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Debunking Myths about Vice Presidential Selection

Joel K. Goldstein has forgotten more about the vice presidency than the rest of us ever knew, and this week he examines and challenges many of the myths you’ll hear as Mitt Romney prepares to choose a running mate. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law, is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton University Press, 1982) and numerous other works on the vice presidency, presidency and constitutional law. — The Editors

It used to be said that no one runs for vice president. Gerald Pomper exposed the fallacy of that old dictum in his 1966 article, The Nomination of Hubert Humphrey for Vice-President, which recounted the steps Humphrey took to position himself to be selected for the second spot on Lyndon B. Johnson’s ticket in 1964. Most vice presidential campaigns remained relatively short and obscure in those days because, absent a situation like 1964 where a known presidential nominee had a vice presidential opening, no one really focused on the second spot until after the presidential nomination was decided at the convention. That pattern remained for another cycle or two after 1964 until the change to a new presidential nominating system, based on primaries and caucuses, accelerated the selection of presidential candidates and created the current vice presidential selection season, which runs for two to five months every leap year. Certainly, no one observing the behavior of various Republican politicians this year would assert that no one runs for vice president. Many are clearly auditioning, either to be Gov. Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, his successor in 2016, or both.

Although one vice presidential myth has now been exploded, others remain or have emerged. What follows is a discussion of five frequently expressed ideas regarding vice presidential selection which, on closer examination, are somewhere between oversimplified and wrong.

Myth 1:  Pick a boring running mate

One of the myths that has gained credence this year is that vice presidential selections should not be exciting. “The first lesson is that vice presidential picks should be boring,” wrote prominent historian Julian Zelizer in an early column. Others have echoed that theme. The “Boring VP” chorus reacts in part to Sen. John McCain’s effort to ignite his campaign by choosing an exciting, but unpresidential, running mate. Professor Zelizer’s point was largely that a running mate should be substantial.

But the fact that vice presidential candidates should be substantial doesn’t mean they also must be boring. Some effective vice presidential choices have been substantial and exciting, perhaps not exciting in the Kardashian or Jon Bon Jovi fashion, but politically exciting nonetheless.

Take Jimmy Carter’s selection of Walter F. Mondale in 1976. Mondale was accurately regarded as one of the most able members of the Senate. He was a relatively new face on the national scene who reflected Carter’s themes of excellence, generational change and integrity. Carter’s politics were largely undefined. The selection of Mondale thrilled the Democratic base by suggesting that its views would have a champion, but also led the Republicans to denounce the Democratic ticket as too liberal. The excitement surrounding the Mondale pick at both ends of the political spectrum did not impeach the wisdom of Carter’s selection. Mondale proved to be an able and effective candidate whose presence contributed to Carter’s election. More on that below.

The belief that a vice presidential candidate must be boring comes in part from our tendency to remember as unexciting some candidates whose selection or campaign performance were viewed quite differently at the time. Former Vice President Al Gore frequently portrayed himself as wooden and wonkish, the master of the stationary Macarena. Yet Bill Clinton’s unorthodox choice of a fellow southern centrist from the baby boomer generation was a galvanizing move. The announcement was electric, beyond the expectations of the Clinton campaign. It reinforced aspects of Clinton’s own biography to such an extent that the Clintons and Gores embarked on political, double date bus tours, which were then a novelty in presidential campaigns. The visual image of two able, young southern centrists promised change in a way that Clinton’s presence alone could not. Clinton’s choice of Gore helped define and propel his campaign.

Eight years later, Gore’s choice of another substantive senator, Joe Lieberman, was also viewed as exciting at the time, not simply because it came as a surprise but also because of its uniqueness. Lieberman would become the first Jewish nominee for national office and was an early critic of Clinton’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair. The messages the choice sent about Gore were noticed.

