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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Evolution of the Veep Reveal

With Joe Biden indicating he will announce his choice of running-mate next week, I decided to do a brief reminder at New York of how this “reveal” has evolved over time.

Until pretty recently, the veep preference of the nominee was traditionally announced, and more often than not actually determined, at the convention itself. In part that was because the identity of the presidential nominee wasn’t always nailed down heading into the convention, making a running mate announcement more than a little presumptuous. Additionally, the veep selection often represented a plum appointment that might prove helpful either in winning the nomination or uniting a splintered party. The ultimate non-presumptuous gesture was made by Adlai Stevenson in 1956, when he allowed the the Democratic convention to name his running mate in open balloting for the gig. After three ballots the convention chose Tennessee populist Estes Kefauver over a young senator named John F. Kennedy (with the father of a future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Albert Gore Sr., finishing third, and yet another future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, running fourth).

Equally unpredictable veep selections took place at conventions for less indifferent reasons. In 1968, Richard Nixon picked Spiro T. Agnew as an inoffensive choice after better-known options were vetoed by party factions he consulted. He did not, of course, know that Agnew would eventually resign in disgrace during his second vice-presidential term as part of a plea bargain, when he was caught taking bribes dating back to his first public office as Baltimore County Executive. In 1972, George McGovern was turned down by multiple pols before he turned to Senator Tom Eagleton — later dropped from the ticket for undisclosed health problems and drunk-driving citations (after, unfortunately, McGovern said he was “1,000 percent” behind the Missourian).

The Eagleton fiasco helped produce today’s very careful process of extensive vetting of potential running mates. That happened in tandem with a presidential nominating process dominated by primaries, which robbed conventions of most of their deliberative nature and also made possible pre-convention running mate announcements. According to data assembled by Nathaniel Rakich, the last veep announcement at a convention was in 1988 when Poppy Bush (himself announced at the 1980 convention as Reagan’s running mate after wild speculation about a Reagan-Ford ticket) chose Dan Quayle. Since then, all but two veep reveals occurred within a week of the convention, at which the choice would be formally ratified (including Obama’s naming of Biden just three days before the 2008 convention). The exceptions were John Kerry’s announcement of John Edwards as his partner 20 days before the 2004 Democratic convention and Mitt Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan 16 days before 2012’s RNC. With the 2020 Democratic convention beginning on August 17, Biden will soon be within the historical window for going public with his choice.

Occasionally the timing of veep announcements has had a secondary purpose. In 2008, John McCain’s surprise announcement of Sarah Palin occurred the day after the Democratic convention nominated Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The idea was to “step on” news from the Democrats and shorten and flatten any convention “bounce.” It worked to some extent. Hillary Clinton tried the same thing by announcing Tim Kaine as her running mate in 2016 the day after the RNC ended. It did not work as Trump still got a good bounce. With the Republicans going second this year and Trump not expected to dump Mike Pence, no preemptive announcement is in the cards for 2020.

Biden, of course, has reduced the mystery of his veep preference considerably by announcing in advance that he will choose a woman — who will be the first woman selected as a Democratic running mate since Fritz Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro (that was announced four days before the 1984 Democratic convention). The fact that this year’s confab will be largely virtual, however, places a premium on Biden’s veep reveal, which may provide the only Democratic drama before Uncle Joe’s acceptance speech on August 20. Presumably, social-distancing requirements in Milwaukee will prevent the traditional clasped-hands gesture uniting the new ticket mates. Perhaps if Democrats win, a handshake or even a chaste hug will be possible before they are inaugurated next January.

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