Obama booting Biden? Here’s why that actually doesn’t matter.

November 1, 2013

(Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP )

So, courtesy of Jonathan Martin, one of the tidbits from the new Game Change book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann is this:

President Obama’s top aides secretly considered replacing Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the 2012 ticket, undertaking extensive focus-group sessions and polling in late 2011 when Mr. Obama’s re-election outlook appeared uncertain.

The aides concluded that despite Mrs. Clinton’s popularity, the move would not offer a significant enough political boost to Mr. Obama to justify such a radical move, according to a newly published account of the 2012 race.

At least the Obama team came to the right conclusion. Just as the vice-presidency is famously “not worth a bucket of warm piss” to the actual vice-president, the vice-presidential nominee is worth not much more to the ticket.  In our book on the 2012 election, The Gamble, Lynn Vavreck and I talk about this with reference to Paul Ryan.  To be sure, we didn’t think the Ryan pick was so strategically great.  He was already somewhat polarizing, relative to other vice-presidential contenders, and he really wasn’t necessary to mobilize the Republican base.  But ultimately, vice-presidential picks don’t matter that much.  We write:

Vice-presidential picks have had at most a small influence on modern presidential elections. They have not provided a consistent boost to the ticket in pre-election polling—and Ryan’s pick did not give Romney one. They also have provided, at best, a very modest boost to the ticket on Election Day, both overall and in their home states. Political science studies have confirmed this over the years. The question was not whether Ryan himself would matter but how his selection might have affected broader aspects of messaging and strategy — both Romney’s and Obama’s — and thereby shifted the dynamics of the race.

And ultimately Ryan didn’t do that either, since Romney stuck to basically the same economic message throughout the campaign.

Of course, you are thinking about Sarah Palin.  Maybe — maybe — she cost McCain votes.  But even then, the economic and political fundamentals were so strongly in Obama’s favor that McCain was very likely to lose regardless.

The particular problem with putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket in 2012 is that her “popularity” would have dropped almost immediately once she was back in day-to-day electoral politics, instead of floating somewhat above the fray as Secretary of State.  So, even if somehow a vice-presidential nominee did matter, Clinton wouldn’t have helped the ticket very much. [Update: Mark Blumenthal of Pollster reminds me that Hillary Clinton's popularity has already dropped in 2013 as she's transitioned from Secretary of State to potential presidential candidate.]

In short, the story is tasty as far as gossipy morsels go, but doesn’t suggest anything of significant consequence for the election’s outcome.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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