Ronald Reagan was a master of exciting vice presidential choices, some of which admittedly didn’t pan out. His first running mate, Sen. Richard Schweiker (PA) in 1976, got everyone’s attention. The idea of the conservative icon selecting the most liberal Republican senator caught all by surprise. Four years later, Reagan pursued a historic option — former President Gerald R. Ford — publicly, too, even after Ford repeatedly declared no interest in a second stint as vice president. Only by comparison could the selection of George H.W. Bush appear unexciting. Bush had been Reagan’s main rival, was the preference of Republican delegates (after Ford) and was a person of clear substance who helped unite and excite the Republican Party.

Finally, some choices that were distinctly, shall we say, “senatorial” proved among the most exciting campaigners in recent times. Edmund S. Muskie and Lloyd Bentsen had rarely been described as “electric” during their service as Senate insiders, but both became political rock stars because of the high quality they brought to the 1968 and 1988 campaigns, respectively. Jack Kemp’s vice presidential campaign was not the most successful episode of his career, but he added substance and excitement to Bob Dole’s campaign in 1996.

There’s a related myth, which is that a presidential candidate must be wary of being overshadowed by a strong vice presidential candidate. It never works that way. The presidential candidate gets three debates, the number two gets one. The presidential candidate gets far greater premium coverage. Sure, no presidential nominee wants a running mate who will go rogue or stray off message. We’ve had some flashy number twos — Geraldine Ferraro, Kemp, John Edwards, Sarah Palin — and some highly successful vice presidential candidates: Muskie, Mondale, Bentsen. We’ve not had one instance where the vice presidential candidate has overshadowed his or her superior. It’s not a serious possibility.

Presidential candidates aren’t looking for a political version of Mick Jagger, but that doesn’t mean that they do or should choose soporific running mates. Yet many recent vice presidential candidates have been, or proved themselves to be, exciting and substantive.

Myth 2: No one turns down the vice presidential nomination

Many of those prominently mentioned as possible Romney running mates have denied interest in the position. In some cases, these disclaimers are surely strategic. Others are probably sincere. It is simply not true, as some have suggested, that prominent politicians do not decline consideration for the second spot.

Daniel Webster aspired to be president but turned down the chance to run for vice president, reportedly twice, with William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848. “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin,” Webster reportedly said in response to one of the offers. Harrison was the first president to die in office, and Taylor was the second. John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, rather than the great Webster, both became president. Justice William O. Douglas declined President Harry S. Truman’s invitation to be his running mate in 1948 since he, like everyone else, thought Truman was destined to lose. Sen. Alben Barkley instead was inaugurated as Truman’s veep.

These examples hold historical interest but occurred before the vice presidency underwent its modern transformation, initially during Richard M. Nixon’s vice presidency and then, to a much greater extent, during the Mondale vice presidency. But many prominent figures have refused to be considered for the second spot even during the last 50 years or so.

The assignment has been less attractive when the ticket seemed destined for failure. Sen. George McGovern picked up rejections from Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, Mondale, Abraham Ribicoff and Gaylord Nelson as well as Gov. Reubin Askew in 1972 initially, and from Sens. Mike Mansfield and Muskie the second time around. In 1984, Sen. Dale Bumpers and Gov. Mario Cuomo declined to be considered for Mondale’s ticket. William Bennett passed on the chance to run with Bob Dole in 1996.

Yet presidential candidates also receive rejections even when their prospects of success are more promising. Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller refused to run with Nixon in 1960 (and with Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968); Ford resisted Reagan’s entreaties in 1980; Bill Bradley, Bumpers, Sam Nunn and Tom Foley declined to be considered by Michael Dukakis in 1988; Mario Cuomo refused to be considered by Bill Clinton in 1992; and Richard Gephardt expressed credible disinterest in joining Al Gore’s ticket in 2000. Sen. Connie Mack, having been runner up in 1996, told Dick Cheney four years later that he would never speak to him again if placed on George W. Bush’s vetting list. Colin Powell declined to be considered three times, twice by ultimately successful candidates of each party, in 1992 (by Clinton), 1996 (by Dole) and 2000 (by Bush). Edward Kennedy declined twice (Humphrey in 1968, McGovern in 1972); McCain passed on the chance to run with John Kerry in 2004. To be sure, some of these refusals presented anomalous situations, like a cross-party ticket (Rockefeller, 1968; Powell, 1992; McCain, 2004) or Kennedy’s unique position. And in some cases, the decliner would not have been chosen. But on a number of occasions, the person who declined probably or surely would have been selected (Rockefeller, 1960; Kennedy, 1968, 1972; Ford, 1980; McCain, 2004).

