When it comes to choosing a president, do people consider the vice president when they vote? The professional political class is wondering if Vice President Kamala Harris will be attacked for her various perceived shortcomings during the 2024 campaign. With Joe Biden’s advanced age, a vote for the president could be a vote that leads to a Harris presidency. Kamala Harris especially struggles with her communication skills. She goes from event to event misspeaking and repeating words, sinking into verbal quicksand.
Is Targeting the Vice President a Winning Strategy?
There have been numerous instances in history in which the press and the opposing party went after vice presidents during their tenure and during the campaign. This strategy has not always been successful. It makes fodder for the so-called political experts in Washington, DC, but ordinary voters do not often pay attention to the vice-presidential candidate.
Things can vary, of course. But take George H.W. Bush’s running mate, the young and inexperienced Dan Quayle of Indiana. Quayle had a disastrous debate performance in 1988. He looked nervous and unprepared on the big stage. His opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, a distinguished senator from Texas, made mincemeat of the Indiana senator. The quip that Quayle was “no Jack Kennedy,” went viral (or what passed for viral in the pre-Internet days) and made Bush look foolish for picking Quayle as his running mate.
Yet none of this affected the results of the campaign. Bush, with 426 electoral votes, trounced former Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis.
Get the Sharp Knives Out for Nixon
A much less recent example happened during the re-election campaign for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955, and people were wondering if he would run again in 1956. Eisenhower finally announced his re-election campaign, but tongues immediately started wagging. The president was too old and could die in office, people said. That would have allowed the acerbic, volatile, and divisive Richard Nixon to become the commander-in-chief.
Democrats decided to target Nixon knowing that Eisenhower was likely to get the sympathy vote. The chair of the Democratic National Committee said the D’s would “focus our guns” on Nixon and emphasize charges that Nixon once had a “slush fund” of campaign money that was seen as an example of corruption. It didn’t work. Eisenhower won in a landslide over Adlai Stevenson, scoring a 15-point margin and 457 electoral votes.
Nixon himself had a running mate problem in 1968. The mistake-prone Spiro Agnew, who was known for gaffes and for his difficulty making basic speeches (does that sound like Harris?), became a punching bag for Democrats. They made ads attacking Agnew. However, It was no joy for the liberals, as Nixon ended up winning.
Sarah Palin Has Difficulty
One example of a candidate making an erratic vice-presidential choice would be John McCain in 2008. I worked on that race for McCain. He settled on Sarah Palin as his running mate, and she gave a rousing speech at the Republican convention in Minneapolis. What many people don’t know is that Palin’s teleprompter went out during the address, but she had memorized her speech, and it was still triumphant. We thought we had a winner until the next morning, the media found out that Palin’s daughter Bristol was pregnant and unmarried at the age of 17. There went the family values, need for marriage, and abstinence argument Republicans often espouse.
We knew on the campaign trail that Sarah Palin had not been fully vetted, and it showed. Palin had trouble in media interviews and struggled with policy questions – sometimes giving embarrassing answers. Barack Obama and Joe Biden beat McCain and Palin in the general.
On to Kamala Harris
That brings us to Kamala Harris. Already she has drawn the attention of at least one GOP presidential candidate. Nikki Haley has trepidations about Kamala Harris and Biden’s age.
“I think that we can all be very clear and say with a matter of fact that if you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris, because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely,” Haley explained last month during a campaign stop.
Harris typically polls in the high 30s and low 40s in approval ratings, and it usually breaks down by party lines. She once went down to 32 percent approval, in April 2022, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling aggregator. It will be interesting to see how Independent voters break on Biden-Harris against Donald Trump or another Republican presidential candidate. It will likely come down to Harris’ performance during the vice-presidential debate.
She held her own last time against Mike Pence without any embarrassing gaffes, but if she drops her trademark word salads at the forum, the American people may fear that a vote for Biden is a vote for another hapless president in the name of Kamala Harris.
Author Expertise and Experience
Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.