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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden departs after speaking in Darby, Pa., on June 17, 2020.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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The shadow boxing and subterranean lobbying now disrupting the New Castle County tranquility of Joe Biden’s Delaware retreat is over one of the least-prized positions in American political life.

John Nance Garner, who was vice-president under Franklin Delano Roosevelt for eight years, said the job that is the focus of these entreaties wasn’t worth a bucket of warm urine (though he employed a more colourful term). Mr. Biden, who occupied the job for eight years under Barack Obama, himself once acknowledged that “no one decides who they’re going to vote for based on the vice-president.’' He added, “I mean that literally.”

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So why is Barley Mill Road in Wilmington, Del., such a target for veepstakes suitors and special appeals? (It’s been 88 years since Mr. Roosevelt settled on Mr. Garner, then the speaker of the House of Representatives, but whose principal asset to the New York governor was that he swung sufficient delegates from Texas for FDR to win the Democratic presidential nomination on the fourth ballot.)

Who will Joe Biden pick as his vice-presidential candidate? These are the frontrunners

Part of it is calculation; Mr. Biden’s choice will tell us a bit about his fall general-election strategy. It could tell us which regions receive the most attention. It could tell us which issues he stresses. And it could tell us how much he will emphasize minority voters. Three Black women – Representative Karen Bass and Senator Kamala Harris, both of California, and Obama-era national-security adviser Susan Rice – apparently are the three remaining finalists. Choosing a Black running mate could, in the estimation of Democratic strategist Thomas A. Devine, supercharge turnout in, among other places, Georgia and North Carolina – states Mr. Trump won in 2016 but, with an African-American on the ticket, are within Mr. Biden’s grasp in 2020. “It could make a huge difference in both states – and among white young people,’' he said in an interview.

Part of it is symbolism. If Mr. Biden chooses a woman of colour, it will be a significant breakthrough. We remember the late representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York, Walter Mondale’s 1984 running mate, as the first female on an American national political ticket. We remember former senator Joseph Lieberman, Albert Gore’s running mate in 2000, for breaking the stained-glass ceiling as the first Jew on a national ticket. Neither Democratic ticket won, and so the two nominees never occupied the vice-presidential mansion at the Naval Observatory, by a gentle curve on Washington’s Massachusetts Avenue.

And part of it is coronavirus-stoked boredom. A fortnight before the (truncated) national conventions, political reporters have nothing else to do, to think about, or to write and produce.

Because Mr. Biden is correct. Hardly anyone votes for president based on the identity of the party’s running mate.

Not that it is totally meaningless. Mr. Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, added a dash of foreign-policy expertise to the 2008 campaign of Mr. Obama, who had no such experience. That is what former Pentagon chief Dick Cheney provided to the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush; the Texas constitution gives the governor few responsibilities, and Mr. Bush did not possess foreign-policy sophistication.

Richard Nixon, still regarded as one of the most gifted political strategists of any age, used to say that a running mate could only bring a nominee his home state – an insight that perhaps was a self-serving reflection of how Dwight Eisenhower carried California in both 1952 and 1956, triumphs he likely would have had in the state even without the first-term senator on his ticket. Indeed, GOP governors Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight won easily in the two years before both of the presidential contests, so the Nixon influence likely was minimal.

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In his own campaigns for president, Nixon’s first running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, did not bring Massachusetts into the Republican 1960 column; the state went for its other native son, Senator John F. Kennedy. Eight years later, Mr. Nixon chose Maryland governor Spiro Agnew and then lost that state. The Nixon-Agnew ticket carried Maryland in 1972, but then again, it carried every state but Massachusetts.

Two vice-presidential choices in recent years also failed the Nixon test, disappointing party strategists. John Kerry placed former senator John Edwards of North Carolina on his 2004 national ticket, and the Democrats still lost the Tar Heel State. Eight years later, former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts selected then-representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate. The GOP failed to win that state.

And it was no great achievement that Mr. Cheney helped Mr. Bush twice win Wyoming, or that senator Dan Quayle helped George H.W. Bush twice carry Indiana, or even that senator Robert Dole helped president Gerald R. Ford win Kansas. Together these three states have voted Republican 38 of the last cumulative 39 times. In short, all three of them have fallen in the Republican column in every election since 1968 except 2008, when Barack Obama took Indiana by a single point.

Lyndon Johnson’s aides were astonished that the Texas lawmaker relinquished the role of Senate majority leader, one of Washington’s most formidable power centres, for a place on the 1960 Kennedy ticket and an executive-branch position that held little power. Within months, Mr. Johnson sunk into profound depression and a sense of worthlessness.

Mr. Johnson may have been derided in the Kennedy White House as “Uncle Cornpone,” but he knew one important fact, which he later acknowledged figured into his thinking and which must be top of mind when the two presidential nominees this year are 74 and 77 years old: Seven occupants of the vice-presidency had ascended to the presidency because of the death of the chief executive. Mr. Johnson became the eighth on a Friday afternoon in Dallas in 1963, when Mr. Kennedy was assassinated.

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