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WASHINGTON – In 2008, Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate in part because Biden brought experience in Congress and on foreign policy that the junior senator from Illinois lacked.
Now Biden is on his own quest to find a running mate with strengths he lacks while facing pressure to make history.
The presumptive Democratic nominee vowed in March to pick a woman as his vice presidential running mate. Leaders within crucial factions of the Democratic base – black and Latino voters – say that's not enough for the standard-bearer of a party that touts its diversity and relies on the steadfast support of voters of color to win.
They're urging him to choose not just any woman but the first woman of color as a running mate on a major party's ticket.
Not only is it long past time to reward the party's most reliable voting bloc, black leaders say, a woman of color makes the most sense strategically to defeat President Donald Trump.
Biden, 77 and white, needs to balance the ticket with racial diversity and youth, advocates said, to energize the party's base, or he risks repeating the mistakes of Hillary Clinton, who failed to match Obama's high turnout in cities with large African American populations in her 2016 election loss to Trump.
"If he wants us to not just vote but bring our family and communities along in record numbers, he's got to put a woman of color on the ticket," said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a left-leaning group working to engage more than 1 million women of color in swing states this fall. "It's got to be part of the successful strategy in bringing the Democratic coalition together – firing us up, motivating us even in the middle of a pandemic – to get out the vote."
Biden seeks 'strengths that I don’t have'
A running mate hasn't swung the outcome of a presidential election in a clear way since 1960, historians agree, when Lyndon B. Johnson helped John F. Kennedy win Texas en route to winning the White House.
But more could be riding on Biden's vice presidential pick than usual, because of his age – he would be 78 on Inauguration Day in 2021 – and the future of the party. Even if Biden loses, the running mate will almost certainly emerge as a contender to seek the party's nomination for president in 2024.
Biden appeared last week with one of the women of color most speculated about as a potential running mate: Stacey Abrams. A segment on MSNBC's "The Last Word" hosted by Lawrence O'Donnell offered an audition, of sorts, for Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader and onetime gubernatorial candidate. Biden invited Abrams onto the program.
"Stacey knows what she's doing, and she's an incredibly capable person," Biden said, touting Abrams' work on voting rights for the organization she leads, Fair Fight
More than 500 black women leaders – including pastors, doctors, lawyers and celebrities such as singer/actress Vanessa Williams – signed a letter sent to Biden last month calling for him to "recognize and seize this moment" by picking a black woman as his running mate.
Democracy in Color and 12 like-minded groups penned a separate letter urging Biden to choose a woman of color, calling the decision "a first indication of how you will govern." In addition to a woman running mate, Biden pledged to nominate the nation's first African American woman to the Supreme Court.
“I’m looking for someone who has strengths that I don’t have as much," Biden said last week during an interview on Snapchat. "I’m not afraid to go out and find someone who knows more than I know about a subject.”
Members of Congress, a governor and at least one member of the Obama administration are among the women of color Biden could be considering.
In addition to Abrams, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; former U.S. national
security adviser Susan Rice; and Reps. Val Demings, D-Fla., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., are among the black women rumored to be on Biden's list of possible running mates.
Potential Latina running mates include Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., also mentioned as a possible running mate, would the first Asian American vice presidential nominee.
Factoring into the decision could be one of the biggest battlegrounds of the election: suburban swing districts, particularly in Midwestern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that Trump carried in 2016. That dynamic has elevated Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as contenders.
A poll from CBS News/YouGov found Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, popular among liberals, is the top choice among Democrats to be Biden's running mate. Warren's numbers were probably boosted by higher name recognition. Klobuchar, Whitmer and Warren all are white.
'A return on our voting investment'
With several qualified women of color under consideration, it could mean a major letdown if Biden goes another direction.
"I think you risk anger and disillusionment," Allison said. Combined with the economic and health struggles many people of color face amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, it would lead to low turnout. "That's going to be – I don't want to overstate it – but a death knell in terms of a strategy to be successful in the swing states."
Black voters in South Carolina rescued Biden in February when his campaign was on the brink of collapsing after losing the Democratic primary's first three contests by wide margins. Biden then used his massive advantage among black voters to propel his campaign to a dominant Super Tuesday performance.
It was a reminder of the major influence black voters, especially women who vote in higher numbers, have in the Democratic coalition. Like Biden, Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 2016 thanks to widespread support among black voters. But that didn't lead to Obama-level black turnout in the general election against Trump.
"We are demanding a return on our voting investment in 2020," said Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, which works to get African American women elected into office. "That is in the form of policies that directly center black women in our family, and it is about us having seats at all decision-making tables.
"We can't continue to be the building blocks of a winning coalition and then be at the bottom of the pyramid at all times," she said.
Carr said it will be even more critical to energize black voters amid the coronavirus pandemic, which could change how people vote. She said a black running mate would create the "extra excitement" to energize black women to "do what we've always done, which is organize our houses, our blocks, our churches, our sororities, our unions to vote."
