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The Democratic Vice-Presidential Candidate Will Probably Not be Your Second Choice

Senator Amy Klobuchar addresses the crowd after a surprisingly robust fifth place finish in the Iowa Caucus.
Senator Amy Klobuchar addresses the crowd after a surprisingly robust fifth place finish in the Iowa Caucus.
Screengrab from YouTube

Now that the Democratic nomination process is actually into the voting portion of the contest, the field is getting winnowed down considerably. As the hard numbers roll in, a lot of people are starting to dream of their favorite candidate at least sharing the ticket, with some version of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders being the most popular of those choices.

It’s almost certainly not going to happen based on historical precedent.

The modern primary system has been in place for about half a century following a chaotic nominating process in 1968 where Vice-President Hubert Humphrey ended up with the nomination despite not winning any state contests. New rules were put in place to give the people more ability to select the nominee, and in 1972 the system we know and tolerate was born.

Since then we have had 12 primaries, three of which were not meaningful contests because they involved incumbent presidents running for a second term. In that time, only two people who attempted to win the nomination themselves became vice-presidential nominees, and only one who was in any way a serious contender. In general, vice-presidential candidates do not come from the primaries.

Until 2004, it had literally never happened. That was the year Senator John Kerry picked his popular rival Senator John Edwards for the slot. Edwards had been something of a long shot (as had arguably Kerry himself depending on how you read the polls). Governor Howard Dean was the clear favorite with House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt nipping at his heels in the polls as the contest moved into Iowa. A vicious negative campaign between the two of them cleared the way for Kerry and Edwards to ascend.

John Edwards would remain a dogged second in the race until Super Tuesday. Despite putting up admirable showings in the states, he did not win a single one. Edwards withdrew and Kerry became the presumptive nominee.

The following election was the only other time a primary rival ended up on the ticket. In 2008, senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden were both hoping to become president. However, calling Biden a serious contender in this race is being very generous. By the end of 2007 he was barely polling at 5 percent, and after he did horribly in Iowa withdrew from the race.

Those are the only two examples we have in the modern system of a rival ending up on the ticket, and only one of them involved a candidate who made it as far in this nomination process as we are now. Nominees just don’t pick people they ran against that often.

Granted, historical precedent isn’t everything. There will definitely be firsts in the 2020 general election. President Donald Trump is the first impeached president to run for re-election on his party’s ticket. If Senator Bernie Sanders is the nominee he will be both the first Jewish nominee of a major party, and if either he or Biden is the nominee it will be the general election with the two oldest candidates ever. Because of the small data set that are all presidential elections, it’s also possible to say that nominees pick their rivals 22 percent of the time and be accurate. It’s all up in the air, so this analysis should be taken with a grain of salt.

Out in the field with the withdrawn candidates, a couple of them appear to be auditioning to be the third historical example. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has endorsed and is actively campaigning with Senator Elizabeth Warren in a way that reads more like a potential future vice-presidential candidate than a simple Democratic assist. Senator Kamala Harris also appears to be courting the vice-presidential role from Biden, who has said he would be open to having her.

In the main game now, though, it’s likely that all the potential vice-presidential candidates have been weeded out if history is anything to go by. No one has ever picked a close second finisher for the role after Super Tuesday. Even then-Senator Hillary Clinton, who actually won the popular vote in the 2008 primary (sort of. It's complicated), wasn’t tapped for the ticket by the person who beat her, though Obama did make her Secretary of State.

Speaking of cabinet positions, history has a muddled view on whether former rivals end up in the new administration. It’s rare-ish. None of Jimmy Carter’s opponents went to work for him, though then-Representative Lloyd Bentsen who tried for the nomination would eventually go on to be President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury. Bentsen, though, had not sought the nomination in 1992 when Clinton won. None of Clinton’s rivals landed in his administration either.

Obama is the only modern Democrat to form a “team of rivals” patterned off President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. Not only did Biden and Clinton join his team, Governor Tom Vilsack became his Secretary of Agriculture. Its impossible at this point to guess if the eventual nominee will follow in Obama or Clinton and Carter’s footsteps if he or she wins the presidency, which is still a rather huge "if" itself.

History is no predictor of the future. The election of Donald Trump, the first person ever to become president without any public service record of any kind, can attest to that. It does, however, teach us to manage our expectations. There is no second place in American presidential politics, not since the Twelfth Amendment was passed. Believing that a good showing by your favorite candidate entitles him or her to some sort of runner-up prize is just not supported by the record. It usually doesn’t happen. The eventual nominee owes opponents and their supporters nothing, and there is no conclusive evidence that snubbing them hurts or helps in the long run. In the end, there is simply the winner and who that person chooses to be part of the team. Our only voice in the matter is in the votes we cast for the winner now.

Early voting for Texas begins February 18.

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