The vice presidency is the job that everyone wants but nobody likes. The desire is obvious. A spot on the presidential ticket provides ambitious politicians (which is to say, politicians) with the most precious commodity in politics: national exposure. Moreover, scandal, illness and assassination have conspired to elevate an extraordinary number of vice-presidents to the White House. Since 1900, over 30 per cent of vice presidents have gone on to become president. Several losing vice-presidential nominees, including Franklin Roosevelt, have also gone on to claim their party’s presidential nomination. More recently, politicians who have spent time on a national ticket have parlayed their political fame to win Academy Awards, earn lucrative contracts on cable news stations or get prosecuted by the federal government.But once in office vice presidents often find the job isn’t all they hoped it would be. John Nance Garner, FDR’s first vice president, famously described the position as being “not worth a warm bucket of piss.” Robert Caro recounts in his magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson how the three years in which LBJ served as John Kennedy’s vice president were the most depressing of his time in public office. Johnson, who had given up his post as the most powerful senate majority leader in history, felt emasculated as he confronted the realities of an office devoid of any real power. Why, then, given the practical limitations of the vice presidency, does so much attention get lavished on the selection of a running mate? With the presidential campaign still very much in its pre-Labor Day Phony War phase, anticipation has already begun building in Washington’s favorite quadrennial parlor game. Politico has a section on its website devoted to the “Veep Watch,” with articles and discussions on twenty names they believe Mitt Romney might be considering. If you turn on any cable news channel you will be bombarded with the talking heads discussing who’s up and who’s down in the race to be Romney’s running mate. And the candidate himself recently acknowledged that he may accelerate the usual timetable for the selection process, reportedly in order to generate positive news coverage and get a head start on fundraising. A cynical response might mention the voracious need of the modern media to fill content in an era of news cycles operating at warp speed. But the answer is more complex than that. Aside from the peripheral benefits for a campaign to have an extra pair of hands on deck to raise money and attack the opposition is the belief that a running mate can win votes that the candidate himself never could, especially in his or her home state. This line of thinking posits that if the election is close, as the current contest appears to be, then a running mate who can provide a significant boost in a critical state might be the difference between winning and losing. This year, strategists from both parties see more parallels to the 2004 contest, in which Bush beat Kerry 286-251 in the Electoral College, than to 2008, when Obama handily defeated McCain. And if the election does turn out to be a replay of 2004, or the even tighter 2000 race, then one relatively large swing state could tip the balance of the outcome. It therefore makes sense for the campaigns to eek out every vote imaginable in states such as Ohio and Florida. Speaking of Ohio and Florida, it is no coincidence that the two names widely considered to be at the top of Mitt Romney’s VP shortlist are Senators Rob Portman (Ohio) and Marco Rubio (Florida).1 According to the political betting website Intrade, Senator Portman is the man most likely to be anointed by Romney. And while Portman has an impressive resume—he spent twelve years as a congressman prior to serving in the George W. Bush administration—it is the letters “O” and “H” after his name that have led many pundits to declare Portman the prohibitive favorite. Simply put, Romney’s path to victory must go through Ohio. And as much as presidential candidates repeat the shibboleth that their selection of a running mate is done without electoral considerations in mind it is a stretch to see Portman’s star shining this lustrously if he was born in, say, Alabama instead of Ohio. Unfortunately for Senator Portman there is scant evidence to suggest the selection of a running mate has much of an effect on the outcome of the election. To discover the last time a running mate can plausibly be said to have carried a state for his senior partner one has to go back to 1960. That was the election in which Johnson was credited with securing Texas for Kennedy; that he did so by nefarious means rather than through the popularity of his persona somewhat dulls the impact. Even then, Kennedy would still have won the presidency without Texas’s Electoral College votes. The New York Times’ election guru, Nate Silver, has attempted to quantify the impact of a running mate on the national ticket. Silver, who begins his analysis in 1920, examines the presidential candidate’s performance in the state of the running mate and compares that to his nationwide performance. Silver then looks at the elections immediately preceding and following to isolate the effect of the vice presidential nominee. Silver readily admits this is an imperfect model but he found that, on average, the running mate was only worth an extra two percentage points in their home state. To be sure, John Kerry would have loved those two points in Ohio, as would have Al Gore in Florida in 2000. Yet as Silver points out, his model fails to consider whether the vice presidential nominee was even popular in his own state. And neither Portman nor Rubio, both of whom have been in statewide office for less than two years, has had enough time to develop a broad, dedicated following at home. But the strongest indication the home state effect is overrated can be seen through a cursory look at the list of recent nominees for vice president from both major parties. Since 1996 vice presidential nominees have hailed from some of the reddest and bluest states in the union, including Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Wyoming. The only recent exception was John Edwards in 2004—and Kerry still lost North Carolina by nearly 13 points.2 A second reason, more subtle and harder to quantify, has