Vice-Presidential running mates: They really don’t matter much

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Speculation over who Mitt Romney will select as his vice-presidential running mate is reaching a fever pitch. Will it be Rob Portman from Ohio to help him capture that swing state, or will it be Mark Rubio from Florida to shore up that state and support with Hispanic voters? Or will it be Tim Pawlenty from Minnesota, a working class social conservative to balance Romney’s Richy Rich image and mercurial support from the religious conservatives?

While tremendous fuss is made over vice-presidential selection and convention wisdom declares that Veep selection can balance a ticket and offset presidential liabilities, the truth of the matter is that their value in terms of winning an election is of limited value. Instead, it is more apt to say that the primary goal in selecting a vice-president is to find one who can do no harm. Beyond that, locating one that adds real electoral value to the ticket is simply a bonus.

Think about the office of the vice presidency. It is an odd office with no comparable political office anywhere else in the world. The two constitutional duties of the vice-president are to president over the Senate and vote to break ties, and then to succeed the president in the event the latter dies or is incapacitated. As president pro temp vice presidents rarely vote. Joe Biden has yet to cast a tie-breaking vote, Dick Cheney cast 8, Al Gore 4. Instead, the Senate role for the vice-president is mostly ceremonial. The other duty–waiting for the president to die or become incapacitated–does occur. Gerald Ford became president upon Richard Nixon’s resignation, Johnson became president when Kennedy was assassinated, and Truman assumed the presidency when FDR died.

Succession is an important duty and that is why perhaps so much concern is raised over whom presidential candidates select for their Veep. But otherwise, vice-presidents have duties determined at the pleasure of the president. They can range from purely ceremonial–attend funerals–to more substantive such as under Carter and Bush where Mondale and Cheney had significant policy roles. One great line about the vice-presidency tells the story of two brothers–one who becomes a missionary to Africa and the other vice-president, and neither were ever heard of again.

Over time the criteria for vice-presidential select has varied. In the early days of the republic the vice-president was the presidential runner up. Federalist Party John Adams won the presidency and his Democratic-Republican rival Thomas Jefferson assumed the vice presidency. Yet the election of 1800 where Jefferson and his vice-presidential candidate Aaron Burr tied in the Electoral College produced the Twelfth Amendment that made the presidential and vice-presidential candidates a ticket selected together.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century geography was the preferred factor that dominated vice-presidential selection. Presidential candidates from the north had to select southern or western running mates. There is little evidence that such geographic balance really meant anything, but it nonetheless persisted as a legend important to presidential prospects well into the twentieth century. Some point to JFK placing LBJ on the 1960 ticket as crucial to Democrats winning Texas, the south, and the election. Yet in 1960 the south was still Democratic–at least nominally–even as late as 1968 Humphrey won Texas.

Where geography actually seems important is with favorite son factors. A vice-presidential candidate might be useful in terms of helping a candidate when the Veep’s home state. However, Lloyd Bentsen did not bring Texas over to Dukakis in 1988 and in 1980 Carter would have won Minnesota regardless of Mondale, Bush would have won Indiana without Quayle, and Bush would have won Wyoming without Cheney. Clinton did win Tennessee in 1992 and 1996 with Gore in the ticket after Bush won the state in 1988. Yet in 2000 as president Gore failed to win his home state as president. Obama won Delaware in 2008 with Biden on the ticket but Kerry also won the state in 2004 with John Edwards on the ticket (who failed to win his state of North Carolina). Vice presidents as favorite sons who deliver their home states are inconclusive.

There is little evidence that vice-presidential candidates affect voter turnout or presidential choice in any significant way. Political science research indicates that for the most part voters select presidential candidates based on the person at the top of the ticket, not because of who is vice president. Maybe vice-presidential choice sways one perhaps two percent of the voters, but it is not even clear this is the case. Individuals who are most likely to be swayed by a presidential selection–swing voters–are often those least likely to be politically informed or know who the vice-presidential candidate is. Survey research in general suggests that only 59% of the population according to a Pew study can name who the vice-president is, let alone the candidate, suggesting the limited impact of a running mate in terms of affecting voter choice.

Yet there are possible exceptions. Sarah Palin is potentially one. By election day 2008 approximately 60%-65% of population thought she was unqualified to be president or vice president. This was significant because a sizable portion of the population also expressed concern about John McCain’s age of 72 and whether he would survive four years. Palin’s perceived lack of qualifications and high name recognition may have cost McCain two or three points in the election, but even then, Obama’s large victory and the other liabilities that McCain had question whether he really could have beaten Obama even with a different running mate. Palin is more an example of another criteria of vice-presidential selection–at least pick someone who will not hurt the ticket even if a nominee cannot help.

So what factors make sense in terms of guiding vice-presidential selection? Discounting favorite son criteria (will the Veep help win his or her home state) which as noted above is questionable, several factors do make sense. There are four possibilities. First, will the vice-presidential candidate make an effective fund raiser? Presidential campaigns are expensive big businesses and running mates who can generate cash are useful. Second, will the vice-president be an effective pit bill in attacking or criticizing the opponent? Often presidents do not want to do the dirty work of attacking the opposition so having a vice-presidential candidate such as a Robert Dole or a Spiro Agnew is good.

A third factor to consider is whether the vice-presidential candidate serves as an effective symbolic fig leaf to a faction within the party. Maybe a candidate can reach out to the conservatives or moderates or other constituencies as part of a deal to win support or make them feel better about supporting the winner. This type of selection criteria was more important in days of brokered conventions but one still hears of vice presidents serving a role in forging unity in a party. Again, there is limited evidence that a vice-presidential candidate selected for this person actually delivers what is promised. Finally, a vice-presidential candidate may be selected simply because the president and this person get along or are friends. The choice here has little to do with politics, it is simply personal.

Overall, there is no magic bullet or evidence that declares who Romney should select. Vice-presidential choices matter far less than the media and many political pundits seem to think. Romney is best advised to go with the person he wants, using it as evidence of what types of decisions or choices he would make as president. After all, the choice of vice-president is potentially the first and most important choice a president can make.