Biden Should Pick A New Running Mate for 2024: Gretchen Whitmer
The president's advanced age and the closeness of the 2024 polls mean Joe Biden needs the partner who can best help him win, govern and lead. That's not Kamala Harris.
When he is renominated as the Democratic candidate for president, Joe Biden will need to choose a running mate. The polls are close and the stakes are high, so he needs a partner who will do as much as possible to help him win re-election. Given widespread public concern about his age, it is even more important than usual that his running mate be someone that a majority of the voting public is comfortable envisioning succeeding to the presidency. And his pick should be someone who is credible as the future leader of the Democratic Party. Part of the problem in the 2020 primary campaign was that none of the younger candidates had a credible forward-looking pitch that was broadly acceptable across the party’s coalition in the way Biden’s was; since whoever Biden picks as VP is highly likely to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2028, he should pick someone who can pass that test in the same way he did. And let’s throw in one more bonus factor: It would be great if his running mate had a regional appeal that gave the Democratic ticket a leg up in one or more battleground states, such as, to choose a completely random example, Michigan.
Who’s the available person who stacks up best on those measures? Could it possibly be Kamala Harris?
Of course, the way I framed the question is not how people normally talk about this issue. Normally, the frame is that Harris has the spot on the ticket, and if she is to be replaced, it must be taken away from her. As such, the question people tend to argue about is whether Harris is performing so poorly that she ought to be fired from the ticket. But technically, there is no ticket yet to be fired from. The delegates to next year’s Democratic Convention will affirmatively choose a new candidate for Vice President, and if they choose Harris, it will be for the same reason they did in 2020: Joe Biden, who will again have won a majority of delegates in presidential nominating contests, will have asked them to do so. Biden should only make that ask if Harris is the very best option to help him win, govern and lead — that is, he should only pick her if she is excellent, rather than merely satisfactory.
Kamala Harris, unfortunately, is not an excellent candidate for the vice presidency. There are better options available and he should pick one of them — specifically, as I’ll discuss below, he should pick Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Kamala Harris would do little to draw support to the 2024 Democratic ticket
As Nate Silver noted last week, Harris has run worse than Biden in every national poll conducted since the midterms that asked respondents about both Biden-Trump and Harris-Trump head-to-head contests. On average, she’s put up a margin four points worse than his, which is a lot — in each of the last three presidential elections, a four-point shift in the margin would have been enough to mean the difference between winning and losing. Even despite all the (very real!) voter concern about Biden’s age and stamina, she is a much worse national candidate than he is.
This shouldn’t be surprising, because there is little in Harris’s pre-vice presidential career to suggest that she would be a strong national candidate.
She has never run a race by herself in a politically competitive jurisdiction. Well, that’s unless you count California — in 2010, she very nearly managed to lose a statewide race in California to a Republican, when she was elected attorney general by a margin of less than one point. And her 2020 presidential campaign, famously, flamed out before she entered any of the nominating contests.
Usually, the case for Harris’s electoral appeal is built around her race and gender: That as a black woman, she improves the Democratic ticket’s appeal to black voters and to women. But Harris’s role as a draw for black voters is more theoretical than demonstrated. She has never had a core political base among black voters because she has never been elected in a jurisdiction with a large black population — she held office in San Francisco (which is 6% black) and California (7% black). A key reason her 2020 campaign stalled was that she failed to demonstrate an especially strong appeal to black voters, who tended to prefer her (white) eventual running mate, Biden, even after she accused him of being a segregationist. I’d also note that the Democratic Party has lost substantial ground in recent years among non-white voters without bachelors degrees, including black voters without bachelors degrees, and Harris’s presence in the second-most-prominent position in Democratic politics doesn’t seem to have done anything to stop that. When Harris talks publicly about race, she does so in the voguish style that is popular with the highly educated staffs of Democratic officeholders and progressive organizations, rather than in a style with demonstrated success in appealing to an educationally broad electoral coalition. So while I am open to the idea that nominating more non-white candidates might help the party appeal to more non-white voters, I am doubtful that Harris, with her equity memes, has been helpful in this regard.
As for Harris being a woman, it’s true that Democrats would like to elect the first woman president, and that many of them hope they will have the honor of doing that in 2028 — much as the nomination and election of Barack Obama as the first black nominee and president was a proud moment for the party in 2008. Many Democrats had high hopes that Hillary Clinton would win in 2016 and remain bitterly disappointed about her loss. The 2020 primary campaign field included several women, including two — Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — who ran better campaigns than Harris did; the support they drew reflected, in part, a desire to finally elect a woman to this office. So I think it would be ideal if Biden can set himself up so he’s passing the torch to a woman who is well-positioned to unite the party and lead it to victory in 2028.
Which brings me to Gretchen Whitmer.
Gretchen Whitmer is a more impressive politician than Kamala Harris and is better suited to the 2024 political environment
In 2018, Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor of Michigan by a margin of 9.5 percentage points. She was re-elected last year by a margin of 11.6 points. She has presided over a broader resurgence of Michigan’s Democratic Party, which has used the state’s ballot initiative process to protect abortion rights and end partisan gerrymandering. With her coattails and new fair maps, Democrats won control of both houses of Michigan’s state legislature last year, consolidating full control over state government for the first time in decades. And they have used their narrow majorities to pursue a progressive agenda, including repeal of the state’s right-to-work law.
