Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden declared Californian Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate on Tuesday. With Donald Trump aiming for a second term at US presidency, it is not yet clear whether he will continue with Vice-President Mike Pence as his running mate for 2020 or whether the Trump campaign will announce some last-minute changes.
In this explainer, Chris Edelson, Assistant Professor of Government at the American University in Washington DC, answers all questions that you may have on running mates in the US elections.
The Constitution of the United States provides for both a president and a vice-president, explains Edelson. Under the current system, the presidential candidate for each of the two major parties, the Democratic and the Republican party, chooses a vice presidential running mate. This process is also applicable to smaller political parties, says Edelson. “The running mate is simply the vice presidential candidate. Voters vote on the two—presidential and vice presidential candidates—as a team.”
The system isn’t unique to the US. There are other countries where a similar process exists, for instance, Brazil, Indonesia and Palau, where the running mate of the presidential candidate is automatically made Vice-President.
The running mate system in US politics was never formally adopted in law, but has existed since at least 1864. “Under the original system, the vice-president was simply the presidential candidate who received the second most electoral college votes in the presidential election. This led to an odd result after the 1796 election, when the vice president, Thomas Jefferson, was a political opponent of the president, John Adams,” explains Edelson.
However, Edelson says the US Constitution was subsequently changed in 1804 by the 12th Amendment “to provide that the electoral college would separately select a president and a vice-president, rather than simply choosing the runner up in the presidential election as the vice-president.”
The process of selecting running mates isn’t very complex. “The presidential candidate selects his or her running mate with advice from advisors or anyone else the presidential candidate wants to listen to,” says Edelson. There are no set or required criteria for choosing a potential mate, he says. “The presidential candidate generally wants to choose a running mate who will help them get elected, or at least “do no harm”. In other words, not hurt their candidacy, and help them govern, if elected. It’s worth noting that some experts believe the running mate does not have much of an effect on the election — “in other words, the controlling factor for voters is the presidential candidate himself or herself.”
It has happened at least once in US election history, says Edleson. He points to an event that occurred one summer five decades ago when presidential candidate George McGovern decided to place Thomas Eagleton on the Democratic ticket in 1972 at the very last minute, an individual who hadn’t even been up for consideration until then.
At present, candidates for running mates in US elections are subjected to extensive background checks that scour every aspect of the candidate’s professional and personal life, covering everything from personal relationships, medical history and financial checks. According to a 2012 NPR news report, there is a reason for that, rooted in the events of 1972.
NPR says that when Eagleton’s name began circulating as the choice for running mate, McGovern’s office began getting anonymous reports suggesting that Eagleton had a “complicated medical background”. Further investigation by the office into the matter revealed that Eagleton had also been hospitalised for depression and subsequent treatment.
It wasn’t that Eagleton wasn’t forthcoming about any of these questions that were brought up by McGovern’s campaign, but the truthfulness wasn’t enough for the Democratic party and the subsequent pressure compelled him to withdraw his candidacy after only 18 days.
Political historians believe that the decision by McGovern and the Democratic party was a greater error than they realised and many voters had disagreed with the treatment that Eagleton had received. In those elections, McGovern was defeated by Richard Nixon “in the widest margin of victory in the popular vote in presidential history,” the NPR report says.
As the case suggests, changing a running mate at the very last minute is not a prudent political move. “The presidential candidate can make this decision, though it is quite unusual and would generally be seen as risky—something to be done only in extraordinary circumstances,” explains Edelson.
“In 1972, there was a change because the original choice for McGovern became controversial when reporting surfaced about past treatment for mental health. Today, presidential candidates spend a lot of time screening their possible running mate, so it is unlikely something similar could emerge unexpectedly,” he adds.
That isn’t to say that last-minute changes cannot occur at all. “It would have to be (an) extraordinary (reason), though. I would also think that, in theory, a candidate might change a running mate if he or she believed it was necessary to avoid defeat — for instance, if the presidential candidate was behind by a lot in the polls. For example, there has been speculation that Trump, who is trailing significantly in the polls, might replace Pence with a new running mate. This is just speculation, though.”
In short, the incident indicates that US voters dislike surprises and hence the likelihood of a last-minute change in running mates would be very low. No presidential candidate would risk alienating voters by pulling new political schemes unless it was believed to be absolutely necessary.
Apart from Harris, reports suggested (Biden) was focusing on Val Demings, Tammy Duckworth, Susan Rice, and Karen Bass.
“Donald Trump is significantly behind in the polls and seems worried. I think there is a chance he could make a change, but (I) have no way to assess how likely this is,” Edelson says.
Despite all the focus centered squarely on presidential candidates for international observers, the role and importance of running mates shouldn’t be easily dismissed.
“The general consensus is that the running mate usually does not make a big difference in the election, though this is an unusual year to say the least. Running mates who are elected can often become presidents themselves, so the running mate is certainly important from that perspective,” explains Edelson.
There have also been some unusual choices for running mates in US election history. For Edelson, Sarah Palin “leaps to mind” who stood as the running mate for John McCain in 2008. “She was radical, extreme, unqualified—clearly a risk,” he says.
Edelson had said Biden’s statements pointed to them having an impact. “Recent events in the US — protests following the George Floyd killing and other police violence against African Americans — are clearly a factor.”
As for Trump, it is harder to speculate, says Edelson. “I do not think Donald Trump is concerned about these matters, though it is possible he might see some advantage in replacing Pence with a running mate who is a woman and/or not white.”