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., whose endorsement of Biden proved pivotal to his turnaround, said last month it "would be great" for Biden to select a woman of color, but it is "not a must."
Tiffany Dena Loftin, national director of the youth and college division at the NAACP, said that regardless of who joins the ticket with Biden, black voters must understand how "dangerous it would be to have Donald Trump be our president for the next four years."
"No matter who the VP is, no matter what happens with the ticket, I think folks know what choice to make," Loftin said.
The NAACP is not among the groups that formally asked Biden to choose a woman of color as his running mate. Loftin said the NAACP values the records of the candidates foremost and intends to hold whomever is nominated accountable.
The case for a Latina VP nominee
To pull ahead in the Democratic primary, Biden built on his support among black voters by coalescing other Democrats who preferred a moderate instead of Sen. Bernie Sanders. He didn't fare as well among Latino voters, who have increasingly become a key part of the Democratic coalition.
Mayra Macías, executive director of Latino Victory, which encouraged Biden to consider a Latina running mate, said Biden didn't spend the same level of resources as Sanders did to engage Latino voters. That means he has work to do to engage Latino voters before the election in November.
Arizona and Florida are two swing states where Latino voters could help decide whether Trump keeps a state he won in 2016 or Biden wins it for Democrats. Macías said Latino voters also could help drive Democratic turnout in Midwestern swing states.
"If we know that one way to turn out Latino voters is by asking them, what better way to engage Latino voters than to be able to deploy a top-level Latino surrogate to go out into the communities and make those direct asks to the Latino community?" she said.
Two-thirds of Latino voters say they would be more likely to support Biden if he chose Masto, the nation's first Latina U.S. senator, as his running mate,according to polling from Latino Victory, and 72% say they would be more motivated to turn out if he selected a Latina.
Macías said Latino voters can't be taken for granted, pointing to polling that indicates interest in the 2020 election has taken a backseat among Latinos because of the coronavirus crisis.
"At a time when communities of color, and particularly Latino communities, are dying at a disproportionate rate due to coronavirus, a woman of color on the presidential ticket would give our community hope," Macías said. "Right now, so many voters are losing sight of the election because they're just trying to survive the day-to-day that is COVID-19."
Although Latino voters will be motivated to beat Trump, Macías said, it would be a "misstep" for the Biden campaign not to pick a woman of color, whether a Latina or someone else.
"It is not enough for Latino voters to just go and vote against something," Macías said. "We need to have a reason to vote for a candidate."
Cristina Jimenez, executive director of United We Dream Action, which represents immigrant youth, said Biden must choose a woman of color who would mobilize the liberal wing of the party, many of whom backed Sanders.
She said some Latino voters associate Biden with deportations that were carried out under the Obama administration.
Not only would a Latina running mate energize voters from the left, Jimenez said, she would, "quite frankly, rebuild the trust that the Biden campaign has lost with some constituencies like Latino voters."
Who makes the most sense? Experts disagree
Rachel Bitecofer, election forecaster and senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, said she believes the vice presidential selection is more important than in past elections because more voters value representation – not a candidate's hometown state but their identity. She said Biden, as a white, moderate man, should be considering someone who is liberal, a woman and a person of color. She pointed to Abrams and Harris as hitting each box.
"One of the weaknesses in Clinton's strategy in 2016, one of the reasons that she lost, was doubling down on white moderates on her ticket because it left her vulnerable to progressive voters defecting," Bitecofer said. At the same time, black turnout waned from 2008 and 2012 levels.
She said that Klobuchar would "double-down" on white moderates just like Clinton's pick of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and that Warren would bring ideological, but not racial, diversity to the ticket. "This is the most racially diverse party in the history of the country, and to put two standard-bearers that are both white, I don't think is ideal for the party," Bitecofer said.
Bitecofer said "party composition of the electorate" will decide whether Biden or Trump wins swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona: "If Democrats and their coalition outvote the Republican coalition, Biden will carry the state, or vice versa."
Charlie Cook, editor of The Cook Political Report, had a different take in an analysis in the National Review. He said Biden would be ill-advised to make an "overtly political pick" that screams "optics over substance" and checks off a demographic, political or ideological box. He said it would seem more desirable for Biden to pick someone who "projects seriousness and places a value on competence."
He said this could include someone who's never even held elected office, suggesting Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Health and Human Services secretary in the Obama administration, as an outside-the-box option.
"The reality is that Biden will probably try to split the difference, going with someone who is eminently qualified but also has campaign experience – which brings us back to names such as Amy Klobuchar or Gretchen Whitmer," Cook said.
Niambi Carter, assistant political science professor at Howard University, said she doesn't believe picking Klobuchar or Whitmer would have the "desired effect."
Although she said she doesn't think black women would necessarily stay home if Biden picked a white running mate, it would be a "much more difficult sell."
"In 2016, people didn't show up in the numbers that they did in 2008 and 2012 because there was nothing on that ticket that spoke to them," Carter said. "This is their chance to actually do something."