As pressure builds for Joe Biden to pick a running mate based on gender and demographic appeal, he would do well to recall Walter Mondale’s experience in 1984. Mondale made history when he chose Geraldine Ferraro as the first female candidate for vice president on a major party ticket. He picked Ferraro for reasons similar to those motivating Biden’s vice presidential search. But a little over 100 days later, Ferraro’s candidacy contributed to a stinging defeat in which Mondale lost every state but Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
The choice of Ferraro was aimed at Ronald Reagan’s Achilles’ heel. Throughout his presidency Reagan was troubled by the “Gender Gap,” a large gulf between his support from men and from women. Polls taken in late 1983 and during the 1984 primaries showed Reagan’s reelection was vulnerable to the right Democratic ticket.
As a bonus, Ferraro was an Italian-American Catholic whose family history presented an appealing immigrant success story. At a time when politicians coveted the support of the Knights of Columbus and were eager to appear at Columbus Day celebrations, she represented a triple-threat to the Reagan campaign. Putting Ferraro on the ticket would appeal not only to women but also Catholics and Italian-Americans.
But Ferraro was still a risky choice. Conventional wisdom regarding running mates is to play it safe with someone who won’t cost you votes. With luck, you might be able to pick up a vice presidential candidate’s home state, if it’s a swing state and your choice is popular.
Mondale gambled when he announced Ferraro, and at first she looked like a good bet. Because we expected a more conventional choice, the Reagan campaign had no idea how to handle a female vice presidential candidate. Initial polling showed any questions about her qualifications to be a heartbeat from the presidency would backfire because female voters would perceive it as an attack on her gender. That meant we couldn’t contrast her resume with Vice President George Bush’s extensive experience.
That will be doubly true in 2020 if Biden picks a Black female for his ticket. Any attacks on her ability or qualifications to step into the presidency will be easily caricatured as a dog whistle to racists. Character and temperament were equally problematic for us in 1984. Issues we could have raised against a male candidate were off-limits with women, especially after the campaign’s polls showed women of both political parties and Independents were enthusiastic about Ferraro’s candidacy. The polling showed millions more female voters might turnout in 1984 than in 1980, making Ferraro a serious threat to Reagan’s reelection. Those of us on Reagan’s team couldn’t afford to alienate female voters.
That left the candidate’s congressional track record, especially her compliance with the Ethics in Government Act. Along with the late Arthur E. Teele Jr., I was put in charge of running the Reagan campaign’s investigation into Ferraro to see what, if anything, we might find to use against her. Our assignment took on added urgency after first lady Nancy Reagan received a tip that Ferraro and her husband, John Zaccaro, could be connected to organized crime figures.
Little-known politicians are especially risky for national campaigns. The backgrounds of candidates for statewide or local office rarely get the same deep scrutiny as a candidate in a presidential primary, when the press, special interest groups, and opposing campaigns devote resources to investigating the contenders. A member of Congress might get reelected time after time despite huge political vulnerabilities, especially if the district isn’t competitive and there are no serious challengers.
Our investigation into Ferraro revealed financial improprieties, but most damaging was a steady stream of news stories revealing connections between organized crime figures and Ferraro and Zaccaro.
Post-election polling showed that instead of boosting Mondale’s candidacy, as we had feared that summer of 1984, by November Ferraro had become a drag on the ticket. Reagan won more votes from women than Mondale, including from Italian-American and Catholic women. He was reelected in a landslide.
For Biden, the message should be clear. Pick a candidate who has run the national political gauntlet. Don’t risk your campaign on running mate who hasn’t been scrutinized by the press and political opposition. Having a security clearance isn’t the same as political clearance. When you vet your selection, be as thorough as we were in 1984.
Otherwise, what looks like a bold choice in the summer might turn out to be a bad gamble come Election Day.
John B. Roberts II worked in the Reagan White House and presidential campaigns. His political memoir, “Reagan’s Cowboys: Inside the 1984 Reelection Campaign’s Secret Operation Against Geraldine Ferraro,” was published by McFarland & Company.