Now that Mitt Romney has secured the requisite 1144 delegates for the formal Republican presidential nomination, the attention of the political chattering classes will turn to the vice-presidential choice he makes to round out his ticket. Bumper sticker manufacturers from coast to coast are waiting with baited breath.
But in the end, does it actually matter? Do voters make their choice based on the VP pick? Has that swayed elections in the past, plus or minus?
We’ll look at this in the perspective of the last 50 or so years, beginning with the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960. That can plausibly be considered the oldest “modern” election, the first in the television age when the casually attentive undecided voters formed strong impressions based on how candidates look and present themselves.
In 1960 Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson from Texas as his running mate, one of the earliest instances of a running mate having been chosen because of their supposed strength in a geographic region. Johnson’s down-home folksy Southern drawl was thought to be a strong counterbalance among the more conservative Southern voters, who might otherwise have been suspicious of Kennedy’s erudite, elitist Northeastern persona. As it turned out, while that may have been true, Johnson’s biggest campaign contribution may well have been his ability to manipulate the complex Texas political system, as it is widely believed that vote fraud played a huge role in swinging Texas into Kennedy’s column. That state, along with the virtual statistical impossibility of Kennedy’s having “won” Illinois despite losing 92 of 101 counties, gave Kennedy his narrow victory. Johnson’s presence on the ticket probably influenced the outcome, although not for the geographical reasons imagined.
From then on, has any VP choice been influential or significant? Certainly for the balance of the 20th century, the candidates are best known as Jeopardy trivia answers, and nothing more:
1964—William E. Miller (R), Hubert Humphrey (D)
1968—Spiro Agnew (R), Edmund Muskie (D)
1972—Agnew (R), Sargent Shriver (D). This is truly a trivia question for the ages: How many remember that Shriver replaced Thomas Eagleton on the D ticket, after it was revealed that Eagleton had undergone psychiatric therapy for depression and had to withdraw from consideration?
1976—Bob Dole (R), Walter Mondale (D). This was almost an incredibly interesting year. After Ronald Reagan’s surprisingly strong primary challenge to incumbent President Ford, the party raised the idea of a “super ticket” at that year’s Republican Convention, where Reagan would be officially the VP nominee, but would function with Ford as a virtual “co-President.” The details and minutia of how this would actually work in practice couldn’t be ironed out, so Bob Dole assumed the traditional VP candidate’s role. Ford-Dole lost in a close race, and Reagan, obviously, would have his days in the sun in the next two cycles.
1980—George H.W. Bush (R), Mondale (D)
1984—Bush (R), Geraldine Ferraro (D). If ever there was a presidential election that demonstrated the incredibly minor effect the VP candidate has on the overall vote, it would be this one. As the first female candidate on a Presidential ticket, Ferraro’s presence could have been thought to have had a significant impact on the vote by energizing the female vote. It didn’t. Reagan won by the biggest Electoral College vote total in history.
1988—Dan Quayle (R), Lloyd Bentsen (D). Although George H.W. Bush crushed “Zorba the Clerk” Michael Dukakis in the election, the Vice Presidential debate did produce probably the most memorable, oft-quoted line from any VP encounter, when Bentsen famously admonished Quayle with the retort, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
1992—Quayle (R), Al Gore (D)
1996—Jack Kemp (R), Gore (D)
2000—Dick Cheney (R), Joe Lieberman (D)
2004—Cheney (R), John Edwards (D)
2008—Sarah Palin (R), Joe Biden (D)
Only in 2008 could the VP candidate realistically be said to have influenced the margins of the election. Sarah Palin’s relative inexperience, her missteps on the campaign trail, and the liberal media relentlessly savaging and denigrating her caused her to be a material, tangible drag on McCain’s candidacy. Although Obama was headed for victory in any event with his optimistic “Hope and Change” message, as delivered by a fresh, promising face to a nation hungry for relief from the economic battering of the financial crisis, Palin’s presence on the ticket further weakened John McCain’s already bland, unimaginative campaign. With a better VP candidate, the Republicans likely would have lost 2008 by measurably less, but they were not destined to win regardless as 2008’s issues developed.
So that brings us to 2012. Will Romney’s selection matter? Many say that Marco Rubio is the best choice, since his sparkling personality, superb public speaking ability, Florida residency and, most important, his Hispanic ethnicity make him a tangible asset to a changing national demographic and magnifies his influence in a critical swing state.
On the Democratic side, many call for the Gaffe-o-Matic Joe Biden to be replaced by Hillary Clinton, on the theory that she would energize the female vote and strengthen the ticket by including the country’s most popular Democrat (Clinton). If that happens, the Republicans might well respond by naming Condi Rice as Romney’s VP running mate, to counter the female aspect of Clinton and have an African-American answer to Obama.
The danger for both sides is that there is a lot of residual “Clinton resentment” among the electorate, and the liberal media will attempt to tie Rice very strongly and closely to the most unpopular aspects of the later Bush years.
So does it really matter? The media like to trumpet the VP choice as an indication of the candidate’s judgment, a look into his or her thought process. The best advice is probably to adhere to the physician’s motto of, “First, do no harm.” While it’s unlikely that a VP candidate will deliver tangible benefits that will positively sway an election, a poor choice can be a lightening rod for a media constantly on the hunt to manufacture news, issues and controversy.