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The Most Important Vice Presidential Election Ever

The Hill

Presidential elections focus almost entirely on the presidential candidate, in part because the vice president is seldom called on to take over. However, there is a higher-than-normal chance that the presidential winner in November won’t complete his term. That makes this the most important vice-presidential election ever.

Eight vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency upon the death of the president in office, four of them since 1900 — Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. In addition, Vice President Gerald Ford became president when Richard Nixon resigned as president in 1974. 

So, while there is always a chance a vice president will have to step up to the presidency, the media give only passing scrutiny of their fitness for the top job. Nor has it typically been a key issue concerning voters. However, the ages and legal challenges facing the two likely major candidates, President Joe Biden and his GOP challenger, Donald Trump, make 2024 different.

For decades presidential candidates have picked vice presidential running mates who added some type of balance to the ticket. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D) had no Washington or foreign policy experience. So he picked Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), who had both.

Likewise, Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) had no Washington or foreign policy experience, so he convinced former Defense secretary and former Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), who had both, to join him. 

As a young, junior Illinois senator who was both inexperienced and many believed swung too far to the left, Barack Obama (D) chose then-Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) to add the perception of experience and moderation to the ticket.

And as a recent convert to the Republican Party, who many voters feared had very few conservative policy or moral principles, Donald Trump chose then-Gov. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, who had both federal and state government experience and was the embodiment of conservative principles and traditional values.

Then there’s Biden, who became the first presidential candidate to balance the ticket not based on competence, experience or geography, but gender and race. Biden is an older white male. He wanted a younger Black female, and he got one, Kamala Harris.

While there is little evidence that trying to “balance the ticket” has much of an impact on election results, it probably doesn’t hurt either. But then most voters think they’re getting the presidential candidate for at least four years. That may not be true this time.

Given his age (81) and widely recognized health challenges, there is a significant chance that Vice President Kamala Harris will ascend to the presidency if Biden wins in November. That possibility has prompted the saying, “A vote for Biden is a vote for Harris.” One nasty fall — Biden’s already had several — or even a minor stroke over the next five years (to Jan. 20, 2029) could easily render him incapacitated. 

And then there’s the potential legal issues. It’s at least possible that Joe Biden could be implicated in son Hunter Biden’s influence peddling and foreign money laundering so that Harris would have to take over. 

That’s an outcome voters dread. Based on Harris’s Senate record, her own lackluster 2020 presidential bid, and her performance (or lack thereof) as the current veep, voters think Harris would be a disaster. It’s not a good sign when a politician’s defenders are writing that she’s not the worst vice president ever. Yet it appears at this writing Biden has no intention of replacing her on the ticket. 

Donald Trump, by contrast, is already facing numerous serious state and federal criminal charges. And he could be convicted of one or more of those crimes, either before or after the election. Thus, Trump’s vice-presidential pick might become the GOP presidential nominee if the conviction were to come down before the election, or president if after the election.  

But while Trump’s legal challenges are more numerous and more imminent than Biden’s, his health challenges seem less so. Trump is very active and mentally alert. Even so, he’s 77, which means a health issue can’t be ruled out. 

Trump’s legal issues and age mean his vice-presidential pick is every bit as important as Biden’s.

Trump has floated several names. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem are the ones mentioned most often. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s name has also been floated. At least three of those names could reasonably step up to the presidency. Or Trump could make an unexpected and unconventional choice, as he often does (Remember his choice of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of State?).

My guess is Trump will do some ticket balancing himself by choosing a woman or person or color, or both.

Whether we’re talking about Biden or Trump, their running mates have a greater-than-normal chance of stepping into the Oval Office. That should prompt the media and voters to pay very close attention to those candidates and their records.