Democrats Eye a Vice-Presidential Consolation Prize for Women

Democrats Eye a Vice-Presidential Consolation Prize for Women

DEARBORN, Mich. — The second highest, hardest glass ceiling is pretty good too, right?

With the Democratic presidential nominee all but certain to be a man, party activists, elected officials and voters are setting their sights on the biggest consolation prize in American politics: the vice presidency.

Within hours of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s exit from the race, a departure that left the party facing a primary battle between two septuagenarian white men, prominent Democrats began publicly insisting that the ticket include a woman, preferably a black woman.

At least one women’s organization, Supermajority, circulated a petition asking both Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to “affirm their commitment to gender equity” by choosing a woman as their running mate. On Sunday, as he endorsed Mr. Sanders before thousands at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for the next president to pick a black woman as vice president.

“There must be a woman on this ticket,” said Cecile Richards, a longtime abortion rights activist and a founder of Supermajority. “What is really important to see is representation, a commitment to the issues that women care about and a commitment to do something about it.”

The selection of a female vice president, particularly one of color, would offer a fitting coda to a presidential primary where racial and gender representation has taken second place to concerns about defeating President Trump.

Even when the female candidates were still in the race, people at town hall meetings and campaign rallies often suggested Ms. Warren or Senator Kamala Harris as possible number twos on a ticket, as a way of providing a dose of history-making enthusiasm without what many voters viewed as the risk of having a woman lead the ticket. They’re unlikely to face much opposition from the candidates: Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders say they are considering multiple women for the position.

The calls for a female vice president have intensified as the primary has essentially narrowed to a two-man race. Hillary Clinton said she would “love” to see a woman on the ticket but, in an interview with CNN, urged the future nominee to “take a really hard look at the Electoral College for what will help him.”

On Sunday, Ms. Harris of California endorsed Mr. Biden, heightening speculation that she could be selected as his running mate. Despite a bitter competition, Mr. Biden remains fond of Ms. Harris, in part because she was friends with his late son Beau Biden when they both served as state attorneys general.

“I believe in Joe,” she said in a video posted on Twitter. “I really believe in him, and I have known him for a long time.”

His wife expressed a slightly less glowing view of the California senator.

At a Friday fund-raiser in the Chicago suburbs, a largely female audience shouted suggestions for vice-presidential nominees to Jill Biden, with many arguing the pick should be a woman. The former second lady described Ms. Harris’s debate-stage attacks on Mr. Biden’s record on race as a “punch to the gut.” She offered more praise for Senator Amy Klobuchar, who endorsed Mr. Biden last week, calling her “an incredible woman.”

Yet the reality is that the hope of seeing a woman come closer to the presidency than ever before now rests with two men born during World War II, a political dynamic that feels slightly uncomfortable to some of those most eager to see a woman in the White House. While academics, activists and officials seeking to promote women in politics embrace the idea that a qualified woman could become vice president, some also cringe at being encouraged to settle for silver after spending a year competing hard for the gold.

“In the current political environment, it looks tone deaf to have an all-white, all-male ticket,” said Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on women in politics. “There’s no question that the notion of a female V.P. is used as a strategy and I think that’s a little bit sexist. It’s sort of like an ‘insert woman here’ kind of conversation.”

People close to both Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders say their campaigns see strong political arguments for putting a woman on the ticket, believing such a choice could generate enthusiasm from female voters who make up the backbone of the party and sharpen their contrast with Mr. Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by nearly a dozen women.

Women remain Mr. Trump’s staunchest opponents, with large majorities consistently giving him some of the lowest marks in polling. His presidency has inspired the largest gender gap in history and supercharged turnout among female Democrats.

“The nomination of the vice president is about building unity and a partnership that can best govern,” said Larry Cohen, a longtime adviser to Mr. Sanders and the chairman of Our Revolution, the organization that spun out of the senator’s 2016 presidential campaign. “The women who sought the nomination and others easily meet both criteria.”

Though not quite as barrier-breaking as a female president, electing a woman as vice president would be historic. Only two have been nominated: Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska by the Republican Party in 2008 and Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro by Democrats in 1984.

