The Partner Primary

The case for picking a running mate before 2020.

Stacey Abrams and Joe Biden photoshopped together, holding hands with their arms raised.
Biden-Abrams 2020? Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chuck Kennedy—Pool/Getty Images and Jessica McGowan/Getty Images.

Here’s what we know about Joe Biden’s meeting with Stacey Abrams in Washington last Thursday: It happened. It was at Biden’s request. And … that’s about it. That, however, didn’t prevent speculation that maybe their get-together was step one in Biden’s vetting of Abrams as a potential vice presidential candidate. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported the meeting, put it last week, Biden “would seem likely to select a running mate who brings gender, geographic and racial balance to the ticket.” CNN then amped up the speculation this week, reporting that a hot topic among the former veep’s inner circle has been “the early selection of a running mate.”

I wouldn’t slap a Biden-Abrams bumper sticker on my car just yet. Not only has Biden not yet officially entered the 2020 fray, Abrams hasn’t ruled out running herself. And while Abrams thinks over her options, she’s also been meeting with a number of Democrats who are already running for president: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand, the last of whom Abrams had breakfast with the morning of her more widely covered meeting with Biden.

But as silly as it is to play matchmaker 16 months out from the Democratic convention, the general idea is still worth considering. Four years ago, there was a similar swirl of speculation that Biden would get deeply creative with his could-be campaign, including an early commitment to a running mate with progressive appeal. Biden had far more incentive to make a splash in 2015 when he was a dark horse than he does in 2019 when he is a favorite, but the right running mate could help him address a number of his biggest liabilities. It seems plausible that he really is considering it this time around.

I hope Biden does announce his pick early in the nominating process—not on the opening day of his campaign nor when it’s too late to matter à la Ted Cruz, but rather sometime before the nominating contests officially get underway early next year. I also hope the rest of the field considers doing the same. A primary rich with running mates would offer voters important insights into how each presidential candidate is plotting his or her path to the White House—something of particular concern to the party’s rank and file this year—and what their top priorities would be should they actually make it there. Candidates make countless choices, from where to appear to what to propose and in what order, but they’d only get one VP pick. There would be no playing it safe, since playing it safe would be a revealing move on its own.

Picking a primary running mate would also offer an avenue for candidates to more directly address the issues of race and gender that have already emerged as central themes in a field that is simultaneously the most diverse in history and one in which the early polling, fundraising, and media coverage have been dominated by a trio of white men. Today, those general conversations can veer too easily toward tokenism, but in a partner primary they could get specific.

Consider how this could play out if Biden really did convince Abrams to join him. One of the biggest knocks against the former veep is his past positions and posture on issues of race, illustrated by both his opposition to school integration in the 1970s and his turn as a death penalty–loving drug warrior in the 1990s. But if Biden were to pick Abrams—someone who has foregrounded her lived experience as a black woman in her progressive politics and who speaks forcefully about the disenfranchisement of black Americans and compassionately about the dangers of mass incarceration—it would be a powerful signal that Biden is ready to reckon with his problematic record. Abrams’ presence wouldn’t erase Biden’s past, but it would add sincerity to his efforts to repent.

Alternatively, Biden could decide that his path to the White House runs through the Midwest and instead go all-in on his brand as the bipartisan whisperer of the white working class by selecting a running mate like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown or Montana Gov. Steve Bullock—or even Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, if her presidential bid doesn’t last through the fall. Democrats of all stripes would benefit from knowing what they’d get from General Election Joe while they still have a chance to change their minds.

Biden wouldn’t be the only candidate who could better define himself by adding a running mate early. Harris, Booker, and Gillibrand, for instance, have all tacked left since getting in the race, but many progressives remain suspicious that they’ll tack back if they win the nomination. What better way to prove their sincerity than by teaming up with someone like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the author of a Medicare for all bill that arguably goes beyond Bernie Sanders’, or Sen. Jeff Merkley, who has been one of the most vocal critics of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement? Alternatively, they could stake their own claim to Obama world by looking to a more moderate candidate with ties to the former president, like former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick or former Attorney General Eric Holder.

