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Understanding the vice presidency

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Posted: Sunday, July 1, 2012 12:42 pm | Updated: 3:20 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.


Second of two parts.

Here are the final three common ideas regarding vice presidential selection that deserve debunking.

 » Myth No. 3: The big swing state selection myth.

I’ve previously addressed the common idea that presidential candidates typically choose running mates because they are from large and/or swing states. In modern times, they rarely do. Since 1960, only 26 percent of the selections have come from states with at least 20 electoral votes. Those choices were rarely, if ever, made for the purpose of carrying that state. William Miller, Ferraro and Kemp, all former or sitting members of Congress from New York, were not chosen to carry that state. Reagan didn’t pick George H.W. Bush to win Texas. John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon B. Johnson to help secure the South, not simply the Longhorn State; Dukakis chose Lloyd Bentsen owing to his presidential quality and to appeal to Reagan Democrats, not to win Texas.

Presidential candidates have repeatedly passed over public figures from Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and other big states and chosen running mates from places like Wyoming, Delaware, Alaska, Kansas and Connecticut. An Indiana senator (Dan Quayle) was chosen in 1988 when the state wasn’t competitive, but another (Evan Bayh) was passed over in 2008 when it was.

Romney may choose someone from a large or competitive state. The relatively few states in contention this time increase that likelihood. But he’s unlikely to make a state-motivated choice without first satisfying himself that his selection would make a plausible president.

Recent history suggests that those who play Fantasy Vice Presidential Selection should construct their short lists based on whether someone is presidential, not whether he or she comes from a large swing state.

 » Myth No. 4: No one votes for the vice president, or: The VP candidate doesn’t matter.

The myths addressed above share the common premise that vice presidential speculation is a game worth playing because the running mate choice matters. There’s another prominent myth at the other end of the spectrum, the idea that it’s all a waste of time because no one votes for a vice president.

To be sure, most voters will cast their ballot based on their preferences among the candidates at its top rather than its bottom. That’s surely rational. But that recognition does not lead to the common formulation that the vice presidential choice doesn’t matter. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

Most recent presidential candidates have encouraged potential swing voters to focus on the top of the ticket by making a judicious vice presidential selection. The running mate choice is most likely to affect voting behavior if potential swing voters cannot fathom the thought of that person in the Oval Office or a heartbeat away. Presidential candidates who select a running mate who is a plausible president minimize that risk.

If you’re unpersuaded, try this thought experiment: Imagine that Romney were to choose as his running mate Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum or Donald Trump. I don’t know exactly how big of an impact any of these selections would have on the next Gallup polls, but I’d be fairly confident the announcement would, with good reason, set off a near historic round of high fiving in the West Wing. The reasons Romney won’t select any of those just mentioned vary but the exercise explains, to some extent, why some think the vice presidential choice doesn’t matter. Vice presidential impact exists, but it is obscured or controlled by prudent selections.

Those who believe that the vice presidential choice doesn’t matter often illustrate their conclusion by pointing out that (a) Nixon was elected in 1968 even though voters greatly preferred Humphrey’s running mate, Muskie, to Spiro Agnew; (b) George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988 even though voters greatly preferred Dukakis’s running mate, Bentsen, to Quayle; and (c) Edwards could not even carry his home state of North Carolina for Kerry. None of these arguments are particularly persuasive.

In reverse order, the fact that Edwards couldn’t carry North Carolina for Kerry hardly proves that the vice presidential candidate doesn’t matter. Edwards wasn’t particularly popular in North Carolina and probably could not have held his Senate seat. And Massachusetts liberal Kerry was probably even less popular there.

Voters did prefer Bentsen by large margins to Quayle and had misgivings about the Indiana senator. Yet they also had misgivings about Dukakis. It would be anomalous if voters who greatly preferred Bush to Dukakis allowed their vice-presidential preference to swing their votes. As it was, exit polls showed that Bentsen added at least a point to Dukakis’s total. If potential swing voters had felt better about Dukakis, Bentsen would likely have had a greater impact.

Finally, I suspect that the Muskie-Agnew choice did play a role in making that election as close as it was. Both presidential campaigns clearly thought it was a factor. Humphrey featured the vice presidential spot in campaign ads and in his stump speech, and Muskie played a prominent part during the Democrat’s election eve television program. By contrast, Nixon relegated Agnew to backwater stops on the campaign trail and appeared solo on election eve.

Vice presidential choice is unlikely to make much of a difference where potential swing voters have a strong preference for one presidential candidate over the other. But in a close election where such voters are relatively indifferent, the vice presidential choice can be an important influence. Johnson is generally credited with having played an important part in holding much of the South for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Some evidence suggested that Mondale’s presence added several points to Carter’s ticket. Mondale spent a lot of time in critical states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, both of which narrowly went Democratic. In a different way, Clinton’s selection of Gore helped define Clinton’s own image in a manner helpful to him.

The vice presidential choice matters, surely when it’s bad, but also when it’s good.

 » Myth No. 5: The vice presidency is a bad career move.

Some have suggested that running for vice president is a bad career move, especially if the ticket loses. That’s rarely the case.

The modern vice presidency has grown into a robust political office. It has its unique frustrations, but beginning with, and largely due to, Carter and Mondale, those who have served in the second office have had extraordinary opportunities to contribute to the making and implementation of public policy on a national and international level. Dan Quayle was in the Oval Office more often during a week than most senators are during a four-year term. The Dick Cheney vice presidency, in some respects, represented the triumph of the second office. The owner of one of the best resumes in our history was willing to walk away from a lucrative corporate position to serve as vice president with no intent to use the office as a steppingstone. Joe Biden clearly has performed a significant role as a presidential adviser and trouble-shooter, legislative closer and diplomat.

Most do see the second office as a path to the first. They’re right. Of recent vice presidents, George H.W. Bush was elected; Gore won the popular vote and would have been elected president but for a dismal campaign and/or some quirks in Florida ballots; Mondale was nominated; Cheney chose not to be a candidate; and Joe Biden is still serving. Of those who tried, only Quayle was unable to win a presidential nomination after serving as vice president, and he withdrew early from the race in 1996 and 2000. Mondale, Bush and Gore had previously sought the presidential nomination and failed before winning it after serving in the second office.

To be sure, those who run for, but never serve as, vice president have fared less well in future presidential competition. Only Dole of this group later won a presidential nomination (although extending the study to include Franklin D. Roosevelt, the unsuccessful 1920 Democratic vice presidential candidate who later did pretty well as a presidential candidate, might inspire the ambitious). Yet the vice presidential candidacy helped most of those advance their public careers.

Muskie’s spectacular 1968 vice presidential campaign catapulted him from a highly respected but nationally unknown senator to a front-runner for the 1972 presidential nomination. The failure of his 1972 campaign traced to a variety of causes, including his weaknesses as a candidate in the nominating stage. Running for vice president helped him. And if you think 2008 didn’t help Palin’s career, ask yourself how many other former governors of Alaska you can name. Similarly, I suspect that history will recall only one three-term member of Congress from 1979-1985.

A losing vice presidential race surely wasn’t the reason others didn’t make it to the White House. Lieberman was too much of a centrist for the 2004 Democratic electorate, and Edwards ran third to two of the most formidable recent candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Bentsen and Kemp chose not to run.

The vice presidency might have limited appeal to a few political giants, the Edward Kennedys or the Jeb Bushes. They are the exceptions. For most public officials, it’s a good career move.