The Predictable Return of Unlikely Vice Presidential Selection Scenarios



— Like clockwork, three vice presidential hypotheticals emerge around this time every four years.

— The three possibilities are a sitting president replacing the current vice president with a new running mate; a nominee picking a running mate from the opposite party; and a former president becoming a running mate.

— For various reasons, none of these hypothetical vice presidential scenarios have happened in recent decades, and they are all unlikely this cycle.

VP scenarios that are very unlikely

Just as most birds migrate and plants bloom according to predictable cycles, the electoral calendar brings us political junkies back to the same places and topics on a regularly recurring basis. Sometime during virtually every presidential election cycle, three unusual vice presidential selection storylines emerge to temporarily engage pundits in analysis and speculation until, inevitably, it becomes clear, as it should have been from the outset, that they aren’t going to happen. Their quadrennial allure gone, they disappear from public discussion for another four years until they surface again amidst another presidential cycle and we experience, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again.”

The three topics are dumping the vice president, choosing a cross-party running mate, and choosing as the vice presidential candidate a former president who the 22nd Amendment bars from running again for president. Long before the Iowa caucuses, each of these perennial topics had already surfaced in 2020 campaign discussion. None has much chance of occurring although each has some historical antecedent. Here is some context.

Dumping the vice president

Like most other modern vice presidents, Mike Pence travels a lot, almost never presides over the Senate, and every so often gets to read or hear a story suggesting that his boss, the president of the United States, may dump him for a different second-term running mate. Although President Donald Trump has said repeatedly that Pence will be his running mate, and circumstance reinforces that assertion, the stories do not die. In mid-November, Steve Schmidt, an insightful long-time Republican operative who helped persuade Sen. John McCain to choose Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and then regretted his advice, predicted that there was an “overwhelming chance” that Trump would replace Pence with former ambassador to the United Nations and governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley. A poll of Republican voters in mid-December showed a close division regarding the Haley-for-Pence switch, as 37% opposed replacing Pence with Haley whereas 34% favored the idea, with the remainder undecided.

Dumping vice presidents once was as American as dueling. Until around 1940, party leaders, not the presidential nominee, generally selected the running mate and decided when he should go. They replaced Aaron Burr as Thomas Jefferson’s 1804 running mate with George Clinton, who was also from New York, even before Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel. Jefferson’s allies didn’t trust Burr, and the vice president’s standing had eroded in the party.

John C. Calhoun, after being elected vice president with John Quincy Adams in 1824, retained the second spot four years later amidst the Adams-Andrew Jackson rematch, when Jackson ousted Adams. But Jackson and Calhoun split: Calhoun voted to defeat Jackson’s nomination of Martin Van Buren to be minister to Great Britain, and Van Buren replaced Calhoun as Jackson’s running mate in 1832.

Although Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson appeared on some state ballots as a candidate for reelection, the Democratic national convention refused to renominate him as Van Buren’s running mate in 1840. Abraham Lincoln’s first-term vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, was dropped in 1864 for Andrew Johnson in the thought that the latter’s border state pedigree might help Lincoln’s reelection. The Republican convention in 1872 refused to renominate Vice President Schuyler Colfax for a second term, choosing Sen. Henry Wilson instead, after Colfax reversed his original stated intention not to seek office that year.

Although early 20th-century vice presidents were renominated to seek a second term with the president (e.g. James Sherman, 1912; Thomas Marshall, 1916; Charles Curtis, 1932; John Nance Garner, 1936), Franklin D. Roosevelt set a record by dumping two vice presidents, both Garner and his replacement, Henry Wallace, although Garner provoked him by contesting FDR’s third term.

Other than Nelson A. Rockefeller, who removed himself from consideration as President Gerald R. Ford’s 1976 running mate at Ford’s request, no vice president has been dumped since Wallace got the heave-ho in 1944. And Rockefeller’s circumstances were unusual because he had been chosen via Section 2 of the 25th Amendment after Richard M. Nixon resigned as president to avoid impeachment and removal in 1974. Ford, as a new president concerned with governing, had picked Rockefeller without focusing on how the Republican base or convention would view the New York governor, who had a reputation as a moderate.

