2020 Foresight: Stacey Abrams, the Vice Presidential Candidate?

Joe Biden is signaling the possibility of naming Stacey Abrams as his Vice Presidential nominee right out of the gate. How would that dynamic play out over the course of a two-year long campaign? Is this move the best option for Abrams to advance her own career? Would her presence on the ticket give Biden the juice he needs to win the Democratic nomination?

Amy KlobucharElizabeth WarrenJulian CastroCory Booker
Bernie SandersTim KaineSherrod BrownBeto O’Rourke
Joe Biden (Stacey Abrams) • Pete Buttigieg

How Abrams would Help Biden

Biden and Abrams met last week for lunch in Washington to discuss the next steps in her political career. Abrams entered the national spotlight as a candidate for Governor in Georgia in 2018, and became known for her forceful advocacy against voter suppression in the waning days and immediate aftermath of that controversial campaign. The Democratic Party selected Stacey Abrams to deliver the opposition’s response to Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address. Now, she could be poised to join Joe Biden’s Presdiential campaign as his nominee to be Vice President. Abrams and her aides are being tight-lipped about what was discussed at that meeting. Although given the recent reporting by Axios, it’s hard to believe that the possibility of joining Biden’s Presidential ticket wasn’t floated for her team to consider.

On paper, the move would be tremendously advantageous for Biden. As one of his aides put it, the move would show that Biden “isn’t just another old white guy.” Abrams would also be an effective shield against some of the more potentially damaging attacks on Biden’s candidacy, namely his oversight of Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas, his past statements in opposition to forced busing as a means to end racial segregation, and his role in the creation of mass incarceration and racial sentencing disparities. Reportedly, Biden’s aides are also grappling with the possibility that they simply won’t be able to keep up with the fundraising prowess of Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke. Abrams would inject new life into his grassroots organizing and fundraising efforts.

Typically, a Vice Presidential candidate is chosen to support the particular candidate’s policy positions and address potential weaknesses. Barack Obama selected Joe Biden due to his decades of experience in foreign policy; it seems like a perfect pairing in retrospect, but at the time it was seen as somewhat of a risky move. John McCain made the stunning choice of selecting Sarah Palin, which seems like a blunder in hindsight. However, it made sense for McCain to seek an answer to the “political rock star” qualities that Barack Obama possessed and inject his campaign with its own sense of historical significance by selecting the first female candidate on the Republican Party’s Presidential ticket. Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan with the purpose of making a play for Wisconsin, which would have dramatically altered the electoral college math. Similarly, Hillary Clinton selected Tim Kaine to solidify her standing in the key swing state of Virginia. Abrams checks these boxes; she addresses Biden’s weaknesses and bolsters his appeal to southern Democrats in the primary, while allowing him to compete for Georgia in the general election.

Although what Biden is considering is fundamentally different from previous attempts to preemptively declare the Vice President, this maneuver does not have a history of electoral success. Ronald Reagan attempted this while running against Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, declaring Sen. Richard Schweiker as his Vice Presidential choice three weeks before a bitter brokered convention. Ted Cruz, seeking to inject life into his floundering campaign against Donald Trump in 2016, tried to broaden his appeal by naming Carly Fiorina as his running mate. In both cases, these were last ditch attempts to salvage losing campaigns in the waning days on the primary. The calculus behind Biden naming Stacey Abrams right out of the gate would be something completely new in modern American politics.

The move also comes with potential risks. It could be portrayed as too blatant of an attempt to pander to what Biden has described as the “new left.” CNN’s Van Jones likened the move to “putting on a diversity jacket.” There’s also the context of the selection; in effect, Biden would be conceding that he cannot win the primary without Stacey Abrams. It would be an acknowledgement of his weakness as a candidate; although the move could frame his as humble enough to acknowledge and address his weaknesses, it also has the potential to backfire on him. Normally, picking a Vice President selection helps rejuvenate a campaign after a long, grueling primary. Biden would be sacrificing this opportunity in order to rejuvenate a primary campaign that hasn’t even been launched yet and already appears to be on life-support.