Many of those who profess a lack of interest this year are playing vice presidential hard to get. They don’t want to lessen their chances by appearing too eager or set themselves up for home-state embarrassment. But a few others, for a variety of reasons, probably really don’t want the nod.

Myth 3: The big swing state selection myth

I’ve previously addressed the common idea that presidential candidates typically choose running mates because they are from large and/or swing states. In modern times, they rarely do. Since 1960, only 26% of the selections have come from states with at least 20 electoral votes. Those choices were rarely, if ever, made for the purpose of carrying that state. William Miller, Ferraro and Kemp, all former or sitting members of Congress from New York, were not chosen to carry that state. Reagan didn’t pick George H.W. Bush to win Texas. John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon B. Johnson to help secure the South, not simply the Longhorn State; Dukakis chose Lloyd Bentsen owing to his presidential quality and to appeal to Reagan Democrats, not to win Texas.

Presidential candidates have repeatedly passed over public figures from Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and other big states and chosen running mates from places like Wyoming, Delaware, Alaska, Kansas and Connecticut. An Indiana senator (Dan Quayle) was chosen in 1988 when the state wasn’t competitive, but another (Evan Bayh) was passed over in 2008 when it was.

Romney may choose someone from a large or competitive state. The relatively few states in contention this time increase that likelihood. But he’s unlikely to make a state-motivated choice without first satisfying himself that his selection would make a plausible president. Recent history suggests that those who play Fantasy Vice Presidential Selection should construct their short lists based on whether someone is presidential, not whether he or she comes from a large swing state.

Myth 4: No one votes for the vice president, or the VP candidate doesn’t matter

The myths addressed above share the common premise that vice presidential speculation is a game worth playing because the running mate choice matters. There’s another prominent myth at the other end of the spectrum, the idea that it’s all a waste of time because no one votes for a vice president.

To be sure, most voters will cast their ballot based on their preferences among the candidates at its top rather than its bottom. That’s surely rational. But that recognition does not lead to the common formulation that the vice presidential choice doesn’t matter. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

Most recent presidential candidates have encouraged potential swing voters to focus on the top of the ticket by making a judicious vice presidential selection. The running mate choice is most likely to affect voting behavior if potential swing voters cannot fathom the thought of that person in the Oval Office or a heartbeat away. Presidential candidates who select a running mate who is a plausible president minimize that risk. If you’re unpersuaded, try this thought experiment: Imagine that Romney were to choose as his running mate Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum or Donald Trump. I don’t know exactly how big of an impact any of these selections would have on the next Gallup polls, but I’d be fairly confident the announcement would, with good reason, set off a near historic round of high fiving in the West Wing. The reasons Romney won’t select any of those just mentioned vary but the exercise explains, to some extent, why some think the vice presidential choice doesn’t matter. Vice presidential impact exists, but it is obscured or controlled by prudent selections.

Those who believe that the vice presidential choice doesn’t matter often illustrate their conclusion by pointing out that A) Nixon was elected in 1968 even though voters greatly preferred Humphrey’s running mate, Muskie, to Spiro Agnew; B) George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988 even though voters greatly preferred Dukakis’s running mate, Bentsen, to Quayle; and C) Edwards could not even carry his home state of North Carolina for Kerry. None of these arguments are particularly persuasive.

In reverse order, the fact that Edwards couldn’t carry North Carolina for Kerry hardly proves that the vice presidential candidate doesn’t matter. Edwards wasn’t particularly popular in North Carolina and probably could not have held his Senate seat. And Massachusetts liberal Kerry was probably even less popular there.