Since Wallace, the eight presidents who have sought a second term have each run the second time with the partner they chose for their first successful presidential race. Trump and Pence would make nine.

This pattern suggests that modern vice presidents who aren’t Rockefeller don’t get dumped, but it’s not because presidents and those who kibbitz with them don’t consider the idea. After a serious heart attack in 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower suggested to Nixon that he could serve his presidential ambitions by moving from the vice presidency to a Cabinet position (other than secretary of state, which Eisenhower wouldn’t make available). Eisenhower said Nixon should “chart out his own course,” but the more persuasive evidence suggests Ike was gently signaling that Nixon should step aside gracefully. Nixon wasn’t interested in following Wallace’s career path and recognized that being one heartbeat away was the best course to chart, politically and electrocardiographically. He told Eisenhower he preferred his current job, and Eisenhower concluded that he’d rather acquiesce than fight.

Whereas Eisenhower respected Nixon, Nixon had little regard for his chosen running mate, Spiro T. Agnew, who he wanted to replace in 1972. Yet Agnew fancied himself Nixon’s successor and had developed a constituency among Republican conservatives. Nixon soon concluded that it was not prudent to antagonize his base before the 1972 campaign.

Twenty years later, Republican insiders told George H.W. Bush that his reelection would be helped if he replaced Vice President Dan Quayle with someone else, perhaps Colin Powell. Most Republicans supported retaining Quayle, and Bush recognized that abandoning Quayle would alienate his base and that Quayle was not the cause of his problems.

In 2004, some suggested it was time for Dick Cheney to go and Cheney, unlike his predecessors, offered to step aside if Bush so desired. Bush considered replacing Cheney with Sen. Bill Frist but decided against a change.

These instances appear to have been the recent times when dumping the vice president was most considered, but the idea surfaced on other occasions. Some political gossip suggested that John F. Kennedy would not run again with Lyndon B. Johnson, but evidence of a planned switch was sketchy and Dallas intervened. Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign researched whether replacing Vice President Joe Biden with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would help Obama’s reelection but determined it would not. There was never any indication that Obama himself considered the idea.

Vice presidents don’t get dumped anymore for a variety of reasons. Most recent vice presidents have had close relations with the presidents they served and others in the inner circle. They also develop strong party support. Some have been helpful surrogates when a president has been challenged for renomination. Presidents who dump their vice president run the risk of appearing weak or disloyal or dividing their party.

Trump has, of course, been more willing to abandon bipartisan conventions than other recent presidents and has shown no hesitation about turning on those who have been loyal to him, behavior which might give Pence some misgivings. Yet Trump has repeatedly said Pence will be his running mate and has pointed to Pence’s strength with evangelicals. Pence has been an active spokesperson for Trump’s reelection including at various rallies. It would be odd to so engage a vice president in the reelection campaign and then abandon him.

Choosing a cross-party running mate

Vice President Joe Biden created something of a media feeding frenzy when, in responding to a question in late December, he said he’d consider a Republican running mate. Biden’s immediate qualification in his very next words, that he couldn’t think of one he’d consider, and his continuation that he’d pick “somebody who was simpatico with me” made it pretty likely that if Biden’s the Democratic nominee, his running mate won’t be a Republican. But this resolution — that presidential candidates consider, but don’t choose, cross-party running mates — is fairly conventional, notwithstanding the consternation Biden’s answer caused in some circles.

Under the initial presidential election system, the vice president was the runner up in the electoral college voting for president, so cross-party results, if not tickets, were possible as occurred in 1796 when rival presidential candidates, Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Jefferson, wound up in the top two positions after finishing only three electoral votes apart. The replacement of that problematic system by the 12th Amendment in 1804 did not end the possibility of cross-party tickets or results.

