In Which Josh Returns to the Prez Ticket Switcheroo Grindstone

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Don’t worry. I’ve made my points about Biden and Harris not getting dropped from the 2024 ticket. Here I just want to address a few responses from readers that I found notable. TPM Reader JA argues not so much that I’m wrong on the merits but that I’m suggesting that there are some kind of “forces” or laws that govern presidential tickets. On the contrary, each presidency is unique and needs to be taken on its own internal dynamics, says JA. JA doesn’t say this directly but one of the best rejoinders to any discussion like this is that we simply have too small a sample set, whenever we’re talking about presidential politics, to make categorical judgments or statements.

I think some of this disagreement is semantics. I’m not saying any laws govern this process. JA notes that really unlikely things do happen. And they’re right to say that. My real point is to focus people on the fact that these choices aren’t just things bored commentators or even bored presidents and vice presidents come up with on their own. If we’re going to talk about switches we need to recognize that there are a lot of factors all pushing in the opposite direction. It’s worth understanding what those factors and structural forces are. Otherwise it’s just chatter untethered to reality. Take water. It flows downhill. Occasionally you’ll see it flowing uphill rather than down. But that only happens when there are some big external interventions. If we’re going to discuss whether the water we see is going to go up or down we need to start that conversation by recognizing that it pretty much always goes downhill and just why that’s the case.

Yes, I’m digressing a bit into the “laws” JA called me out on. But you get the idea.

A number of you pointed out that there is an example of a president ditching his veep in relatively recent history. Gerald Ford dropped Nelson Rockefeller in favor of Bob Dole in 1976. I believe that example is so anomalous that it basically doesn’t fit. It’s an artifact of the Watergate scandal and an unelected president. But this isn’t just a matter of dismissing data that doesn’t fit the pattern. It’s more the exception that proves the rule.

The biggest reason presidents and vice presidents don’t get dropped from the ticket is the reason they’re there in the first place. They didn’t get there in the first place by accident. Harris is vice president for a mix of Joe Biden’s personal comfort level and the coalitional factors that determined her choice in the first place. The first is obvious. Joe Biden had a number of choices and he chose her in large part because he must have felt the best personal chemistry and believed she would help most in getting him elected. Just as big a reason is that, as an older white man, Biden had an overwhelming need to balance the ticket with a woman, a person of color and if possible a woman of color. All these factors were validated when Biden and Harris won the election.

This is probably the biggest reason why switches are so rare, basically unknown in the last 80 years: incumbents are held in place in large part by the same electoral factors that led to their choice in the first place. Added to that are all the internal powers of incumbency. Once the team is elected, all the people who benefited from the initial choice are in power.

You can see the differences with Ford’s decision right away. Not only had Ford never been elected president, he’d never been elected vice president. Both Ford and Rockefeller had been chosen not with the gauntlet of a general election or Republican voters in mind but to get through a Democratic Senate, which had to approve their nomination. More generally, both represented Nixon’s and then Ford’s weakness created by the Watergate scandal generally. Once Ford had to face both Republican voters (for the renomination) and the general electorate, Rockefeller was simply too liberal to cut it as a vice president. So he was out.

Again, it’s the exception that proves the rule. The same factors that keep elected vice presidents in place made the unelected Rockefeller dispensable and indeed untenable.

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