Biden’s running-mate choice: a zero-sum game?

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris.

Photo credit: File | Afp

What you need to know:

  • Here is a brief sketch of the candidates' supposed pluses and minuses, before Ms Harris was eventually chosen.

Joe Biden, the Democratic Party presidential candidate, has picked Senator Kamala Harris as his  vice-presidential running .

The decision was to be announced “at the beginning of August”, but was pushed back a bit. 

Earlier, in March, during one of the party’s presidential candidates’ debates, he declared that whoever would fill that ‘vacancy’ would be a woman, so Ms Harris'pick wasn't too surprising. 

So, what factors did he likely consider as he made this critical choice?

Before examining them, let us begin here in Kenya.

As has been noted, among the numerous changes in Kenya’s governance structure that was altered significantly by the 2010 Constitution, one that perhaps most precisely replicates the American model is the position of the president’s ‘Principal Assistant’ – his deputy – the successor to the previous position of vice-president.  

Contest as a pair

As in the US, candidates for these two offices now contest as fixed-pairs, and unless a vacancy occurs in either office, the two serve for the duration of the prescribed term, in contrast to the previous regime in which the president could replace his junior at will.

This also means that rather more thought and bargaining must go into this pairing arrangement on both sides, but especially by presidential candidates since two critical questions regarding the running-mate’s ‘added-value’ must be addressed: 1. how many extra votes can s/he deliver and 2. what is his/her capacity in terms of the policy/administrative and political requirements of the office?  
This ‘capacity’ also entails the level of rapport between the two, since without being able to ‘get along’ at both the policy and personal levels, the smooth functioning of the Executive could be put at risk.  

And the second question also includes being able to adequately serve as president should, God forbid, this office become vacant.  

Given the recent developments in the relationship between Kenya’s current president and his deputy,  it may be assumed that rather more thought will be given to these aspects of future campaigns than was the case in the previous two contests.

While the US as an independent country is more than two centuries older than Kenya, and has vastly different social and economic systems -- including population size, degree and type of racial, ethnic and religious diversity, class structure, political culture -- the basic factors that were at play in Biden’s choice for a vice-presidential running-mate have many similarities with those that operate in Kenya.

Yet before coming to the present, it is useful to remember that within a decade of the promulgation of the US Constitution, it was found necessary to amend it with regard to these two offices.  While it initially required that the runner-up in the presidential contest became the vice-president, this arrangement soon proved unworkable due to evolving ideological differences that quickly developed into the nation’s first generation of political parties.  

Specifically, the election of 1796 put the Federalist John Adams into the presidency, with his bitter rival, the Democratic-Republican, Thomas Jefferson, coming second, and thus becoming Adams’ deputy.  
But the constant policy disagreements between them led to the adoption of the 12th Amendment which basically allowed the party of each presidential candidate to select the two as a pair – consequently, the situation the US has had ever since – which Kenya also adopted ten years ago.

'Most important election in modern history'

Turning to the present, there are a number of quite particular circumstances that Biden and his campaign team must have taken into account.  

It could be argued that given the constraints placed on forthcoming campaign activities by the Covid-19 pandemic, Biden’s imminent choice may be the most important decision he has made between now and the election on November 3.  

One is the massively divisive figure of the incumbent President, Donald Trump. As Senator Bernie Sanders said recently, “This is by far the most important election in modern American history.”  

This reality reflects both the substance and style of his three-plus years in office, epitomised by the findings of the Mueller Report on the role of Russian actors in the 2016 election and the connections of the Trump campaign with them.

A second factor is Biden’s commitment, made during Democratic primary debate in March, that if chosen by his party his running-mate would be a woman. It is not clear why he did this, though the fact that many felt that Hillary Clinton would be president today were it not for ‘Russian interference' in the last election could have been a factor. 

At the same time, given that ever since 1988 when the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Governor Michael Dukakis had a female running-mate, many Democratic and independent voters have felt that it was ‘about time’ that a woman ascend to at least the second most important elective office in the country.

Biden's age

Yet another key factor is Biden’s age, since at 77, if elected, he will be the oldest person to be inaugurated as president in US history. 

Thus, for example, even if his current medical condition is fine, very few expect that if elected, he would seek a second term in 2024. This, in turn, means that a politically ambitious vice-president might expend considerable energy during the next four years preparing for her own 2024 presidential bid.  

It also means that voters will need to have confidence that whoever enters the White House as Biden’s principal assistant can “take over and do the job of president from day one”, if necessary, as Biden himself has repeatedly said. Indeed, it was the electorate’s general view of the incompetence of the Republican John McCain’s vice-presidential pick, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, that helped push Barack Obama over the line to victory in 2008.

Black vote

A fourth factor is the African-American vote. While voter turnout of this section of the electorate has generally been lower for that of whites, the fact that around 90 percent of this section of the electorate votes Democratic means that energising them is critical for this party’s candidate.  

In this regard, while several women of colour had reportedly been under consideration before the eruption of protests following the killing of George Floyd, they have served to greatly increase attention on racial issues more broadly, under the banner of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.  Consequently, there was far greater pressure on Biden to select a woman of colour than would otherwise be the case.   