As referenced above, in the Era of Good Feeling, Calhoun could land as vice president for each of two competing presidential candidates, Adams and Jackson, who split the two races in which they were the leading vote-getters. John Tyler had left the Democratic Party to run for vice president on the Whig ticket in 1836 and 1840. Once he became president following William Henry Harrison’s death, however, he quickly found himself at odds with the Whig Party. Ultimately, most of the Cabinet he inherited from Harrison resigned, and Tyler became a president without a party. Lincoln’s emissaries reached out to several Democrats in 1864 to strengthen his prospects for reelection, and Tennessee’s Democratic war governor, Johnson, became his running mate. When Johnson became the third vice president to succeed to the presidency, his policy differences with congressional Republicans soon emerged, and ultimately he was impeached and nearly removed.

Johnson was the last cross-party vice president. Yet during the last half-century or so, the prospect of such a pairing has surfaced on several occasions.

In 1968, associates of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey contacted New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller to determine whether he would consider a vice presidential run on the Democratic ticket. Rockefeller, who was an unsuccessful candidate that year for the Republican presidential nomination, declined those feelers, as he had eight years earlier when Nixon raised the second spot with him. It seems uncertain that a Humphrey-Rockefeller ticket would have developed in any event; the Democratic Party was fracturing, as anti-war supporters of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and allies of Alabama segregationist George Wallace, who ran a third-party campaign, resisted Humphrey, and a cross-party ticket might have further exacerbated tensions.

Four years later, Nixon wanted to replace Agnew with Democrat John Connally, the former governor of Texas and secretary of treasury, to set Connally up as his heir in 1976. Ultimately Nixon decided that the costs of dumping Agnew were not worth the gains, and Connally led Democrats for Nixon instead of being his running mate.

In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton asked Vernon Jordan to determine whether Colin Powell, who had served as Ronald Reagan’s National Security Adviser and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under President George H.W. Bush, would consider being his running mate. Powell was loyal to Bush and declined any interest.

Sen. John Kerry considered his senatorial colleague, John McCain, as a running mate in 2004. McCain had lost a bitter battle with George W. Bush four years earlier and Kerry thought a cross-party ticket worth considering. Ultimately, McCain determined that his political future was in the Republican Party and rejected Kerry’s overtures.

Four years later, as the Republican nominee, McCain was disposed to a similar cross-party strategy but with Sen. Joe Lieberman, the unsuccessful Democratic vice presidential candidate on Al Gore’s 2000 ticket who won reelection to the Senate as an independent in 2006 after losing the Democratic primary. McCain apparently preferred Lieberman as his running mate before being persuaded that such a selection would provoke conservative resistance at the Republican convention, might trigger legal challenges, and would not be successful electorally. That same year, some rumors suggested Obama might consider Sen. Chuck Hagel as his running mate. Hagel did later join the Obama administration for a stint as secretary of defense.

Although some third-party tickets have mixed candidates from the two major parties — such as Democratic Gov. George Wallace and Republican former Gen. Curtis Lemay in 1968 as well as Republican Rep. John Anderson and Democratic former Gov. Pat Lucey in 1980 — the two major parties have not done so in recent decades.

Many features of American politics make a cross-party ticket unlikely even for someone like Biden, who has made his ability to work across the aisle and electability selling points of his campaign. National conventions have become media occasions to celebrate the party’s ticket. The selection of a non-party running mate is likely to be controversial with the base and to produce a media event that would not be as controlled as the presidential candidate would like. McCain surely imagined non-stop media interviews with conservative Republican delegates denouncing him for choosing the pro-choice Lieberman, and similar visions will give pause to any other presidential nominee considering a bipartisan ticket. The increasing ideological divisions between the two major parties reduce the likelihood of finding a cross-party partner who would not alienate considerable portions of the base. On both sides, abortion has become a litmus test, not just for Supreme Court nominees but for spots on the national ticket. Those who might be plausible candidates often don’t want to switch; witness Rockefeller, Powell, and McCain. The 2020 Delegate Selection Rules for the Democratic National Convention mandate that candidates for nomination for president and vice president be “a bona fide Democrat” whose record demonstrates a commitment to the Democratic Party. Cross-party tickets often appeal to some in a presidential nominee’s circle as out of the box ideas but they invariably end up in the “Reject” box.

