A Biden/Warren Ticket: Announcing a Running Mate Would Be a Risky Endeavor

A recent meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) set the political punditocracy aflutter with speculation of a Biden/Warren ticket. If Biden were to announce the formation of this ticket prior to the Democratic Presidential primaries, it would effectuate a formidable obstacle for the current front-runner Hillary Clinton. Warren's presence on the ticket could create an aperture in Clinton's advantage with blue-collar Democrats and female voters, while siphoning off liberal voters from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

There are three notable examples in American political history where the Presidential candidate announced his running mate "before" the party nominated its Presidential candidate. In all three cases, the move backfired. All three Presidential candidates who prematurely selected a running mate lost the nomination.

In 1952, U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft (R-OH), nicknamed "Mr. Republican," was supported for the Republican Presidential nomination by the conservative non-interventionist bloodline of the Republican Party. This included many sitting Republican members of the U.S. Congress. His main challenger for the nomination was the popular interventionist General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was heralded by Americans of all political persuasions for his role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WWII. One of the few Americans who was admired as much as Eisenhower in the party and in the nation as a whole was retired General Douglas MacArthur who had served as the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in the Southwest Pacific Theater.

In a political masterstroke, Taft, with the help of former President Herbert Hoover, persuaded MacArthur to publicly agree to be his Vice Presidential running mate should Taft win the nomination. MacArthur was experiencing an upsurge in popularity after being fired for insubordination by the unpopular Democratic President Harry S. Truman in 1951. The General had publicly disparaged Truman for refusing to attack the Peoples Republic of China during the Korean War.

MacArthur returned home from Korea to multiple ticker tape parades. He subsequently received an avalanche of applause when addressing the U.S. Congress. Taft promised that if the ticket were elected, he would "deputize the General to assume responsibility for the national security as a Deputy Commander in Chief in the Armed Forces and give him a voice in the formulation of all foreign policy bearing upon national security."

However, the proposed ticket had the adverse effect of being a "kangaroo ticket" in which the candidate at the bottom of the ticket upstaged the candidate at the top. In fact, a large contingent of Republicans, led by U.S. Senator Francis H. Case of South Dakota, called on the cerebral Taft to withdraw from the race and endorse the charismatic MacArthur for the Presidential nomination instead. Taft refused, but told MacArthur that should the ticket not win on the first ballot, he would entertain the notion of endorsing MacArthur to supplant him at the top of the ticket. However, Taft miscalculated the strength of the Eisenhower forces. Eisenhower defeated Taft on the first ballot and won the nomination. A second ballot might have resulted in an epic electoral bout between the two former generals.

The second example where a President announced his choice of a running mate before the nomination was settled occurred in 1976. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan was locked in a whisker-close battle for the Republican Presidential nomination with President Gerald R. Ford. With the primary season over, and no clear winner, the winner was to be decided at the convention. The moderate Republican establishment supported Ford, while Reagan was the preferred candidate of the party's emerging conservative bloodline.

In a move to wrest enough moderate delegates at the GOP Convention to support his candidacy, Reagan teamed up with one of the party's most liberal Senators, Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania. However, this move attracted few moderates to Reagan, as many saw this as a cynical political ploy. Moreover, this action inflamed many conservatives who saw it as a sellout to the ideological agenda Reagan was espousing. The stout conservative U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), whose endorsement of Reagan in the North Carolina primary was instrumental in providing Reagan with his first victory (which helped to keep the campaign afloat), was appalled. He urged the rock rib U.S. Senator James Buckley (R-NY) to enter the race to stop a potential Reagan victory if neither candidate was nominated on the first ballot. However, Ford defeated Reagan on the first ballot and the potential showdown was averted.

The third example occurred In January of 1992. Former California Governor Jerry Brown was losing ground in his bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. In a dramatic move to reinvigorate his campaign, the progressive Brown announced that should he win the nomination, he would select the Reverend Jesse Jackson as his running mate. Jackson had been a candidate for the nomination in the last two elections and was popular in the African-American community. Brown was competing directly with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton for the support of this constituency.

Brown's campaign was picking up steam, and by April, with the crucially important New York primary coming up, Brown and Clinton were the only two major candidates actively campaigning (former U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas (D-MA) had suspended his campaign but had not officially dropped out of the race). After upsetting Clinton in Connecticut and Vermont, Brown was enjoying electoral momentum.

New York has a redoubtable share of Jewish voters. Many in the state's Jewish community were incensed with Jackson for his 1984 characterization of New York City as "Hymietown" (Hymie is a derogatory term for a Jewish person). When Brown addressed about 200 Jewish voters in Manhattan, he was booed for his choice of Jackson. State Assemblyman Dov Hikind heckled him, screaming: "You insult the Jewish community by picking Jackson." Hikind then admonished the crowd: "Don't sit quietly and listen to him."

Empire State Jewish voters coalesced around Clinton. The weekly Jewish Press endorsed Clinton with the front-page headline reading: "We support Gov. Bill Clinton/Brown Will Choose Jesse Jackson as V.P. "

Clinton handily won the primary. Because of the backlash from his selection of Jackson, Brown mustered just 10 percent of the state's Jewish vote. While the Jackson selection helped Brown with the state's African-American population, African-American voter turnout registered less than other Democratic constituencies in the state.

Clinton's decisive win in the Empire State halted Brown's momentum, and Clinton steamrolled to the nomination. Brown did not win a single primary after that, even losing his home state of California.

On paper, a Biden/Warren ticket appears to be a dream ticket in the Democratic primaries. However, history shows that when a Presidential candidate announces his Vice Presidential running mate before the nomination is decided, there is a good chance that deleterious consequences will follow. This is an important factor for Biden to weigh in the event he decides to seek the nomination and chooses Warren as his running mate.