Mitt Romney will face intense pressure from all sides as he nears the time to make his choice of a vice presidential running mate. His political advisers will want someone who can bring the most votes. Conservatives will want someone from their wing of the party. Supporters of those who ran against Romney will want someone who, as Theodore Roosevelt said, has been "in the arena."
Analysis of every vice presidential pick in the 15 elections since 1952 suggests that this year’s choice will fall into one of four categories. Before he even gets to vetting specific names, Romney will have to decide what he is looking for out of his choice.
The categories are: 1) Geography, 2) Balance, 3) Reinforcement, or 4) Hail Mary. Other factors, of course, can complement the main reasons for the choice. In 1964, Barry Goldwater picked William Miller, an obscure congressman from New York, to emphasize his own conservatism. It was a "Reinforcement" choice. But Goldwater said he also picked Miller because "he drove LBJ nuts" and he was hoping President Johnson would get so angry he might make a mistake. And Jimmy Carter in 1976 tabbed Sen. Walter Mondale as a "Balance" pick, to reach out to Northern and Midwestern Democrats and the unions. But he also had been impressed when he brought Mondale and other candidates down to Plains, Ga., for vetting and Mondale was the only one who didn’t let the Georgia gnats get to him. As Mondale said later, "Any person who can give a speech and blow gnats at the same time deserves to be president. I learned to do that in Plains."
Geography is a category that rarely works. In fact, in only one of the last 15 elections can it be argued that a vice presidential nominee brought in an important state and made the difference in the election. That was when John F. Kennedy put Johnson on the ticket in 1960 and LBJ delivered Texas. More often, the geographic pitch falls flat, as best demonstrated in 2004 when John Kerry put John Edwards on the ticket in the hopes of winning North Carolina. As any North Carolinian could have told Kerry, there was no way Edwards could pull off that trick. The Democratic ticket lost the state by 13 points. Similarly, Lloyd Bentsen couldn’t do much to persuade his fellow Texans to vote for Michael Dukakis in 1988 -- even though Bentsen was widely praised and was a big winner in that year’s vice presidential debate.
Reinforcement is the least-used of the reasons for picking a running mate. Other than Goldwater’s pick of Miller, it has only been used once, in 1992 when Bill Clinton selected a fellow baby-boomer moderate from the South, Al Gore. That time, it worked.
More popular is the "Hail Mary" option favored by candidates desperate to shake up the race and alter the dynamics. In 1976, Ronald Reagan announced that, if he were to win the nomination, he would take liberal Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his vice presidential nominee. In 1984, Mondale went for the first-ever female running mate in Geraldine Ferraro. And in 2008, John McCain surprised everybody and got a short-term boost in the polls when he picked Sarah Palin. None of the three "Hail Mary" picks paid off in the long run.
That leaves the favorite reason for picking a running mate, coming up 15 times in the 25 choices: "Balance." From 1952, when civil rights champion Adlai Stevenson picked a stalwart segregationist in Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama, through 2008 when foreign policy neophyte Barack Obama picked a foreign policy expert in Joe Biden, this has been the way to go for most nominees. Richard Nixon went for a liberal pillar of the Northeast establishment in Henry Cabot Lodge in 1960. In 1968, Nixon wanted ethnic diversity and Hubert Humphrey wanted a Catholic, so the VP nominees were Spiro Agnew and Edmund Muskie. In 1976, Gerald Ford had survived a tough battle with Reagan. He flirted with putting Reagan on the ticket, but ended up with Bob Dole, a Midwesterner he thought would help with both conservatives and the Farm Belt.
In 1980, Reagan did go with the rival he had defeated, unifying the party with George H.W. Bush. In 1996, Dole chose a rival, Jack Kemp, to signal to conservatives and tax-cutters that he was one of them. It was even in play in 1956, the only time in the last 60 years when a nominee let the convention pick his running mate: Democrats paired Adlai Stevenson with two-time candidate Estes Kefauver. In 2000, Al Gore wanted to signal that he was not Bill Clinton, so he picked the Democrat who had most publicly rebuked Clinton: Joe Lieberman.
Now it is up to Romney. Is it a year for geography, balance, reinforcement, or a Hail Mary?