A two-term president as vice president

The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1951, precludes any person from being “elected” president more than twice. It also bars any person who has become, or acted as, president for more than two years of a term to which another was elected from being “elected” more than once. Although the amendment excluded Harry S. Truman from its reach, it has precluded Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama from running for a third term.

But does the Constitution bar a president who cannot be elected to a third term as president from being elected vice president? Believe it or not, the idea that the vice presidency might remain a career option for a 22nd Amendment-barred president has surfaced repeatedly since 1951. Could Eisenhower run with Nixon in 1960? Eisenhower himself raised that question near the beginning of a January 1960 press conference, apparently in a light-hearted manner. When the press returned to the matter two weeks later, Eisenhower said the Department of Justice had opined he could run for the second office. Could Al Gore or Hillary Clinton select Bill Clinton? Could Joe Biden select Barack Obama? The Biden-Obama question arose in 2015 and again in the current cycle.

Although many, myself included, have expressed the view that two-term presidents cannot run for vice president, other scholars have contested this conclusion with elaborate arguments to the contrary. Simply put, the argument that Obama et al are not eligible to run for vice president is that the 22nd Amendment disqualifies them from being elected president again and the 12th Amendment states in its final sentence that “no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice President of the United States.” Since Obama et al are constitutionally ineligible to be president, they are disqualified from running for vice president, too. The response is that the 22nd Amendment doesn’t make Obama et al ineligible to serve as president but, by its terms, simply prevents them from being “elected” president more than twice. The 22nd Amendment accordingly doesn’t affect eligibility to be president or vice president, the domain of the last sentence of the 12th Amendment. Accordingly, under this view, Obama is eligible to run for vice president with Biden — or even with Trump, for that matter, if you’d like to imagine a totally inconceivable cross-party ticket should Trump dump Pence, thereby incorporating into one totally inconceivable arrangement all three of the unlikely scenarios discussed in this piece.

I continue to believe two-term presidents are presently barred from running for the vice presidency, but as a practical matter the answer to that constitutional question doesn’t matter much because none of our former two-term presidents is ever likely to run for vice president. Former presidents don’t want to be vice president.

Only one former president, Ford, who the 22nd Amendment did not bar, seriously considered later running for the vice presidency on Reagan’s 1980 ticket. From the outset, Ford thought that idea made no sense and, after associates kicked the idea around, Ford and Reagan ended negotiations. Most two-term presidents will be ready for a break and will welcome the chance to build their libraries, write their memoirs, pad their portfolios, lower their golf handicaps, serve as eminent public citizens, or do other things that former presidents do. Of the six presidents who the 22nd Amendment barred, Nixon and Bush left office with low favorability ratings, which made them unappealing running mates, and health concerns might have precluded Eisenhower and Reagan even if they’d been otherwise inclined to second chair their prior subordinate. Clinton is unlikely to be perceived as an appealing option anymore. One might expect that the same combination of factors which made the six 22nd Amendment presidents unlikely vice presidents will moot the question regarding future presidents, too.

Yet even if none of these factors practically eliminated a 22nd Amendment president from consideration, and he or she was willing to imagine service as vice president, another formidable obstacle would emerge as a likely deal-breaker. The ticket would face the constitutional question of whether the 22nd Amendment allowed such an arrangement. That lingering question would present a political distraction and perhaps a constitutional impediment that would likely cause the presidential nominee to consider a different option.

We can speculate all we like about dumping vice presidents, cross-party tickets, and a vice presidential candidacy by a term-limited president. But all signs suggest that a renominated Trump will run again with Pence; Biden, if nominated, will run with a Democrat; and the Democratic vice presidential nominee won’t be Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.

Joel K. Goldstein is the author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016) and other works on the American vice presidency.