This is purely speculation, but would Biden’s team actually be leaking discussions about putting Abrams on the ticket if there were a possibility that she would say no? What an amazing gaffe it would be for someone to leak that Abrams turned down his offer. Or what if Abrams outright snubbed him and started her own campaign? The potential risks suggest that she has already signaled that she would join the ticket, if asked. Otherwise, this move has the potential to backfire dramatically for Biden.

Does this Make Sense for Stacey Abrams?

At the same time, it’s worth asking whether or not this truly would be the best move for her political career. The move could also backfire for Abrams, who has an incredibly promising political future. She has the opportunity to run for Senate in Georgia next year against David Perdue, who struggled to stave off a challenge from Michelle Nunn. Another option would be to wait four year, continue working on building the Georgia Democratic Party’s infrastructure, and take her shot at a rematch with Gov. Brian Kemp. I mean, Stacey Abrams could just decide to run for President herself. She wouldn’t be the first near-winner from 2018 to declare a run for the White House in 2020.

Instead, she would be joining an objectively flawed candidate who faces uncertain odds in the Democratic presidential primary. Biden would put her directly in the national spotlight, sure, but she has proven herself capable of captivating political observers without his help. Would it really improve her standing to join Biden’s campaign? It’s entirely possible that spending the next 11–15 months or so acting as Biden’s personal shield could ultimately damage her own standing and future prospects. Republicans will also seize every opportunity to undercut her credentials, recycling the same “heartbeat away from the presidency” arguments that made Sarah Palin’s lack of experience a liability for John McCain. This effort will begin long before the nomination fight is over. The highest office that Abrams ever attained was serving as the Minority Leader in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Especially if a Biden/Abrams campaign fails to secure the nomination, she will have subjected herself to an onslaught of criticism seemingly for nothing. The potential reward is enormous; if successful, she would be setting herself to serve as President of the United States after Biden leaves office. Stacey Abrams is the type of person to meticulously plan out her political career; she keeps a “spreadsheet” to track her career goals, and revealed in a radio interview that she designated 2028 as the year she felt that she would be ready to potentially run for President. However, she has since admitted that “2020 is on the table” for her. I expect Stacey Abrams to have thought this decision through thoroughly before she says “yes” or “no.”

Narrowing the Field

One interesting side-effect of a potential Biden/Abrams primary tag-team operation is the possibility that other candidates may begin to follow suit. As inevitably some of the 10,000 candidates struggle to gain traction, the field may begin to narrow before the Iowa caucus is even held. We have 319 days left to go, as of the date of this publication. Some candidates, quite frankly, just aren’t going to raise enough money or generate enough enthusiasm to justify running a campaign for 11 months to wind up with a dismal performance in the early primary states. After about the fourth or fifth debate, sometime in September or October, it might be time for candidates to start folding up their tents and finding other pursuits.

In 2016, Marco Rubio famously withdrew late and ran in the Republican primary for his own Senate seat. We may see some Democratic candidates follow suit, shifting their attention to the Senate or an oven governorship in light of a failed bid. Hickenlooper, for example, has the opportunity to be a Senate candidate running against Cory Gardner rather than being a Presidential hanger-on. If Beto O’Rourke fizzles out, perhaps he could resume his old day job of running for Senate in Texas?

But if Biden shatters the norms of primary campaigns by naming Abrams as his Vice President, this may accelerate that winnowing process. What would be better for Tulsi Gabbard? Polling at 1% for the next 11 months, or accepting an offer from Bernie Sanders to be his primary campaign running mate? If Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign continues to flounder, would she be better off as a running mate for Cory Booker? Would Hickenlooper rather run for Senate or for the Vice Presidency, if someone offered it to him? Perhaps Jay Inslee’s laser-focus on climate change could make him a compelling choice as a running mate to strengthen a candidate’s appeal to environmental activists? Kamala Harris could solidify her standing within the Hispanic community by bringing Julian Castro on board as a running mate, giving her a better chance of beating O’Rourke in Texas and running the table in California. Biden’s decision could end up starting a delayed chain-reaction that shrinks the size of the field to a more manageable cohort of candidates.

Trustee (Area 2) for the Woodland Joint Unified School District. Former Legislative Aide/Policy Analyst. Change is a process, not a conclusion.

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