Image courtesy of CNN
By Logan M. Finning
The Constitution of the United States lays out in Article One, Section Three, that the “Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.” In terms of the actual powers given to our number-two, that is it. Besides the president, the vice president is the only other person in our nation that is elected by voters of the entire electorate; yet, their constitutional role of office is strikingly limited. Obviously, their other role has nothing to do with daily life as the “Veep,” but what happens when their boss’s office suddenly becomes vacant? It is for this reason that the nomination of vice-presidential candidates will be a more powerful tool than usual in the Coronavirus Election.
Political parties once served as big-tent homes for many ideological factions united, at least somewhat, behind general principles. The terms “conservative” and “liberal” were not immediate indicators of the party to which an individual belonged. As recently as the 1960s and 70s, both parties had, to differing variations, their two ideological wings. It was this type of variation within the parties themselves that made the vice-presidential pick so important for party unity. The idea was that if a candidate of either wing of the party could get someone from the other to run alongside them, it would at least appear as though the ticket appealed to both factions. It had been orchestrated many times in the past by both parties, and it seemed to work well. As time has passed, though, ideological factionalism has become far less troublesome. The two dominant parties have solidified their own uniform stances on most issues. What this means is that the vice-presidential nomination serves a new role for elections.
For the 2020 election, incumbent President Donald Trump has once again chosen Mike Pence to join him in carrying the banner of the Grand Old Party. His opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has chosen California Senator Kamala Harris. These candidates were chosen not so much to unite ideological factions, but to drive turnout for essential voting-blocs within each party.
Beginning with the Republicans, Pence in many ways embodies the white, working-class, Midwestern voter so essential to Trump’s victory in 2016. As an added benefit to the Republican ticket, he is outspoken about his religious values, a Roman Catholic turned Evangelical Christian. Since the early 2000s, Evangelicals have been a key bloc for the Republican Party, and represent a group from which Trump needs near full support and turnout in 2020. In this way, Pence was not selected to widen ideological appeal within the party, but rather to strengthen turnout for key demographics. Trump, with his multiple divorces, often-offensive language, multi-billion-dollar net-worth, and former pro-abortion beliefs, needed a strong, Christian, blue collar man to shore up party support. He found it in Hoosier Mike Pence.
In terms of the Democrats, Senator Kamala Harris plays well to a party which has tirelessly attempted to brand itself as the home for feminists and minorities. She has claimed roots with the African American, Asian, and Latino communities; all growing demographics in the United States and key to future electoral success for both parties. Harris, having the most liberal voting record of any United States senator in the 116th Congress, being chosen as his second-in-command serves as an indicator of where Biden sees the party moving in the future. Biden is also nearly eighty years old. He has been forced to dispel accusations of befriending and aiding his former segregationist colleagues during his time in the Senate, especially in terms of busing. Having a charismatic, mixed-race, fifty-five-year-old woman campaign alongside him should alleviate, in the minds of his party, many difficulties at reaching essential younger voters and minorities.
As age goes, Donald J. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. are the oldest nominees in history for their respective parties. It is not an outlandish scenario to see either of them be forced to resign office for health issues, or worse. In any case, if the electorate thinks at all about candidates for the vice presidency, this is likely the paramount issue on their minds. This idea is perhaps even more prevalent in the age of coronavirus, a key issue in the 2020 Election made even more striking with Trump’s announcement on October 2 that he and the First Lady had contracted the virus. His admission to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center left the Commander-In-Chief commanding the country from a hospital room. It raised a glaring concern that, had the virus incapacitated the 74-year-old, Pence would have assumed the office as acting president, leaving him with all powers and privileges the office holds. With no clear end in sight for COVID-19, the prospect of a President Biden being similarly incapacitated would leave us with Acting President Kamala Harris.
In the age of coronavirus, the electorate may be forced to judge vice presidential candidates far more closely than in the past. The upcoming debate will give voters a chance to do just that, and it is likely that this will be on the minds of both candidates. Whether this will sway the entire election one way or another is a different matter: in almost any other time, the answer would have been an emphatic “no.” With that being said, this nation is in the midst of a crisis the likes of which it has never seen before. The immediate successors of our elderly, ballot-topping candidates are worth more than a passing glance.
For both candidates, they have hedged their bets on running mates who, in theory, should strengthen demographic turnout within their own bases where they lack obvious appeal themselves. They may, however, come to service beyond their capacity as electoral tools. It is for this reason that the vice-presidential nominees will make an unusually large impact in this upcoming election, and the debate will be the one and only chance where the electorate will have the opportunity to cast their judgement.