Skip links

The Starting Line: Vice Presidential Speculation

This time next year, the airwaves will be full of speculation about GOP vice presidential possibilities. (The Democratic ticket is already set, for all practical purposes, with Joe Biden getting the party slot again.) Without a Republican nominee, or even an absolutely clear frontrunner, it is pointless to come up with a list of likely possibilities. But it is never too early to call on the nation’s premiere scholar of vice presidents, Prof. Joel K. Goldstein, to give us a sense of what will shape this critical selection by the eventual GOP presidential candidate. ~The Editors

Until recently, serious discussion about a vice presidential candidate generally did not begin in earnest until the third night of the convention, after the presidential nomination was decided. Then an exhausted and elated presidential nominee devoted the next few hours to the hurried process of choosing a political partner. The proliferation of presidential primaries and caucuses has changed the dynamics of presidential nominations, thereby accelerating the resolution of the race for the top spot on the ticket and making the conventions a formality. In so doing, these changes have revised the calendar for considering the running mate to an exercise that now occurs over months. More time to consider the choice affords all sorts of advantages and, accordingly, the new schedule is one unanticipated, yet beneficial, byproduct of the manner in which we now nominate presidential candidates.

Yet even some virtues pushed too far have their vices (pun intended), and the recent stories speculating on the Republican vice presidential nominee are premature. This judgment is based primarily on three realities regarding vice presidential selection. It’s relational, it’s contextual and it’s idiosyncratic. More specifically, the choice depends upon the identity of the Republican presidential nominee; that nominee’s strengths and weaknesses and how prospective running mates relate to those resulting needs; the state of events at or a few weeks before the opening of the Republican National Convention on August 27, 2012, roughly 17 months from now, events that now defy clairvoyance; and the standard-bearer’s unique preferences, values and decision-making style.

Recent selections illustrate each of these points. Conventional ticket-balancing does not dictate the choice in the way it once did but the characteristics of the presidential candidate inevitably affect the running mate decision because different plausible standard-bearers have varying needs in terms of unifying the party and positioning themselves for the general election. Walter Mondale was an ideal choice for Jimmy Carter in 1976, but surely Hubert H. Humphrey as nominee would have gone in a different direction. Ronald Reagan could choose George H.W. Bush in 1980 but a Republican moderate like Bush or Gerald Ford or Howard Baker would (or in Bush’s case, could) not have done so. Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s natural choice but would have been a less likely selection for Hillary Clinton.

The factors that enter into the balancing discussion range well beyond the familiar topics of ideology, geography and experience. Al Gore’s Vietnam service and reputation as a strong family man enhanced his appeal as Bill Clinton’s running mate. Mitt Romney’s chance to become John McCain’s 2008 running mate suffered a setback when it was revealed that McCain owned more houses (eight) than he could recall. Even with Romney’s comparatively modest real estate portfolio (four homes), some may have thought that a ticket whose members collectively owned the equivalent of a gated community might not play well on Main Street.

In any event, Romney, as presidential nominee, will have different needs and possibilities than will Newt Gingrich, and those of Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty will contrast with those of Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour or Sarah Palin (as well as from each other). Inasmuch as the Republican presidential contest seems more open-ended than in most prior cycles, the relevant vice presidential pool seems less certain.

Context matters, too. Mondale was far behind Reagan as the 1984 convention approached, which made a deck-reshuffling choice like Geraldine Ferraro appealing. Presented with more favorable electoral prospects, Mondale might well have made a more conventional choice notwithstanding his sincere commitment to opening doors to groups previously excluded. Tax reform seemed a promising issue as Bob Dole made his decision in 1996, which helped explain his selection of Jack Kemp. John McCain became convinced that the Republican base would not accept, and his convention would blow up, if he chose Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Not only can we not presently project the political landscape the unknown Republican nominee will face  a year and a half from now, the relative stature of presidential candidates and of vice presidential possibilities at decision time is impossible to anticipate. The successful standard-bearer will look quite different after navigating the primaries and caucuses than he or she does now. And prospective running mates will also have different identities. Ferraro and Dan Quayle, among others, secured the vice presidential nomination in part due to thoughtful and well-executed “campaigns” for the designation. Those efforts enhanced their chances. By contrast, Bob Graham’s poor showing in the 2004 Democratic race hurt his prospects. Some of the Republican possibilities are likely presidential candidates (e.g., Pawlenty, Daniels) who might improve their prospects by a good showing, as did Bush in 1980 or John Edwards in 2004. Others are national newcomers whose conduct between now and then will shape their profile in public and professional circles.

Finally, each selection is now made by one person, the presidential candidate, who receives advice in the manner he or she chooses filtered through an inner circle unique to each candidate. Notwithstanding the apparent similarities in the search process, the enterprise is never the same in part because the person making the call, and those in the room, differ. Bush in 1988 rejected Kemp, whom Dole chose eight years later. Al Gore passed on Edwards in 2000, but John Kerry picked him four years later. In each case the context differed, but so did the personality, style and decision-making process of the selector. Some presidential candidates place high value on personal compatibility and avoid running mates they don’t particularly like; others show a greater willingness to let bygones be bygones, especially if that seems the politically expedient course to the White House.

George W. Bush and John McCain both made somewhat surprising picks, but the contrasts between Dick Cheney and Palin in credentials and style, as well as in the prior relationship each had with the person who made the choice, reflected fundamental differences between Bush and McCain and the way they made decisions (as well as their perceived needs and the contexts they faced). A human, not a computer, will make the choice and whether that person is Daniels, Gingrich, Huckabee, Palin, Pawlenty, Romney or someone else will make a difference.

