On the days John McCain and Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton) introduce their running mates, they are going to look the cameras in the eye and announce that their number one consideration was to put someone on the ticket who would be prepared and qualified to take over as president should that become necessary.
And if you’re like me, you may roll your cynical eyes and wonder why politicians must constantly insult your intelligence by saying things only a rube would believe. Anyone with a double-digit political IQ knows that the choice of a running mate is about balancing the ticket, gaining an advantage in a swing state, making a play for a particular demographic, unifying the various wings of the party and essentially all about trying to win the election, not trying to line up a qualified backup president.
At Monday’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance conference on vice presidential selection, political scientist Doug Kriner said something different from that conventional wise guy wisdom, a bit more complicated and kinda convincing.
Kriner argued that the dichotomy between a politically smart veep pick and a qualified veep was a false choice, basically because the politically dumbest thing a nominee can do when choosing a running mate is choose someone whom the public sees as unqualified to be president. That kinda makes sense too.
And it was backed up by another point, which was echoed by pretty much all the scholars at the conference: The political importance of the veepstakes is normally overplayed by the media. The running mate cannot do much to help the ticket win. The public is voting for the presidential candidate, not the running-mate.
But, Kriner argued, a bad running mate (defined as one that the public doesn’t trust to be a heartbeat away from the presidency) can hurt the ticket. So after the “short list” of finalists for the job is prepared (and you normally don’t get on that list unless you add some kind of balance to the ticket), the final choice is a defensive one, as in: let’s make sure we pick someone who won’t hurt us.
The best defense is a well-qualified veep who won’t give rise to a TV spot – like this one by the Dems in 1988 trying to play on fears that Repub veep nominee Dan Quayle wasn’t up to the big job.
The Quayle case enters the lore of recent veep picks as the object lesson on how not to do it. The assumption is that nominee George H.W. Bush attached too much weight to the belief that a handsome young running mate would help the ticket with young voters and women, and not enough weight to the importance of a credible president-in-waiting.
One of the most famous moments of the campaign was Dem. VP Candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s “you’re-no-Jack-Kennedy” putdown.
Kriner pointed out Monday that the forgotten context for the exchange was that the moderators had been pressing Quayle on his qualifications to be president. If you read the transcript of the exchange, you’ll note that in his statement just before Bentsen’s famous riposte, Quayle appears to be complaining about the constant demand that he justify his qualifications to be on the ticket, which led Quayle to note that he had comparable congressional experience to John F. Kennedy. (Of course, the Bush-Quayle ticket did win the election, but the Quayle selection is widely viewed as a blunder.)
Some other recent veep disasters — Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 choice of Sen. Tom Eagleton (who soon withdrew from the ticket after divulging that he suffered from depression and had been treated with electroshock) and the corruption problem that forced Spiro Agnew to resign the vice presidency just as Richard Nixon’s presidency was collapsing — have heightened public awareness to the importance of having a steady, proven number two person on the ticket.
Pre-reform and post-reform
Another intriguing finding in Kriner’s work: the key factor in veep selection changed between 1968 and 1972, from a model that was dominated by considerations of ticket balance to a model that was dominated by the potential running mates’ experience and qualifications to be president.
Not coincidentally, in Kriner’s view, the McGovern-Fraser reforms, which required all states (at least on the Dem side, but the Repubs have followed the same general principle) to choose their nominating convention delegations by public primaries or caucuses, were adopted between the 1968 and 1972 cycles.
Until 1968, the nominee was often chosen at the convention itself. Sometimes the offer of the VP slot was a vital factor in securing the nomination. (According to Kriner, one wisecrack at the 1960 Dem convention held that if John F. Kennedy wanted to meet with all the people to whom his campaign had promised the vice presidency, there wouldn’t be a room in the convention hall big enough to hold it.)
Sometimes a ticket that balanced between party factions was the only quick way to paper over intra-party feuds heading immediately into the general election campaign. JFK’s 1960 choice of Lyndon Johnson (who had been his chief rival in the late stages of the nomination fight) is a classic case. The two disliked and distrusted each other. But LBJ provided regional balance, access to the party insiders and to Texas, which in those days was a vital swing state. (Thanks much to Johnson, the Dems carried, and possibly stole, Texas with 50.5 percent of the vote. Without Texas, the JFK-LBJ ticket would have lost the election.)
McGovern-Fraser had many unintended consequences, including changing VP selection. In most post-reform cycles, the nominee has the nomination sewn up months before the convention (yes, I know, this year isn’t looking that way on the Dem side, but it’s a big exception). In normal times, the nominee doesn’t have to offer the VP slot to someone to pick up delegates.
McGovern-Fraser also created a less party-centered, more candidate-centered election system. And the nominee has months before the convention to unify the party (I know, maybe not this year) without having to use the VP slot.
All this meant that the candidate could take general election criteria uppermost into consideration. In practice, this meant compiling a short list of finalists for the veep spot, all of whom probably provide some kind of ticket balance (a candidate from a different region, from the other ideological wing of the party, a Washington insider for veep if the nominee was an outsider, a young running mate for an old nominee, etc.), and then make the final decision based on what is, according to Kriner, the ultimate general election consideration: a running mate whom the electorate will see as a credible back-up president based on experience in public office.
Kriner and a colleague built a statistical model about what factors seemed to determine the final choice of running mates. By factoring in their insight about the difference between pre-reform and post-reform criteria, Kriner and his partner claim to have developed a formula that correctly “predicted” who would be elevated from the short list to the ticket in 84 percent of all cases since 1940.