5 Myths About the Vice Presidency

By David Greenberg
Sunday, June 1, 2008

It's that time again: As the presidential primaries draw to a close, the airwaves are filled with chatter about running mates. Pundits love the veepstakes: It lets them indulge their taste for horse-race commentary, encourages them to show off their knowledge of obscure political trivia (did you know that Florida Sen. Mel Martinez is ineligible because he was born in Cuba?) and helps them dash off columns without so much as picking up a telephone. But the veepstakes also, inevitably, drives the media to circulate a host of irresistible tidbits -- marred only by the regrettable fact that they have almost no basis in reality. Herewith a few.

1. A vice presidential candidate should win his or her home state for the party.

It probably hasn't made much difference to the outcome since 1960, when Lyndon B. Johnson helped put Texas in John F. Kennedy's column. Nevertheless, when pundits review their short- lists, the first question they usually ask is whether the prospective veep comes from a winnable swing state. Long ago, when state parties had tightly run political machines, that logic made some sense, and even into the postwar era it governed many candidates' thinking. But not so much today. Edmund Muskie might have helped the Democrats win Maine in 1968 (en route, it should be noted, to losing to Richard M. Nixon), and Walter F. Mondale's presence at Jimmy Carter's side probably enabled them to hang onto Minnesota when Hurricane Reagan swept away 44 states in 1980. More often, though, the No. 2 either fails to carry his or her home state or simply isn't chosen with such hopes in mind in the first place. Of this year's Democratic contenders, only Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland promises to nab a battleground state for Sen. Barack Obama. On the Republican side, not even Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota's moderate but little-known governor, seems likely to shore up that swing state for the GOP.

2. Ideological and regional balance are vital to a ticket.

This assumption, too, was once valid but no longer holds. In the 19th century, the heyday of political machines, voters felt a strong allegiance to one party or the other, and a race's outcome was determined by how well the party operatives turned out their vote. Because these same operatives picked the nominees -- primaries didn't play a decisive role in nominations until 1972 -- conventions typically featured nasty dustups between a party's ideological wings or regional blocs. Ticket-balancing arose as a way to preserve peace at convention time. So the bosses would pair a Northeasterner with a Midwesterner -- and indeed, between 1864 and 1920, two-thirds of all national candidates came from New York, Indiana or Ohio.

But the once-powerful logic of balance has eroded as the parties have become more ideologically uniform: The Republicans are no longer fiercely divided between the Eastern Wall Street Establishment and the Midwestern Main Street wing, and the Democrats no longer have a sizable Southern conservative bloc deeply hostile to their Northern liberal base.

Moreover, voters today choose their candidates on the basis of image more than of party. And so although balancing efforts still sometimes occur -- Ronald Reagan's selection of George H.W. Bush in 1980, Michael Dukakis's choice of Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 -- nominees will more often use their moments in the spotlight to send signals about their own candidacies. They might wish to augment their own profiles, as Bill Clinton did in 1992 by choosing Al Gore -- another young Southern moderate -- or to seek a bounce from a bold, exciting pick, as Mondale did by tapping Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

To the extent that ticket-balancing survives, it's in the form of signaling neglected constituent groups that they're not taken for granted. This year, Obama lacks strong support from enough key Democratic voting blocs -- Hispanics, Jews, women, gays, seniors and the white working class -- that he should be sensitive to their concerns in choosing a veep. John McCain, on the other hand, would do well to bolster his own reputation as a maverick by choosing someone like Colin Powell or Mike Huckabee.

3. Reaching across the aisle to form a bipartisan ticket would be smart politics.

Well, maybe, but it's not going to happen. Every four years, we hear titillating talk that one of the nominees will make a paradigm-shifting move by choosing an understudy from the opposite party. Favorite names served up this year are Sen. Joe Lieberman (who rumor has it used to be a Democrat) as a potential McCain lieutenant and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as possible Obama backstops. This isn't totally unthinkable; in 2004, John F. Kerry seriously considered putting McCain on his ticket. But the chances of that pairing's coming to fruition were always exceedingly slim, as are the prospects for this year's cross-party dream teams.

The reason is that, as weak as parties have become, the choice of a president and a vice president still defines a party. To turn to the rival institution in this basic act of self-definition would be an abdication -- a concession that the party is nothing but a vehicle for the ambitions of individual politicians, not a coherent body with a purpose.

Incidentally, the last president to choose a vice president from the opposite party was Abraham Lincoln, who selected Andrew Johnson in 1864 -- a pairing that didn't work out very well. (Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson impeached.)

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