The vice presidential pick is overrated. Here’s why.
The political world — up to and including this blog — is consumed at the moment with trying to divine the identity of Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick. Travel schedules are pored over, public statements are parsed, Wikipedia is consulted.
Given that level of attention, you would think that the pick is of the utmost importance in the presidential race, that a look back at past picks reveals make or break moments centered on the identity of the presidential nominee’s ticketmate.
Not so much.
The simple reality is that the vice presidential pick — viewed through the lens of recent history — has almost no broad influence on the fate of the ticket and, to the extent the VP choice has mattered, it’s been in a negative way.
“VP picks can provide a temporary burst of excitement to a ticket, but pretty soon things settle down and the race is once again about the man at the top,” said Ari Fleischer, a former Bush Administration official. “With communications reaching everywhere for the last few decades, the race is about the presidency, not the vice-presidency.”
The most common argument for why the vice presidential pick matters is geography. But, there’s scant evidence in recent VP picking that geography really matters.
The last vice presidential pick who could make a real argument that he helped the presidential nominee win a swing state or one that leaned against his party was Al Gore in 1992. After the Democratic presidential nominee had lost the Volunteer State by 16 points in 1984 and 1988, Bill Clinton and Gore carried it — thanks in part to the popularity of the then Tennessee Senator (and his father).
(Of course, the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot — Perot took 10 percent in Tennessee — allowed Clinton/Gore to win with just 47 percent of the vote.)
Prior to Gore, the last Democratic VP choice who can lay a solid claim to delivering a region for the presidential nominee is Lyndon Johnson for John Kennedy way back in 1960. Without Johnson, Kennedy’s ability, as a blue-blooded Northeasterner, to play in the South would have been far more complicated. With Johnson, Kennedy carried Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
On the Republican side, Richard Nixon’s choice of Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew as VP in 1968 clearly played a role in his carrying the Old Line State. (It was the only time a GOP presidential nominee carried Maryland between 1960 and 1984.) Of course, Agnew wasn’t a positive for Nixon once the pair got into office.
A look at the VP picks of the last decade suggests the presidential nominees — and their senior staffs — grasp the declining importance of geography.
In 2000, George W. Bush went with Dick Cheney of Wyoming (not a swing state) while Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (also not a swing state).
Four years, later Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry chose then North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and promptly lost the Tar Heel State by 12 points. (In Kerry’s defense, he didn’t pick Edwards in hopes of carrying North Carolina.)
In 2008, President Obama picked Joe Biden (of strongly Democratic Delaware) while Arizona Sen. John McCain went with Sarah Palin (of strongly Republican Alaska).
The other major argument from the “VP picks matter” camp is that the vice presidential selection is the only major decision a presidential nominee makes in the course of the campaign that provides a window into how he could/would govern.
The line of reasoning goes like this: Unlike most policy proposals made during a race, which tend to be abandoned (or drastically overhauled) as campaigning turns to governing, the VP will serve in a critical capacity if the ticket is elected. So, who the nominee picks for such an important role does matter. And how they go about making that selection does too.
True enough. But, that theory assumes that voters are motivated to choose which candidate they would like to be president by who the guy next to the guy is. And, they aren’t.
Here’s our analogy: Mrs. Fix is a field hockey coach. When recruits come to visit the program, they may get a tour from an assistant or some else in the athletic department. But, when they get to the final decision about where to go to school, it’s the head coach that is the biggest factor in their choice — either for good or bad.
Same goes for voters’ attitudes about vice presidents. While you can argue that Biden and/or Cheney marginally helped convince voters that there was a steady hand on the tiller of state — and that Obama and Bush were able to make quality decisions — it was Obama and Bush who played the decisive roles in their own victories, not their second-in-commands.
Look back through the history of VP picks since 1960. One was clearly a benefit to the ticket (Johnson for Kennedy). Another was a plus if not a decisive factor (Gore for Clinton). One was a disaster (Tom Eagleton for George McGovern in 1972) while the impact of another (Palin for McCain) remains a major point of debate within the GOP although there is an increasing willingness among many in the party to say it was net negative in recent months. (See Cheney, Dick.)
Aside from those four picks, the vast majority of VP selections fall somewhere in the neutral factor category with slight variations from marginally helpful to marginally harmful. (Impact of certain VP picks, like everything else in politics, is up for debate, of course.)
All of the above is not to say we won’t continue to cover the heck out of the Romney veepstakes. Because we will. (I mean, let’s just be honest about it.)
Rather, it’s simply to remind people that no matter who Romney ultimately picks, recent history suggests it won’t be a game-changing sort of event in the November election. The choice before voters is today — and will be for the remaining 89 days of the race — between President Obama and Mitt Romney.