The voters have spoken, the super delegates have made their choices, and Hillary Clinton is now the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. Now is a good time to take a closer look at the impending choice of vice presidential running mates, the most consequential decision left to the candidates before the general election in November. For Clinton, her choice may seal her fate.
Several names are being floated, but behind the individuals lie two very different strategies: In the first, Clinton can continue her move to the left, a shift Bernie Sanders has been forcing her to make since the primaries began. This choice would mean Clinton has concluded that the 2016 election will be one in which parties rally their base constituents and that the winner will be the candidate who most successfully energizes his or her base. In the second, Clinton can pivot toward the center for the general election, concluding that the election will be won through appeals to moderate independents and even Republicans who find Donald Trump unacceptable. She doesn’t have to make further concessions to the left wing of the Democratic Party because they have nowhere else to go, and she can count on Trump’s hostility to energize them during the general election.
The second strategy is the path to victory given the overall demographic parameters of the election. Barring unforeseen events that radically alter the dynamics of a campaign, there likely won’t be any significant changes in patterns of support over the coming months. Clinton will still do well with minority voters. African-Americans have provided decisive and overwhelming support for Clinton in her nomination campaign, and will continue to do so in the general election, especially given the certainty that President Obama will campaign vigorously for her.
Trump’s emphasis on building a wall, deporting undocumented immigrants, and his derogatory characterizations of many Mexican immigrants assure Clinton lopsided Latino support (making it less likely that she will choose Tom Perez, Obama’s labor secretary). Older women are inspired by her historic quest to become the first woman elected to the highest office in the land, and younger—particularly single—women will be attracted by policies traditionally associated with the Democratic Party, including mandatory maternity leave and further efforts to achieve gender income equality.
On the other side, Trump does well with white men, particularly less-educated, blue-collar men. Some of these men are registered Democrats—the so-called Reagan Democrats—who will be attracted by Trump’s promises to, as the presumptive nominee has repeatedly said, “make American great again,” and to bring back manufacturing jobs. Given Bill Clinton’s association with NAFTA and Hillary’s relatively consistent support for free trade (minus her recent opposition of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she previously supported as Secretary of State), she cannot win these voters even with union leadership endorsements. Trump will surely win a significant majority of white male voters, making rust-belt states competitive and eroding the traditional Democratic coalition. This fact forces Clinton to embrace the second strategy in which she moderates her campaign to appeal to moderate independents and anti-Trump Republicans. In an election where she faces significant attrition from the traditional Democratic base, she cannot rely on a rally-the-base strategy, even though she begins with a broader base than Trump.
If Clinton mistakenly tries to placate the Left by choosing one of their preferred candidates (Sherrod Brown, senator from Ohio; Elizabeth Warren, senator from Massachusetts; or even Sanders), she will alienate centrist voters. Moreover, Brown and Warren would have to resign their Senate seats to run, allowing Republican governors to name interim replacements and making it more difficult for the Democrats to retake the Senate in November. Tim Kaine, the junior senator from Virginia and a former governor of that state, is the vice presidential pick best calculated to expand the appeal of a Democratic ticket to voters beyond the Democratic base. His strengths as a candidate are well-known: He comes from a working-class background (his father was a welder); was nearly chosen by Obama as a vice presidential pick in 2008; is fluent in Spanish and popular among Latino voters; is a Catholic who regularly attends an African-American church where he is much beloved; and is a proven vote-getter in swing states. Less often noted is his strength in the constituency. Clinton most needs to win over young, liberal voters who have flocked to the Sanders campaign. He won the 18-to-29 age cohort with 63% of the vote and the 30-to-44 age cohort by 54% in his 2008 Virginia Senate campaign.
Winning young voters is particularly important in a presidential election where the Libertarian Party may play a spoiler role. The Electoral College favors the two major parties, so Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, the Libertarian ticket, have almost no chance of winning the election; but Libertarians could take votes away from the major parties, as Ross Perot did in the 1992 election. The attraction of young voters to the Libertarian cause was evident in the candidacy of Ron Paul in 2008 and again in 2012. Kaine’s appeal to younger voters would strengthen Clinton among a constituency that has strongly favored Sanders over her in the primaries.
Over the past six presidential elections, Democrats have enjoyed a significant advantage in the Electoral College. Democrats won states’ representatives in 242 electoral votes in every one of these presidential elections, with 270 needed to win the presidency. Virginia and neighboring North Carolina are both swing states with 13 and 15 electoral votes, respectively. If Clinton holds the Democratic Electoral College base and wins both of those states, she will have the 270 electoral votes she needs to win the presidency. Kaine is better positioned than any other Democrat to deliver these states to the Democratic column.
Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.