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Ben Piatt: Kamala Harris is a running mate who matters

Ben Piatt: Kamala Harris is a running mate who matters

Election 2020 Debate-Harris (copy)

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., makes a point during the vice presidential debate with Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday in Salt Lake City.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s selection of a vice presidential candidate was considered his “first presidential act” and an important gauge of his judgment.

At 77 years old, picking a qualified candidate would first help subside concerns surrounding his age. Biden also promised that his pick would be a woman, a choice that was met with 63% approval among voters. Then after this summer’s wave of racial reckoning, Biden was immensely pressured to pick a Black woman. His safest and most likely choice became a reality when in early August he announced California Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice presidential pick.

Harris was praised as being a historic pick as the first Black and South Asian woman to run on a major U.S. party’s ticket, and also was praised for adhering to conventional wisdom of vetting a running mate. After the announcement, an almost immediate fundraising boost of $10.8 million was donated and Biden’s favorability rating rose to its highest mark at 51%.

With all the hype surrounding the selection of Harris as Biden’s running mate, will her selection even directly influence the outcome of this remarkably stable election? Based on data from prior elections, the answer is generally no. First, vice presidential picks do not have a pattern of securing home state results. Neither Biden nor Trump seemed concerned with picking running mates from competitive states, with Harris being from solid-blue California, and Pence from deep-red Indiana. While voters say running mate choice is important in deciding their vote, few can name when a running mate actually changed their mind.

While the vice presidential pick hasn’t historically influenced the final decision of voters, campaigns can use a running mate to weave their pick into the narrative they want to tell voters. The selection of a running mate is just a piece of the puzzle voters use to decipher the overall judgment of a presidential candidate. In 2008, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin brought doubt surrounding McCain’s judgment since there were genuine concerns over her ability to serve. Barack Obama’s choice of longtime Sen. Joe Biden reflected better judgment since freshman Sen. Obama was making up for his lack of experience with a more senior politician. Biden’s selection of Harris demonstrates good judgment and Biden is capitalizing on the emotional appeal of her selection to voters.

The American electorate has never seen a running mate like Sen. Harris before, and she represents the changing demographics of American politics. Biden’s selection of the first Black and South Asian woman to be on a major party’s presidential ticket is resoundingly historic. The original optics of the election as a battle between two white men in their 70s is hardly historic, and wouldn’t help drive turnout. But his inclusion of an outspoken woman of color emphasized the historic importance of this election and the dire importance of turnout for Biden. Choosing a woman of color also shows well-informed judgment relying on a diverse set of opinions and experiences — especially since it was Sen. Harris who famously grilled him during the primaries on his opposition to school busing desegregation programs. Her historic selection also weaves into the overall theme of the Biden campaign, framing this election an historic “battle for the soul of the nation.” In fact, both Biden and Harris have consistently repeated this message even before they paired together on the Democratic ticket, and have continued to repeat it as a defining anthem of the Biden-Harris campaign.

Harris’s selection does not just appeal to emotions of identity politics, but also the emotions Biden’s own private life; specifically surrounding his beloved late son Beau. Joe Biden even said back in January, “Beau should be the one running for president, not me. Every morning I get up … and I think to myself, ‘Is he proud of me?’”

Biden’s selection of Harris was heavily influenced by Beau’s admiration of Harris when he first introduced his father to her. Biden framed his selection of Harris as fate, and a way to honor the judgment, character and legacy of Beau Biden.

Honoring the legacy of Beau Biden is another consistent theme from the Biden campaign. By picking Harris and linking that choice to Beau, Biden emotionally appeals to the universal experience of familial grief and asserts his judgment as being rooted in honoring his family. The emotional appeal of Biden’s family experience is immense since it reflects the familial journeys of many Americans who share in his experiences with the military, drug abuse, cancer, remarriage and untimely death. The selection of Harris reinforces this concept and weaves Harris’s familial experiences as a biracial daughter of immigrants into the fold of the campaign.

Between the trailblazing excitement surrounding Harris’s pick as the first woman of color and its emotional gravity of honoring Beau Biden’s legacy, Harris’s name on the ticket enhances the Biden campaign. While her selection may not have a direct effect on changing the minds of voters, she certainly helps solidify the historical importance of this election. Just the fact that she was a safe pick with a career that fit conventional wisdom is, in and of itself, revolutionary. The fact that the American electorate has never seen a woman of color on a presidential ticket speaks to the racist and sexist norm that women of color are viewed as political liabilities in a national election. But the fact Joe Biden’s judgment was not questioned when including an ambitious woman of color on his ticket helps to deconstruct that norm.

Kamala Harris’s vice presidential candidacy matters because she was the clear and obvious choice as a woman of color who would enhance the campaign rather than risk it.

Ben Piatt is a Waukesha native currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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