent over four years previously.
Abrams also in that race got considerable support from college educated white women, who gave her 43 percent of their votes. That is a group that has swung sharply against Trump since 2016, so it is crucial that Biden get as many as possible to the polls.
Biden has pledged to name a woman as his running mate, and his list includes three female US senators who competed against him for the Democratic nomination: Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.
While Klobuchar’s experience in Washington gives her credibility as someone well qualified to be president if need be, it’s doubtful that she could bring any additional votes to the table. A moderate like Biden, her appeal is to the same constituency as his.
Her presidential campaign got almost no support from black voters. In fact, Klobuchar has had a tenuous relationship with African Americans since her days as prosecutor in her home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her critics argued that she was overly harsh to blacks and other racial minorities, and did little to curb police excesses. The violent protests that broke out last week in Minneapolis over the death of a black man in police custody may have fatally damaged Klobuchar’s chances for the vice presidency.
Warren, with her advocacy of taking power away from big corporations and the rich while giving it to working people, could excite progressives, a group Biden has had difficulty winning over. But she rarely got as much as 10 percent of the black vote in the Democratic primaries earlier this year.
Biden, on the other hand, owes his nomination to African Americans. His campaign was on the ropes after poor finishes in the first three Democratic contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. It was revived when black voters in South Carolina and throughout the South overwhelmingly sided with him. He needs to acknowledge that debt by choosing a black woman as his vice president.
Zerlina Maxwell, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign staff, told the Associated Press that this is an opportunity for Biden to recognize the political force of black women. “Black women are the foundation of a successful Democratic Party at every level,” she said.
The present racial unrest that has spread from Minneapolis to other U.S. cities has only increased the pressure on Biden from activists and party leaders to choose an African American running mate.
Of the black women on Biden’s list of vice presidential choices, most of the media buzz has gone to Harris. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart calls her “a fighter.” He wrote, “Harris would not be rattled by the inevitable bullying by Trump and his campaign. She is neither afraid of a fight nor afraid of him.”
But her presidential bid failed to connect with voters in any significant way. Although Harris made black women her special focus, she did little better among black voters than Warren did. Her candidacy ultimately failed because she was unsure of who she wanted to be – a progressive or a centrist. Her multiple changes of direction don’t lend confidence to the idea that she would make a good president.
Another potential black female vice presidential choice being talked about is Florida US Representative Val Demings. A former Orlando police chief, she acquitted herself well as one of the House-appointed impeachment managers in Trump’s trial before the US Senate.
But Demings has never run even a statewide race. She won her House seat in 2016 after a court-ordered redistricting made the Florida 10th District significantly more Democratic.
Abrams, by comparison, came within two percentage points of being elected governor of Georgia against fierce Republican opposition. She now heads Fair Fight, a national organization she started to oppose Republicans’ efforts at voter suppression.
And she has a big following among young voters, who have been decidedly cool toward Biden. In Georgia in 2018, Abrams won the 18-to-29 year old vote by nearly 30 points. Barack Obama in 2008 had lost that group by three points. (There was no exit polling in Georgia in 2012.)
Abrams would be by far Biden’s best choice to help him win the crucial swing states of North Carolina and Florida, with their large black voting populations, and even to put Georgia into play. Neither Harris nor Warren nor Klobuchar would offer comparable advantages.
Her biggest liability is her lack of national government experience, something Republicans will be sure to highlight if Abrams is the vice presidential nominee. But she served at a high level in the government of a large and important state, winning praise for her charm and her intellect.
She is a graduate of Yale University Law School and is a New York Times bestselling author for her memoir, “Lead From the Outside.” She has also written eight romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery.
She even has Republican admirers. Former Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, quoted in a profile in the Washington Post, credited her for working with him to save Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship for low income youths in the midst of the 2008-2009 recession.
“We did not always agree on all the issues that we were confronted with,” Deal told the Washington Post, “but on that one, which was a significant one, I thought she demonstrated the kind of leadership that you hope people would do regardless of party labels.”
The Post profile described her this way: “She is scholarly, but she can also wax poetic on football. She is a policy wonk, but she can effortlessly pivot to sending goofy memes to the children of good buddies. She is a pop culture junkie who also is very literate on the sway and potential of technology. She is secure in her identity as a black woman, but also sees herself as appealing broadly to people of all colors and identities.”
Henry Eichel follows US politics from Lexington, South Carolina.