Joe Biden’s running mate may matter less in 2020 than in any election in a generation. Here’s why

Joe Biden.
Joe Biden.Alex Wong/Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Im

Joe Biden’s team has signaled he is putting off the vice presidential decision for another week. This has amplified the high-octane speculation on who it might be. There is intrigue about cutthroat moves behind the scenes, about allies of one candidate trying to disqualify another. There are accusations of sexism amidst the jockeying.

But here is the truth: In terms of the 2020 election, Biden’s pick could be about as meaningless as any vice presidential selection in a generation.

Since the 2000 election, the presidential political environment between the Republican and Democratic teams has largely involved trench warfare. The margins in polls and the general election results have been relatively small.


Given that, for the most part, any decision that could flip a state or move the needle a percentage point one way or the other mattered. This, however, is simply not where we are at in the 2020 presidential election. Biden has a commanding two-digit national lead and, right now, is winning in nearly every important swing state.

At this point, it is hard to tell what a good vice presidential pick would even get Biden. To get perspective, let’s go back to the 2008 presidential election, when Barack Obama put Biden on the ticket.

In that election, Obama, the Democrat, and John McCain, the Republican, had different things they wanted from their choice of running mate. Obama, like George W. Bush before him, sought a wise, old Washington hand to make up for a lack of Washington experience — both as a way assuage voter worries during the campaign and to actually help them govern.

McCain, who was trailing in polls, felt he needed to take a risk to shake up a campaign he was losing, hence the dark horse pick of Sarah Palin.

In 2020, Biden doesn’t need someone to bolster a Washington resume. He also doesn’t need to shake up the campaign. And while there is an argument from more progressive circles that he could use the pick to help enthuse the party’s base, polling suggests that antipathy toward President Trump is doing that already.


Biden has pledged that he will pick a woman. There is political pressure on him to pick a Black woman, specifically. Should he do so, the historic nature of the first Black woman on a national ticket could prevent any nit-picking from the base if she is seen as not progressive enough. This gives Biden even more leeway.

All of this is not to suggest that who Biden does pick doesn’t matter at all. Of course it matters some. Biden will be the oldest person ever elected president and the person he chooses will be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Should Biden win, there is still speculation he might only serve a single term. Should Biden lose, the person he picks will almost assuredly be the front-runner for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination.

Biden might not just be picking his running mate, but choosing the first female president.

While Biden doesn’t have a lot to gain with his pick, he probably doesn’t have much to lose if his pick turns out to not be all that great. History shows that even when there are bad picks, candidates can win anyway (Dan Quayle in 1988) and if a ticket loses, it is not likely because of the vice presidential nominee (Sargent Shriver in 1972, Palin in 2008.)


At the moment the political environment is so bad for Trump that even if Biden picks a disaster for a number two, he could win anyway.

Yes, there is only one missing piece to the 2020 presidential election: whom Biden will pick to be his running mate.

Once he does, there will be endless profiles written about and opposition research released on the person chosen. But, in the end, in an election that is looking to be more of a blowout than any since 1984, the noise is likely to be just that, and the election result won’t change based on whom Biden picked.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.