The Overrated VP Decision

For all the focus on who Trump and Clinton will pick, running mates rarely affect the outcome of presidential races.

John Kerry and John Edwards during the 2004 presidential campaign
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
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George E. Condon Jr.
June 26, 2016, 8 p.m.

Let the overselling begin.

With both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump deep into their searches for their vice presidential running mates, the talk has already begun about which possible picks can deliver their home states to the ticket, which can woo a wary constituency, and which can send a message powerful enough to shake up the race.

Those doing the speculation should know better. Or, at the least, they should know their history. In fact, the history of vice presidential picks since 1960 is clear: Most Americans vote for the top of the ticket; the No. 2 person, in the end, doesn’t really help that much.

The last time the bottom of the ticket clearly delivered crucial electoral votes was 1960, when Lyndon Johnson is credited with putting Texas’s 24 electoral votes in John F. Kennedy’s column. In the 14 elections from 1960 to 2012, there have been 20 non-incumbent vice presidential candidates. Nine lost their home states, including two who were added to their tickets in part because they were supposed to help flip their home-state electoral votes—Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan in 2012 and North Carolina’s John Edwards in 2004.

Veteran Republican operative Charlie Black, who has advised 10 presidential campaigns and been deeply involved in several searches for vice presidential nominees, believes it is time for campaigns on both sides to be realistic about the value of running mates. He is currently advising Donald Trump’s campaign but is not involved in the vetting of potential candidates to run with him.

Interviews with Black and others involved in past campaigns suggest what Black calls “a simple checklist” that Trump and Clinton should be looking for now:

1. The immediate reaction to the announcement has to be good. “If people say, ‘This person is qualified,’ then that means the nominee made a good decision and people will give you credit for that,” said Black.

This is perhaps the most critical factor in judging a nominee’s choice because it is the first “presidential” decision a candidate makes. As Walter Mondale noted in 1984, “It is the most important decision I will make as the Democratic nominee.” Since 1988, Gallup has been polling on this question, asking perceptions of vice presidential candidates’ “ability to serve as president if it becomes necessary.”

Al Gore was the highest rated, with 64 percent of registered voters saying he was qualified when named in 1992. Following him were Republican Jack Kemp with 61 percent in 1996; Democrat Joe Biden in 2008, Republican Dick Cheney in 2000, and Democrat Edwards in 2004, each with 57 percent; and Democrat Joe Lieberman in 2000 with 52 percent.

The bottom three—each failing to crack 50 percent—were Republicans: Ryan in 2012 with 48 percent, Sarah Palin in 2008 with 39 percent, and Dan Quayle in 1988 with 32 percent.

No one needs to wait for polls on this score, though. If voters are still talking about the running mate after a week and still questioning credentials, it’s not good. “After the convention is over, they should be mostly out of the news until the debate,” said Black. “If they’re in the news, that is bad.”

2. You don’t want surprises once the first blush of the announcement fades. That’s where the vetting comes in. If the campaign vetting falls short, the press vetting can be brutal and full of those unwanted surprises.

But, memorably, surprises have come: Thomas Eagleton’s previously undisclosed psychiatric treatments in 1972, Geraldine Ferraro’s tangled and controversial family finances in 1984, and Dan Quayle’s successful efforts to avoid the Vietnam War draft made public in 1988.

3. You want your running mate to perform respectably in the vice presidential debate. Clear victory is not required, but the avoidance of embarrassment is.

It’s not a good sign for a campaign when all anyone remembers from a debate is how much water you drank (Ryan, 2012). Or that you blamed Democrats for World War II (Bob Dole, 1976). Or that you got clobbered for seeming to compare yourself to John F. Kennedy (Quayle, 1988). No vice presidential debate has ever swung an election outcome. But the presidential nominees would be happy not to have to talk about a running mate’s performance.

“That’s the checklist,” said Black. “You want somebody who is not going to make mistakes or call attention to themselves.”

A bonus is if the running mate also turns out to be a good campaigner, maybe even with the ability of get under the skin of the other side. Barry Goldwater once confided that he picked little-known Rep. William Miller of New York as his running mate because “he drives [Lyndon] Johnson nuts.” To the surprise of many candidates, their picks often fail to clear this bar.

Goldwater discovered that Johnson in fact paid no attention to Miller. Richard Nixon discovered that Henry Cabot Lodge was “a mistake because he was not a good campaigner,” according to Nixon aide Herbert Klein. Democrat John Kerry’s staff was frustrated by Edwards’s unwillingness to throw himself into the 2004 campaign.

In the end, Kerry and almost all the other nominees of the past 60 years contented themselves with the realization that the VP pick really didn’t matter in the end. The day after Quayle blew the 1988 debate, Republican aides like Rich Bond kept repeating, “Dan Quayle is not running for president.” When a reporter asked Bond if he was saying the vice presidential nominee was “irrelevant,” Bond paused, smiled, and responded, “I wouldn’t use those words.”

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