Voters did prefer Bentsen by large margins to Quayle and had misgivings about the Indiana senator. Yet they also had misgivings about Dukakis. It would be anomalous if voters who greatly preferred Bush to Dukakis allowed their vice presidential preference to swing their votes. As it was, exit polls showed that Bentsen added at least a point to Dukakis’s total. If potential swing voters had felt better about Dukakis, Bentsen would likely have had a greater impact.

Finally, I suspect that the Muskie-Agnew choice did play a role in making that election as close as it was. Both presidential campaigns clearly thought it was a factor. Humphrey featured the vice presidential spot in campaign ads and in his stump speech, and Muskie played a prominent part during the Democrat’s election eve television program. By contrast, Nixon relegated Agnew to backwater stops on the campaign trail and appeared solo on election eve.

Vice presidential choice is unlikely to make much of a difference where potential swing voters have a strong preference for one presidential candidate over the other. But in a close election where such voters are relatively indifferent, the vice presidential choice can be an important influence. Johnson is generally credited with having played an important part in holding much of the South for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Some evidence suggested that Mondale’s presence added several points to Carter’s ticket. Mondale spent a lot of time in critical states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, both of which narrowly went Democratic. In a different way, Clinton’s selection of Gore helped define Clinton’s own image in a manner helpful to him.

The vice presidential choice matters, surely when it’s bad, but also when it’s good.

Myth 5: The vice presidency is a bad career move

Some have suggested that running for vice president is a bad career move, especially if the ticket loses. That’s rarely the case.

The modern vice presidency has grown into a robust political office. It has its unique frustrations, but beginning with, and largely due to, Carter and Mondale, those who have served in the second office have had extraordinary opportunities to contribute to the making and implementation of public policy on a national and international level. Dan Quayle was in the Oval Office more often during a week than most senators are during a four-year term. The Dick Cheney vice presidency, in some respects, represented the triumph of the second office. The owner of one of the best resumes in our history was willing to walk away from a lucrative corporate position to serve as vice president with no intent to use the office as a steppingstone. Joe Biden clearly has performed a significant role as a presidential adviser and trouble-shooter, legislative closer and diplomat.

Most do see the second office as a path to the first. They’re right. Of recent vice presidents, George H.W. Bush was elected; Gore won the popular vote and would have been elected president but for a dismal campaign and/or some quirks in Florida ballots; Mondale was nominated; Cheney chose not to be a candidate; and Joe Biden is still serving. Of those who tried, only Quayle was unable to win a presidential nomination after serving as vice president, and he withdrew early from the race in 1996 and 2000. Mondale, Bush and Gore had previously sought the presidential nomination and failed before winning it after serving in the second office.

To be sure, those who run for, but never serve as, vice president have fared less well in future presidential competition. Only Dole of this group later won a presidential nomination (although extending the study to include Franklin D. Roosevelt, the unsuccessful 1920 Democratic vice presidential candidate who later did pretty well as a presidential candidate, might inspire the ambitious). Yet the vice presidential candidacy helped most of those advance their public careers. Muskie’s spectacular 1968 vice presidential campaign catapulted him from a highly respected but nationally unknown senator to a front-runner for the 1972 presidential nomination. The failure of his 1972 campaign traced to a variety of causes, including his weaknesses as a candidate in the nominating stage. Running for vice president helped him. And if you think 2008 didn’t help Palin’s career, ask yourself how many other former governors of Alaska you can name. Similarly, I suspect that history will recall only one three-term member of Congress from 1979-1985.

A losing vice presidential race surely wasn’t the reason others didn’t make it to the White House. Lieberman was too much of a centrist for the 2004 Democratic electorate, and Edwards ran third to two of the most formidable recent candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Bentsen and Kemp chose not to run.

The vice presidency might have limited appeal to a few political giants, the Edward Kennedys or the Jeb Bushes. They are the exceptions. For most public officials, it’s a good career move.