World·Analysis

What the Kamala Harris pick means for Biden's campaign

Kamala Harris broke several barriers in being announced as Joe Biden’s running mate. One analyst predicted sky-high turnout from Black voters this fall now that one of the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies — African American women — see themselves reflected on the ticket.

Joe Biden's chosen running mate breaks barriers and could add momentum to his campaign. But don't count on it

Harris is the first Black woman on a presidential major-party ticket. She's also the first Asian-American. (Alexander Drago/The Associated Press)

The Trump campaign is already calling her a phony and an opportunist who will manipulate Joe Biden and cave to the radical left. But Biden's selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate for the Democratic ticket appears to be a cautious and deliberate choice. 

Biden has maintained a remarkably consistent, months-long polling lead over Donald Trump and made a choice that's more likely to entrench the race as it stands than to shake it up.

Making history

The former vice-president's selection of Harris may not shake up the presidential race, but it will shake up history. Harris, a California senator, broke several barriers with Biden's announcement Tuesday.

She's the first Black woman on a presidential major-party ticket. She's also the first Asian-American, the daughter of an Indian-born cancer researcher.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, shown as she launched her previous campaign to become president on Jan. 27, 2019, will be Democratic nominee Joe Biden's running mate. One analyst is predicting a surge of Black female voters as a result. (Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo)

One of Harris's best friends in the Senate, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, said he received messages from Black women who were ecstatic and crying over the milestone.

"Finally. Finally. It's about time," said Booker, who on MSNBC described her recent work on police reform and saluted her as a detail-oriented policy wonk.

Some Fox News analysts concluded it was a cautious choice from the front-running Biden campaign because of Harris's long and measured political record.

"It's going to be very hard to look at her record and call her some sort of wild-eyed radical," said Fox's Charles Gasparino. 

"She's liberal. She hasn't been radical … It's the smart, safe choice. They're going to try to make the election about Trump."

WATCH | Biden chooses running mate:

Joe Biden has picked California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate for the U.S. presidential election. 6:53

Trump campaign takes aim

For its part, the Trump campaign wasted no time in pulling out a fire hose of video clips in an effort to extinguish any Black enthusiasm for the Biden-Harris ticket.

Trump and his allies alluded to Harris confronting Biden on a primary debate stage over his role in undermining school integration in the 1970s as a first-term senator.

But the Trump campaign's meandering line of attack illustrated the difficulty it's had in landing a blow against a more moderate opponent.

The campaign's new line? That Biden has lost his step and will be easily manipulated by Harris, whom they characterized as an opportunist willing to cave into the radical left if it suits her politically.

It's a bit complex for a bumper sticker.

WATCH | Harris addresses Biden on segregation during primary debate:

California Sen. Kamala Harris challenges former vice-president Joe Biden on his previous positions on segregation. 4:07

'It has to be a governing decision'

Black voter turnout is critical for the Democrats.

Take the example of swing-state Wisconsin in 2016. Black voter turnout there plunged by 88,000 from four years earlier while Democrats lost the state by fewer than 23,000 votes.

One analyst is predicting sky-high turnout from Black voters this fall now that one of the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies — Black women — see themselves reflected on the ticket.

Biden insisted his selection of Harris wasn't actually about getting elected — but about governing.

In a note to supporters, Biden alluded to his own experience as a VP, in an administration that took office during the last major economic meltdown.

"I know it can't be a political decision. It has to be a governing decision," Biden said.

"We're going to inherit a nation in crisis, a nation divided, and a world in disarray. We won't have a minute to waste. That's what led me to Kamala Harris."

In this file photo, Biden talks with Harris after the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019. He told his supporters on Tuesday that his choice of a running mate is based on governing, not getting elected. (Reuters/Mike Blake/File Photo)

The knock against Harris on the progressive left, and among skeptical African-Americans, was that she in fact breaks too few barriers: that the former prosecutor and attorney general is out of step with the defund-the-police energy on the grassroots left.  

Don't bank on a political bounce

So, will Harris's presence actually make a difference in the election?

Not likely, according to the available evidence. A recent poll testing Biden's popularity alongside 12 potential running mates found no statistical difference

And that's the historical pattern.

A paper published in Presidential Studies Quarterly in 2010 attempted to gauge the effect in recent elections and found that the selection of a potential vice-president affected, at most, one per cent of the vote.

One of the oldest recurring jokes in American politics actually involves vice-presidents themselves quipping about how useless the job is.

On Tuesday, Joe Biden named California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, making history by choosing the first woman of colour to compete on a major party's presidential ticket. Today on Front Burner, Washington Post political reporter Eugene Scott on what Harris brings to the Democratic Party’s ticket, and what it might mean for Biden’s chances against U.S President Donald Trump come November. 19:55

Biden and others have used salty language to make serious points about a role the U.S. founders gave little thought to.

The first vice-president, John Adams, famously said: "I am nothing, but I may be everything," alluding to his role as understudy to George Washington.

Adams later became president. 

Vice-presidents may not often move votes. But, like Adams, they occasionally move into the White House: Nearly one-third of those who've held the role went on to later become president.

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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