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Biden plans to pick a female running mate. Would it make a difference if she's black?

Analysis: The former vice president is undertaking a very public selection process.
Image: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take the stage on the second night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit on July 31, 2019.Lucas Jackson / Reuters file

With a pandemic raging, there's not much in the way of traditional campaigning for Joe Biden to do right now. But he is managing to conduct the most public series of running mate auditions of any apparent Democratic nominee in decades.

On Thursday, Biden appeared on national television for a joint interview with Stacey Abrams, who has made clear her interest in the vice presidential slot. There have been similar sessions with other prospective ticket-mates, and with the Democratic convention still months away, this is likely just the beginning.

It's a ploy that calls to mind the run-up to the party's 1984 convention, when Walter Mondale received a parade of would-be running mates at his Minnesota home. It created a suspenseful narrative in the media while also adding to the pressure on Mondale from various activist groups, who would use their megaphones to try to sway him toward or away from each new visitor.

While Mondale did not formally commit himself to selecting a woman, he made clear from the start that a female running mate was a serious consideration, and three women — Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro — were among the people who participated in the interview process. Ultimately, Mondale opted for Ferraro, who became the first-ever woman to run on a major party's national ticket.

Biden, of course, has committed to adding a woman to his ticket. But his appearance with Abrams raises the question of whether he'll also decide that, more specifically, he needs to select an African American woman.

Beyond Abrams, several other black women — including Sen. Kamala Harris of California, former national security adviser Susan Rice and Rep. Val Demings of Florida — have become prominent in the "veepstakes" mix.

There are plenty of arguments for why each person might be valuable to Biden as both a ticket-mate and vice president. But there are two main contentions for why selecting a black woman should be a strategic imperative for Biden.

The first is rooted in the deep loyalty African American voters have to the Democratic Party and the crucial role they played in rescuing Biden's flailing candidacy and putting him on course to win the nomination earlier this year. It's an argument that Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina aired after Biden's black-voter-fueled triumph in that state's primary: "I really believe that we've reached a point in this country where African American women need to be rewarded for the loyalty that they've given to this party."

More recently, Clyburn has said placing a woman of color on the ticket would be "great" but that he doesn’t consider it a must for Biden. Abrams has said that "we need a ticket that reflects the diversity of America," and she'd be concerned if Biden doesn't select a woman of color "because women of color — particularly black women — are the strongest part of the Democratic Party, the most loyal."

The second argument for choosing a black woman involves turnout. In 2016, when Democrats fielded an all-white ticket of Hillary Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the turnout rate among black voters was 59 percent. That was down significantly from 2012 (66 percent) and 2008 (65 percent), elections in which Barack Obama generated enormous energy among black voters. In fact, that '16 turnout rate is virtually identical to that of 2004, when Democrats also had two white candidates (John Kerry and John Edwards) on the ticket.

So, the argument goes, Biden will need an African American running mate to bump up turnout and avoid the fates of Kerry and Clinton. Whether this would actually happen with a black VP candidate is far from clear, though.

Obama was the first — and still only — black candidate nominated for either president or vice president by a major party. It's possible the historic nature of his campaign and his own personal attributes generated a unique turnout effect that can't be replicated. Of course, even a modest boost in turnout — short of Obama levels, but better than Kerry/Clinton levels — could benefit Biden.

It also seems notable that Biden faced competition for the Democratic nomination from two black candidates, Harris and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and neither of them built traction with black voters. In one of the final national polls before Harris' December withdrawal, she attracted support from 5 percent of black voters. Booker, who would soon exit the race, too, was at 3 percent. Biden was at 43 percent.

It was this consistently high level of black support that kept Biden viable even as he fell flat on his face in Iowa (fourth place) and New Hampshire (fifth place). And it raises a question:

If Biden could attract such deep, enduring loyalty from black voters even while facing black opponents, would a black running mate really make him much stronger in November?