This is so even if Biden’s team were to calculate how many white voters for whom race matters and who might otherwise prefer him, would consequently vote for Trump, or for neither of the two main candidates, if he picks such a woman.


One final factor worth mentioning is Biden’s own eight years’ experience as Obama’s deputy.  Consequently, he has a very clear idea of what the job entails, and thus, what qualities he seeks in his vice-president.  

As he and others close to him have said, these include not just basic agreement on critical policy issues, but a conducive ‘personal chemistry’ (which Trump and his current deputy, Mike Pence, also seem to share – hence, the absence of any discussion on the Republican side of Trump replacing him).

Some have mentioned that if Trump finds Biden’s poll ratings enjoy a significant jump after naming his female-choice, he might substitute Pence with former South Carolina Governor and former UN Ambassador, Nicky Hailey.

Other factors are also at play. But even if nearly all recent national and most ‘swing-state’ polls give Biden a comfortable lead, the fact that the November election is still a long way off means that nothing can be taken for granted.  

And most important, he had to ensure that whomever he picked, the choice would not substantially undermine the polling advantage he now enjoys. This also means the polls conducted now that he has picked Kamala will be keenly examined by both the Biden and Trump campaign teams.

The ‘Finalists’

With all the above considerations in mind, what, then can be said were the four ‘finalists’ that were reportedly under consideration?

Here is a brief sketch of their supposed pluses and minuses, before Ms Harris was eventually chosen. 


California Senator Kamala Harris, whose father was Jamaican, is generally referred to as an African-American, although her mother’s parents are from India. Since her home state is already in Biden’s vote-‘basket’, calculations about her value-added in electoral terms centers on her ability to mobilise black voters in ‘swing’ states, as well as to attract financial donations for the campaign.  

Moreover, based on her harsh criticisms of Biden’s past voting record on some racially sensitive issues, some wonder how easily the two could work together as a team, a doubt heightened by her evident ambition for the presidency itself, given the doubts noted above about Biden’s availability for a second term should he win the presidency.  

On the other hand, this same vigorous performance in the Democratic primary debates, as well as her earlier experience as a prosecutor and more recent performance on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee when grilling Trump’s Attorney-General William Barr, as well as her contributions during the impeachment trial, made her a competent match for Vice-President Mike Pence during their second-tier campaign debates.

Karen Bass

Another African-American ‘finalist’ was Representative Karen Bass, also from California. Among her strengths is her proven success in achieving legislative compromises with Republicans (both previously as a Representative in and then Speaker of the California legislature, and then after coming to Washington), even if she is no match for Harris’ in terms of charisma.

Another plus is her lack of presidential ambition, so that Biden could be confident all her energy would be spent in supporting his agenda.  

On the other hand, she remains relatively unknown outside California, and is relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs, an area of responsibility often substantially shouldered by vice-presidents.

Susan Rice

The third African-American, Susan Rice, was Obama’s UN Ambassador and then National Security Adviser, giving her a solid foundation regarding national security/foreign policy.  

Probably more important, given her experience in these positions, Biden knows her better than any of the other contenders, and reportedly feels ‘very comfortable’ about.  

Further, the fact that she is not a politician means she is also devoid of any 2024 ambitions – unless the presidency becomes vacant, and she performed well in that role.  (I should note that in my lifetime, this has happened three times: In 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt died and his deputy, Harry Truman, assumed office; in 1963, when John Kennedy was assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson became president; and in 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned to escape impeachment/removal for the Watergate scandal, and his deputy, Gerald Ford took over.)  

Yet this lack of competitive political experience could have made her less effective during the campaign period, even under the current restrictions. It also means she lacks a political network in any state that she could easily mobilise on Biden’s behalf.  

However, the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghanzi, Libya, in which four US diplomats, including the Ambassador, were killed, and her initial misrepresentations of its origins, explains why the Republicans were reportedly hoping she will be his choice, so they can attack both her and Biden on that basis. 

Elizabeth Warren

A fourth ‘serious’ contender was said to be Senator Elizabeth Warren. Articulating more progressive views than did Biden during the Democratic presidential primary season, she is closer ideologically to Senator Bernie Sanders than to him.  

She is also highly regarded for her very detailed policy work in other areas. 

On the other hand, like California, her home state of Massachusetts is already in Biden’s ‘basket’, and choosing her could cost Biden at least some voter-turnout enthusiasm among African-Americans, especially after all the media attention to her main rivals ‘of colour’, even if doing so would placate many of those who had supported either her or Sanders during the Democratic primaries.

Readers may notice that one quality not included above is personal (or even family or ‘inner-circle’) wealth, a critical requirement in Kenya for many contests even beyond that for the presidency.  

While there is much debate about the negative role of money in US politics, the fact that campaign finance is sourced almost entirely from individuals, ‘political action committees’ (PACs) and powerful lobby groups largely explains this.

Several additional possible choices could also be mentioned, but based on what I have seen from here in Nairobi, it seems the two main finalists were Rice and Harris.