I grant that a partner primary would not be perfect. My chief concern is the implicit pressure the practice would put on women and candidates of color to sign on as a No. 2. That, however, is already the case with our current system. Exhibit A: Beto O’Rourke and Abrams both lost high-profile statewide races in dark red states in 2018, but while the former was almost immediately seen as a top-tier presidential contender, the latter was largely reduced to a prospective running mate until very recently. A world in which candidates pick a partner early won’t fix this problem, but it wouldn’t make the problem worse. The partner primary would also force those male candidates who talk openly about the need for a woman on the ticket to get specific. “I don’t know if it’s in the vice president’s position or the president’s position,” Cory Booker recently told voters in New Hampshire, “but if I have my way, there will be a woman on the ticket.” Translation: If Booker has his way, he’ll be atop the ticket. But picking early would give him the chance to prove he actually means the other half of that pledge.

Likewise, the other drawbacks of a partner primary would nonetheless be slight improvements to our current system. Sure, up-and-coming-but-not-quite-there candidates might drop out earlier than normal to secure a spot as someone else’s running mate, but the reality is that with a deep field getting deeper by the week, not everyone is going to still be standing when the first primary votes are cast in February 2020. Take Pete Buttigieg: The South Bend mayor has gotten rave reviews from those who have seen him, but he’s having a hard time getting noticed at the moment. Mayor Pete still has plenty of time to break through—keep an eye out for him on the debate stage this summer—but if he can’t, the partner primary would offer a unique opportunity. Three months as the running mate of a better-known and better-funded candidate who ultimately drops out would leave him better positioned for the future than three extra weeks running on his own at the back of the field. For the party’s other rising stars who are not running for president, the benefits would be even more pronounced. Prolonged exposure to the Democratic base and the grassroots left during the primary would be a great way to set yourself up for a future run. Today’s VP field could be tomorrow’s incoming Senate class.

It’s true that, as Matthew Yglesias argues at Vox, picking early could produce a situation in which the eventual Democratic nominee finds herself with a running mate who wouldn’t have been her ideal choice. The pool of possible VPs, after all, will be smaller at the start of the primary than at the end, once all the other contenders have dropped out. So this approach could shut out an exciting prospect like Harris or O’Rourke. But it’s hardly a given that the veep nominee will come from the primary field. More often than not in recent years, it has not. Of the eight nonincumbent Democratic and GOP nominees since 2000, only two selected primary rivals as running mates: John Kerry picked John Edwards in 2004, and Barack Obama tapped Biden in 2008. And while it’s too much to expect that someone like O’Rourke would willingly take a back seat, a world where primary running mates are the norm would at least give him the option of staying on the national stage while using his particular skill set in support of someone else.

Contenders who select a running mate early would also likely have a tougher time finding someone to broaden their intraparty coalition. A progressive like Rep. Ro Khanna, for example, might be willing to join Biden or Harris next summer, but it’s hard to imagine Khanna leaving his current second job as co-chairman of Sanders’ campaign before then. But the flip side of that is the partner primary would make any intraparty alliance that much more powerful. By agreeing to run with Biden before he has the nomination, for instance, Abrams would be saying that she believes Biden isn’t just better than Donald Trump, but that Biden’s better than the rest of the Democratic field.

Furthermore, history suggests that we tend to overstate how much a VP pick matters to the general electorate. Presidential elections are decided by and large at the top of the ticket, and that reality will be no different in 2020 with Donald Trump up for a second term. Why, then, shouldn’t Democrats select running mates as a way to define themselves in the primary when it would matter more, as opposed to in the general election when it almost certainly won’t? That’s a question all the Democratic candidates should ask themselves between now and Iowa.