been proposed to explain why campaigns expend considerable effort on selecting a running mate. As that Svengali of the dark political arts, Karl Rove, has argued, “The vice presidential nominee reinforces the themes that the presidential candidate sets down. The impact on the election by himself or herself is minimal.” Usually this means a campaign will select a running mate to ‘balance the ticket’, if not regionally then in terms of image or experience. Such logic helps explain why Obama, then a Washington neophyte with an unconventional ethnic background, went with a working class-born Irish-Catholic DC insider. Similarly, George W. Bush, like Obama lacking in DC nous and national security experience, tapped former Defense Secretary and noted bureaucratic shark Dick Cheney to be his number two. Given how hard is to estimate the effect of a running mate on the outcome of the election, and considering that what evidence we do have suggests the impact is minimal, it is tempting to argue that no attention should be paid to whomever Romney eventually selects. But adopting this ostrich posture is counterproductive—for as long as campaigns insist on chasing after the chimera that a running mate can win votes, or add to the narrative, or balance the ticket or whatever cliché is in vogue, it behooves us interested onlookers to pay attention. Choosing a running mate is one of the few set pieces of a presidential campaign. Campaigns have months, rather than hours, to make a decision. It is also one of the few moments in the campaign where the challenger can set the agenda and make a clear and unambiguous statement to the country. As a result, the selection of the running mate provides the public with a rare, spin-free glimpse into how the campaign is truly faring. Here’s how the reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin describe the thought process behind John McCain’s decision to select Sarah Palin: McCainworld’s core conviction was that McCain’s VP choice had to be a game changer. The campaign assumed the progress it had made with “Celeb” [a line of attack against Obama] was a temporary blip. That Obama’s financial advantages would continue to create a crushing imbalance. That the three quarters of the electorate who were telling pollsters the country was on the wrong track and blaming the GOP would punish McCain at the polls. If McCain’s running mate selection didn’t fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race, it would be lights out.John McCain didn’t lose the election because he chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate; McCain knew he was losing the election and felt he had to throw a Hail Mary. And while Heilemann and Halperin’s book wasn’t released until January 2010, it was clear from the chaos unleashed at the time of the Palin announcement that the McCain campaign was desperately trying to bail out water from a sinking ship. Beyond the immediate electoral implications, who a candidate chooses, and how they go about making the selection, provides a snapshot of their character and leadership qualities. It is often the first executive decision a candidate has to make, beyond appointing top campaign staff, as well as the most important, given the remarkable frequency with which vice presidents have gone on to become president. For McCain, who was 72 at the time of the 2008 election, to select someone as patently unready as the thriller from Wasilla, and to have done so without properly vetting her, was not just negligent but a blatantly Faustian bargain. In his lust for the most powerful office in the world, McCain diminished his reputation for integrity and political courage and revealed a man willing to take extraordinary risks to satisfy his ambition. In no other part of the campaign cycle does such a character trait get exposed. Mitt Romney’s selection will be similarly informative. Romney is in many ways the temperamental antithesis of McCain. A sober man of strong faith, Romney, despite his success in the corporate world, is not a risk-taker. When headhunted to transfer from Bain Consulting to the fledgling Bain Capital (at a time when private equity was in its infancy and nobody could foresee the riches ahead), Romney initially demurred. It was too risky, he reportedly said. It was only after Bill Bain guaranteed Romney his old job if things didn’t work out at Bain Capital that Romney agreed to the move. In this respect, Romney is closer in mien to Obama than to McCain. And just as Obama refused to get too flashy with his running mate (Hillary Clinton was often mentioned in this regard), it is impossible to conceive Romney making the kind of last-minute decision that McCain made four years ago. Having absorbed the lessons of the Palin fiasco you can be certain that Romney will adhere to the Hippocratic Oath of running mate politics: first, do no harm. Expect Romney’s running mate to be a thoroughly vetted, safe and probably boring choice. Debates and speeches allow a candidate to elucidate their policy proposals, but rarely do they offer any insight into their judgment. (This is pertinent for challengers rather than incumbents; after four years in the job one should have a settled opinion as to the judgment of a president.) Given the complexities of the presidency, of the myriad unknowns that he will have to confront, questions about judgment are just as salient as questions about policy. And since presidential campaigns rarely allow their candidates off the rhetorical leash, we have to search in unusual places to understand a candidate’s temperament, personality and leadership style. The selection of the running mate is a good place to start looking. 1On June 19, ABC News reported that the Romney camp was not vetting Rubio to be the governor’s running mate. News that Rubio was not on the shortlist unleashed a torrent of criticism on the Romney campaign and the candidate was eventually forced to publicly admit that the junior senator from Florida was indeed being considered for the ticket. 2Clinton did win Tennessee (twice) with local boy Al Gore on the ticket. But Gore’s subsequent defeat in 2000, in which he failed to carry his own state, suggests that was likely more a function of Clinton than Gore.
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Published on: July 12, 2012Why the Veepstakes Matters