2004: Republican George W. Bush picking Dick Cheney.
This one comes with a bright asterisk because the process, so orderly and organized in theory, broke down in practice when Bush decided that the man leading his search committee was actually the man he wanted on his ticket—even though he had not been vetted. When Bush tapped Cheney it was the triumph of Bush’s gut over his head. Aides warned him that Cheney brought nothing to the ticket. He had major health issues with his history of heart attacks; he was associated closely with Bush’s father at a time he was trying to emerge from that long shadow; and his home state of Wyoming’s three electoral votes were already assured. But Bush kept pushing Cheney to put his own name on the list. Finally, on the Tuesday before the convention, Cheney relented. Bush understood what Clinton had with Gore—the optics were great. Voters had doubts about Bush’s maturity and his mastery of foreign policy. Cheney immediately reassured those doubters and his strong performance in the VP debate added to the reassurance.
2008: Democrat Barack Obama picking Joe Biden.
Almost from the moment he secured the nomination, Barack Obama was determined to be thorough in his search for a running mate. He named his selection committee on June 4; conducted focus groups on the possible picks in July; and studied dossiers on the names gathered. But, to the dismay of some of his aides, he kept returning to Hillary Rodham Clinton as the best choice to unite the party. It wasn’t until late July that his aides were able to kill the notion, leaving three possible picks—Delaware Gov. Joe Biden, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. All three were interviewed—Biden in Minneapolis, Bayh in St. Louis, and Kaine in Indiana. The biggest stumbling block was a fear that the always-talkative Biden would be a loose cannon on the campaign trail. Once Biden swore to watch what he said, he was Obama’s choice. And, just as Cheney had reassured Bush skeptics, Biden’s years in Washington and deep foreign-policy credentials were enough to win over voters worried about Obama’s youth and inexperience.
Choices that were flawed:
1972: George McGovern picking Tom Eagleton.
A sheer disaster, resulting in McGovern having to force him off the ticket after only 18 days and scrambling to replace him with Sargent Shriver. Even before this pick, McGovern was a long shot to defeat President Nixon. But he had no shot after the VP debacle.
McGovern did not secure the nomination until early in the morning and had only hours to pick a running mate and let him write an acceptance speech. He had no search committee, no questionnaires, no vetting. He only had one name, really—he wanted Sen. Edward Kennedy to run with him. But the morning after the nomination, Kennedy firmly rejected the offer. McGovern then started scrambling, meeting with aides, soliciting names, even letting a group that included actress Shirley MacLaine take secret votes on the possible names. Other big names turned McGovern down just as Kennedy had. But, like Kennedy, they often suggested Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri as a good choice. “No, I just don’t know enough about Tom,” demurred McGovern. But with time running out, he relented and offered the job to Eagleton only after being reassured there were no problems that would surface in the campaign.
Big mistake. It only took two days for word of his electric-shock treatments to surface and 16 more days for him to be gone. McGovern later said his biggest regret is that he had not done what he wanted to do—ask CBS anchor Walter Cronkite to be his running mate.
1968: Richard Nixon picking Spiro Agnew.
Richard Nixon kept telling his aides that he didn’t really need a running mate. He was convinced that he would have to win or lose the race on his own, that any running mate would just detract from his careful campaign to appeal both sides of the ideological divide in the GOP. With that conviction, Nixon spent little time vetting little-known Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, one of his two finalists along with Massachusetts Gov. John Volpe. To keep the South placated, Nixon gave a veto to South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. He OK'd Agnew. At noon, on the day of the acceptance address, Agnew accepted. A joke during the campaign, not even his critics knew his lasting vice-presidential legacy would be pleading “nolo contendere” to taking bribes.
2008: John McCain picking Sarah Palin.
McCain had a search process that looked orderly. But it was anything but. McCain spent most of the preconvention time pushing for a bold pick of Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Only a week before the convention, he finally was talked out of it. That left almost no time to come up with the “game-changing” pick he craved. Enter the 44-year-old, first-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, a woman McCain knew only vaguely. On Aug. 27, less than 24 hours before McCain wanted to make his decision, Palin came to Arizona. The campaign team had only begun vetting her. No attention was paid to her readiness for the office or knowledge of the issues. But by the next day, she was McCain’s pick and was readying her campaign debut in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 29. It was a hasty choice that electrified the convention and energized the base. But it was badly handled and was quickly recognized as a mistake by the campaign staff.