Democrats’ overperformance in Michigan under Whitmer has also extended to races for national office. As Nate Cohn wrote for The New York Times this week, Democrats’ loss of ground with voters since 2020 has been unevenly distributed. More than 100% of the loss is with non-white voters — that is, Democrats are actually running very slightly better with white voters than they did in 2020 — and the loss is also much more acute in some states than others. Nationally, Democrats put up House race margins in 2022 that were, on average, more than 6 points worse than in 2020. But in Michigan, the deterioration was less than 1 point, moving Michigan from right of the national average to left of it.
As Cohn also notes, the uneven nature of Democrats’ loss of ground has actually been shrinking the electoral college advantage that Republicans held in the last two elections, in part because swing states tend to be whiter than non-swing states. (Florida is not a swing state anymore.) This makes it highly likely that the tipping point state in 2024 will be a relatively white state in the Rust Belt — if Joe Biden can win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, he can get to 270 electoral votes even if he loses Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.1
Who’s likelier to help him get over the top in those states in 2024: A popular governor from one of those states with a demonstrated record of outrunning her party’s typical performance there, or Kamala Harris?
Biden cannot and should not be replaced, but the urge to change something is well-founded
There’s been a lot more ink spilled about the question of whether Biden should be renominated than whether Harris should be. Nervous Democrats look at the close polls, and they look at our very-obviously-old president, and they ask “why we can’t have someone else?” But whenever people tell me they’d like someone besides Joe Biden at the top of the Democratic ticket next year, I ask them to run the counterfactual: What do they envision happening if Biden doesn’t seek re-election?
It’s not that I think there’s no theoretical better option: As I told Andrew Sullivan on his podcast earlier this summer, if I could snap my fingers and replace Biden on the ticket with Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, I’d do it. I’d say the same for Whitmer and probably a half-dozen other impressive statewide elected Democratic officials around the country. But I can’t impose one of those switches and neither can Biden himself.
Let me answer my own question. If Biden declined to seek re-election, Kamala Harris — who, I will note again, consistently polls much worse than Biden in head-to-head matchups with Republicans — would be the frontrunner for the nomination. But she wouldn’t have a clear field. She’d have to run against Gavin Newsom and JB Pritzker and Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg and probably a half-dozen other aspirants who correctly perceive her as weak.
As in 2020, the candidates would clamber leftward over each other in an effort to achieve differentiation, arguing ad nauseam about what form of dead-on-arrival socialized medicine they’d bring to Congress. Gavin Newsom would push the other candidates to back his proposed constitutional amendment to restrict gun rights — great for building grassroots liberal donor lists; terrible for running a general election campaign. The whole effect of the primary campaign would be to make all the candidates less appealing for the general election than they were when they entered it.
And unlike in 2020, this primary would be pretty likely to be won by someone without good instincts about the general electorate — most likely Kamala Harris, but only after she faced months of intra-party attacks and responded to them by moving ever leftward. Or maybe it would be Gavin Newsom, who is grimy and off-putting but good at singing from the MSNBC songbook. On a brighter note, maybe a really good candidate would get in and win — maybe that’s Whitmer herself — but she wouldn’t be the odds-on favorite, and even if she (or another strong candidate like Shapiro) did manage to win, they’d still be saddled with whatever unpopular promises they had to make to win the primary.2
All of which is to say, I see no good way to get Biden off the ticket and replace him with someone who would be a stronger candidate. Maybe that’s why, of the 67% of Democratic respondents who told CNN last month they wish someone other than Biden would be the nominee, 82% can’t even name anyone specific they’d like to see nominated instead. (Just 1% named Harris.) This is also likely a reason that Biden has never appeared to waver from his intention to seek re-election: He believes, correctly, that the party would be worse off if he retired. There is another fact that’s closely related to this: Even though Biden’s age is a problem, and one that’s gotten worse over time, he has been underrated at every step by commentators and operatives and even other Democratic elected officials. He was a better candidate than they thought in 2020 and he’s a better candidate than they think now — not better than any theoretically possible candidate, but very likely better than whoever we’d end up with if he didn’t seek re-election.
So Biden should run again, and picking a new running mate is the most obvious and impactful step he could take to assuage voters’ concerns about his age without getting off the ticket himself. He has the opportunity to pick a running mate who’s more appealing to voters than Kamala Harris, more credible as a next-generation leader of the Democratic Party than Kamala Harris, and more comforting to voters who consider the possibility that his running mate might succeed to the presidency than Kamala Harris. So why wouldn’t he do that?
He’ll also need one electoral vote from Nebraska’s Omaha-based second congressional district, which he won in 2020.
Another benefit of putting Whitmer on the ticket has to do with 2028. If a Biden-Whitmer ticket is elected in 2024, then Whitmer will either enter the 2028 primary race as vice president or as president. Because she is a stronger politician than Harris, she’d enter that race in a more commanding position, meaning a less divisive primary and fewer politically costly promises she’d have to make in order to secure the nomination.