Putting a woman on the ticket could also move the country closer to electing a first female president. If elected, the female vice president could later find herself in a stronger position to win the presidency than any woman in American history.

A vocal segment of the party argues that the vice-presidential slot must go not just to any woman but specifically to a black woman, given the crucial support African-American women have given to the Democrats in recent elections. Over the past three years, the overwhelming backing of black women helped the party recapture control of the House and flip Senate and governor’s seats in deep-red states like Louisiana and Alabama.

“African-American women have been the most loyal supporters of Democratic candidates,” said Representative Barbara Lee of California, a former chairwoman of Ms. Harris’s campaign. “It’s time we have an American-American woman as vice president.”

Nikema Williams, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Georgia, put it simply: “A black woman on the ticket is the margin of victory.”

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic Senate leader, is particularly focused on the idea, arguing that such a pick could help unite the party after a divisive primary, according to people who have spoken with Mr. Schumer.

Mr. Schumer isn’t the only party official intrigued by the idea of putting a black woman on the ticket. Some close to Mr. Biden are urging him to pick a nominee who could protect his support among black voters, whose strong support has helped him capture the lead in the primary race.

Women of various backgrounds have been suggested as possible running mates for Mr. Biden.

He recently named Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan as a national co-chair of his campaign. Other names that have been floated by Mr. Biden or those around him include Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader who narrowly lost a race for governor last year; Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general who became a Democratic icon after being fired by Mr. Trump early in his term; Ms. Klobuchar; and Senators Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

Mr. Sanders, meanwhile, is seeking a woman who agrees with his signature policy proposal, “Medicare for all.” With many of his top female surrogates, including Representatives Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, disqualified from seeking the presidency because of their age or foreign birthplace, Ms. Warren is one of a few elected officials who fit the criteria, according to some close to the Sanders campaign.

Following in the long tradition of possible vice-presidential picks, the women in the midst of all the chatter have largely declined to comment on whether they’ve been approached about the job. Ms. Whitmer said that she raised the issue of representation with Mr. Biden and planned to participate in all aspects of the campaign — including vetting possible running mates. Ms. Abrams recently said that she planned to be president by 2040 but would consider vice president in the meantime.

“I accept that I exist in the political zeitgeist in a very specific way,” she told the website 538 in an interview, when asked about whether she could be selected to “balance out” a white man at the top of the ticket.

Ms. Klobuchar said she had no conversations about future positions with Mr. Biden or his aides when she discussed ending her campaign and endorsing his. “It didn’t even cross my mind to try to make some deal or anything like that,” she said.

While little academic research has been done on female vice presidents, there’s plenty of data from business and economics that suggests women are more likely to be overlooked for chief executive positions and other top jobs. As in politics, it’s harder for assertive, ambitious women to be seen as likable, and easier to conclude they lack some intangible, ill-defined quality of leadership, the data shows.

Yet there’s also little evidence that vice presidents — male or female — have a significant impact on converting undecided voters, despite all the thought campaigns put into selecting presidential running mates. Studies of the 2008 race found that while Ms. Palin shored up her party’s evangelical base, she did little to help John McCain, the Republican nominee, win over independent or Democratic-leaning women.

“The research on the importance of the vice president is pretty compelling in that there’s a lot of strategy that goes into the pick and not a lot of evidence that it matters,” Dr. Lawless said.

For months, both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden have indicated that they are likely to select a female candidate. In February, Mr. Sanders said his campaign would select someone “maybe not of the same gender that I am.”

During a town hall event in November, Mr. Biden floated four possible vice-presidential picks. All were women. He has also said both Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris would be on his list of potential picks.

Last spring, weeks before Mr. Biden announced his bid, his advisers discussed naming either Ms. Abrams or Ms. Harris to the ticket early, perhaps even before he captured the nomination. The unusual move was considered as a way to build enthusiasm and reassure voters about his age.

A few weeks later, Ms. Harris pushed back, noting that Mr. Biden, in turn, would be an asset as the No. 2 on the ticket: “As vice president, he’s shown he can do the job.”

Lisa Lerer reported from Dearborn, Mich., and Reid J. Epstein from Washington. Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting from St. Louis.

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