Will Kamala Harris turn out voters for Joe Biden in the US election?

The Democratic candidate needs the enthusiastic voters that Hilary Clinton lacked in 2016. Will his running mate deliver?

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The impact of a US vice presidential candidate on an election is, more often than not, marginal. The claim that they boost support in their home state for their running mate isn’t always clear cut, and their profile very rarely shapes the election campaign.

When a VP candidate has made an impact, though, it has not often been to the campaign's benefit in the long run. When Sarah Palin, for instance, was unveiled by John McCain in August 2008, over two thirds of Americans didn’t have a clue who she was. After a series of promising media appearances, some of which were rated by voters as better than speeches given by Barack Obama, public favourability had jumped to near 60 per cent. A few weeks later, McCain’s support eclipsed Obama’s for the first time in the campaign. But it wasn’t to last. By October, it became clear that she hadn't been properly vetted by the McCain team. Once a stunning breath of fresh air, Palin’s favourability had collapsed to 46 per cent, with less than half of Americans rating her ability to serve. The cause? Gaffes. And lots of them. 

Dan Quayle is another such example of a poor VP pick, chosen by George H. W. Bush in 1988 as what seemed to be an investment in broadening the Republican base. Received by voters from the get-go as incompetent, with less than one in three viewing him as qualified to serve in office, Quayle turned out to be one of the worst rated vice presidential candidates in modern times.

Perception of VP candidates - Dan Quayle bottoms out

The share of voters who believe [candidate] has the ability to serve as President

And yet, it mattered not. Despite Democratic attempts to attack Dan Quayle’s youth and inexperience in television commercials, Bush’s position in the polls advanced from a 10pt deficit to a near 10pt lead, finishing up with a decisive election win in November.

While VPs have mattered little in the grand schemes of election campaigns past, however, that might be on course to change. Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s age is a regularly touted fact on US news networks. More people now google his age than they do Donald Trump’s. If elected, he’d be sworn in at 78, becoming the oldest person ever to become president in US history.

Google searches for 'Joe Biden age' are on a rapid rise

After emerging as the clear favourite in the Democratic presidential primaries, searches for his age peaked.

Selecting a VP for Biden is not just selecting a running mate therefore - it’s selecting the person who may take over from him half-way through his term. When asked about being a vice president, the late John McCain responded: "The vice president has two duties. The first is to inquire daily as to the health of the president, and the second is to attend the funerals of third world dictators.”

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from February found 62 per cent of Americans had reservations about voting for someone over the age of 75, a number greater than the share uncomfortable with a Muslim candidate (49 per cent) and an evangelical Christian (42 per cent). 

With that in mind, it would be fair to contend that voters will be paying more attention to his running mate, Kamala Harris, than they would have done had the Democratic nominee been younger. A snap survey from Morning Consult taken in the immediate aftermath of the announcement give warm reviews of Biden’s VP pick, suggesting she receives the approval of 53 per cent of Americans, from both young (56 per cent of the under-35s) and old (55 per cent of the over 65s). Her favourability took a jump from 33 per cent in July to 45 per cent in August. 

Public favourability of Kamala Harris

Support for Harris from black voters has surged 20pts since July

For Harris, so far, so good. And in no way is the election currently a close one, but it could be. According to the Economist's own election model as of mid-August, Donald Trump stands more than a one in ten chance at keeping hold of the White House. Biden’s far and out the favourite in enough states to give him a comfortable win, but there’s a range of reasonably likely outcomes for Trump to sneak through, meaning the race could come down to the margins.

It is in those margins that Kamala Harris could prove decisive. Non-white voters are a rapidly growing share of the US electorate. In Michigan and Wisconsin, studies have suggested falling black turnout may have helped propel Trump to take the states. 

As many as one in four black Biden supporters told a YouGov poll that Biden’s VP pick would prove instrumental in whether they’ll be sticking with him come November. With more recent surveys showing an overwhelming endorsement from African American voters for the pick – with the latest Morning Consult survey showing support surging from 50 per cent to 70 per cent, the initial news for Biden and Harris is good.

But is it enough? Hillary Clinton recorded strong support among black voters too, but the number that turned out to vote was nonetheless still a substantial fall on 2012.

The key, therefore, might lie in enthusiasm. Clinton’s supporters weren’t huge about voting for her. Just 45 per cent of her supporters in an October 2016 poll remarked on being enthusiastic about the race. This was in stark contrast to Trump supporters, at 53 per cent.

So how does enthusiasm in 2020 stack up? Well, it’s mixed. In a July Morning Consult poll, those favourable to Trump were more likely to be enthusiastic about their vote than those that are unfavourable, but those that voted Clinton in 2016 are much more likely to be "extremely enthusiastic" about voting this time round than those that voted Trump. Black voters are just as enthusiastic about voting as whites, and non-voters from 2016 are showing some degree of enthusiasm too.

We don’t yet have any comparable data for August post-Harris, but it would be within the realms of likelihood that her announcement would have boosted the levels of enthusiasm among black voters. On the ground, reports from Michigan suggest interest in this election is increasing among black voters, and if that’s happening, then the numbers, so far, are looking good for Bidenland.

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

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