According to InTrade, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman is the odds-on favorite to be chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is in second place. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another oft-mentioned pick, trails them badly.
InTrade could, of course, be wrong. It often is. But reports from inside the Romney campaign tell a similar story. They’re looking for an “incredibly boring white guy,” as one GOP insider put it to Politico.
If I were a betting man, however, I’d be betting on a non-incredibly boring pick. The basic logic of a Portman or a Pawlenty is that the underlying dynamics of the race favor Romney and the campaign’s job from now until November is to avoid doing anything that would interrupt their smooth glide to sweet victory.
But it’s not clear that the underlying dynamics do favor Romney. President Obama has held a small but persistent lead throughout the campaign. Worse for Romney, Obama seems slightly stronger in the battleground states than he is nationally. His ads have been more effective than Romney’s, and almost everyone expects his ground game will run circles around whatever the Republicans manage to come up with.
Meanwhile, Romney’s voters are notably unexcited: The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Obama’s voters are more certain of their choice than Romney’s voters, and are more than twice as likely to be voting for their candidate rather than against the other candidate.
Vice presidential picks aren’t gamechangers, of course. But they do focus the nation’s attention on the ticket and — particularly when they happen in concert with the convention — lead to a new round of stories in the press. A Portman or Pawlenty pick is already so priced-in that the media coverage would hardly change. A Rubio or Jindal pick — not to mention a truly unexpected choice, like Condoleeza Rice, or someone from the business world — would, if nothing else, lead to some renewed national interest in the ticket.
The problem for the Romney campaign is that the last time a Republican presidential nominee decided to tap an attention-getting candidate for vice president, they picked Sarah Palin, and she was a disaster. The Republican Party understandably has post-Palin stress syndrome and so there’s a bias toward tested politicians who can credibly promise to “do no harm.” But there’s a chasm of difference between a one-term governor with no national experience like Palin and a Marco Rubio or a Bobby Jindal or a Paul Ryan — candidates who are experienced at dealing with the national press, but might actually generate some excitement.
There’s also the question of how both Romney and his advisers want their campaign to be remembered if they lose. Given the mounting conservative critiques of Romney’s current strategy — that he’s playing it too safe and being too vague and letting a historic opportunity to defeat the most dangerous president of all time slip through his fingers — it’s easy to imagine there being some appeal to a vice presidential candidate who would blunt those criticisms and make it harder to argue that Romney, rather than modern Republicanism, lost.
Which is all to say that for the Romney camp, the “incredibly boring white guy” choice is a vote of confidence in the way the campaign is going now. And I’d be surprised if they were all that happy with the way the campaign is going now.