The contingency of these variables cautions against wasting time now speculating about the second spot on the Republican ticket. Even so, when the presidential nominee and the surrounding circumstances clarify, history suggests some patterns likely to guide the selection. Most basic, the designee must be able to survive a vetting process that will cover a range of personal and political characteristics. Quite clearly, the first filter will keep Senators John Ensign and David Vitter and former Gov. Mark Sanford (among others) off the list and the second will eliminate Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Michele Bachmann and others whose prior pronouncements or style make them unappealing running mates. A propensity to go rogue is not a virtue in a running mate.

Generally speaking, most recent vice presidential candidates have been “presidential” at the time chosen. The enhanced expectations of the office and the advent of vice presidential debates and information age technology make the choice of someone not ready for primetime a risky move for a presidential candidate facing a competitive race. Recall Palin’s Katie Couric interview. McCain’s choice of Palin was, of course, one of the recent exceptions to this rule because even leading Republicans conceded that she was not ready for the Oval Office in 2008. Various factors produced her selection, including McCain’s need for a happy convention and to energize the GOP base, his hope to attract disgruntled Clinton supporters and his desire to reinforce his maverick image. But McCain’s preference for Palin over others, such as Pawlenty, probably was influenced by a belief that he faced a daunting electoral challenge and needed to roll the dice to maximize his chance.

The “presidential” criteria reduces the likelihood that the Republican nominee will choose one of the new faces, at least if he or she perceives the race as competitive. Presidential candidates will drop the names of prospective running mates to flatter them and their supporters. Thus, Newt Gingrich has already hinted that newly elected Rep. Allen West of Florida should be considered to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Before a candidate selects West, Governors Nikki Haley (SC), Bob McDonnell (VA) or Chris Christie (NJ), or Senators Kelly Ayotte (NH) or Marco Rubio (FL), all of whom have been the happy beneficiaries of running mate speculation, he or she will have to be satisfied that that national neophyte is ready for the scrutiny of those on the national stage.

The late date of the Republican convention further reduces the prospects of these new faces. The Republican ticket will come out of its convention with limited time for further preparation. The presidential nominee can mitigate this risk by a choice well in advance of the convention but that strategy presents its own costs. It’s risky to choose a running mate who has not been thinking about national and international issues for some time and speaking about them under the national klieg lights. Think Palin.

Recent history suggests that presidential nominees more often choose someone of stature who did not contest the nomination than those who unsuccessfully did. Bush, Edwards and Biden are counter examples that suggest that sometimes a runner up or, in Biden’s case, someone who makes a more favorable impression than the returns suggest, may get the call. Yet often an unsuccessful candidate seems unappealing because of lingering bitterness from the campaign (e.g. Bush passing over McCain in 2000, McCain not choosing Romney and Obama not choosing Clinton), because of a poor showing (e.g. Graham) or because it may seem awkward to pass over the runner-up to choose someone who fared much worse (although that did not deter Obama).

One should not eliminate from the pool presidential candidates based on their inevitable disclaimers of interest in the second spot (e.g. Pawlenty) or those who decide not to run for the presidential nomination (e.g. Sen. John Thune). Pawlenty’s disavowal of interest in the second spot was a necessary pronouncement those in his position perennially make in order to protect the credibility of their presidential candidacies. Perhaps he, like John F. Kennedy and Obama, who in earlier cycles were viewed as prime vice presidential prospects, will secure the presidential nomination. If he does not, come August 2012 the second spot may well look more attractive than his other career options. Similarly, candidates who decide not to seek the presidential nomination often find a vice presidential nomination appealing. A 10-week sprint with limited fundraising responsibility looks quite different than the financial and personal burdens of a two-year traveling road show including winter in Iowa and New Hampshire.  Mondale, Lloyd Bentsen, Gore, Kemp, and Cheney all passed on presidential candidacies for various reasons but accepted the second spot the same presidential election cycle.

Media speculation always includes prospects from competitive states with large Electoral College dowries.  Thus Republican senators or governors from California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois often find their names on the lists. Recent history suggests that such figures rarely land on the ticket, either because of their own shortcomings or because other options seem more likely to provide electoral advantage. Running mates are rarely chosen because they come from a large competitive state, and many recent nominees have come from tiny states (e.g. Cheney, Biden, Palin) or from safe states (e.g. Quayle) or without expectation that they would swing their home state (e.g. Kemp, Edwards or even Bentsen).

Finally, governors and members of the House of Representatives receive more consideration by pundits than they do by presidential candidates. Palin and Spiro T. Agnew are the only sitting governors chosen as running mates in the last half century. Each was selected by a presidential candidate with credibility as a national leader (McCain and Richard Nixon). Governors suffer from the perception that they lack international experience and knowledge. Presidential candidates who run as governors or former governors invariably choose Washington insiders. Carter-Mondale, Reagan-Bush, Michael Dukakis-Bentsen, Clinton-Gore, Bush-Cheney. The last tandem of governors occurred in 1948, when Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren made up the Republican ticket. Every year is different, of course, but to the extent history is a guide, a governor is unlikely to be chosen, especially if the nominee is Romney, Huckabee, Palin, Pawlenty, Daniels, Barbour or someone else from a statehouse.

Members of the House face a different problem: a perceived stature deficit. Occasionally someone from the House is considered—e.g. Richard Gephardt in 1988 and 2004, Lee Hamilton in 1988 and 1992—but they never seem to claim the prize. Ferraro was the last person from this cohort to land on a ticket, and she did so at a time when there were no Democratic women in the Senate and only one woman governor, the newly elected Martha Collins of Kentucky. Perhaps Representatives Paul Ryan of Wisconsin or Eric Cantor of Virginia (or Allen West of Florida) will receive enough recognition this year to become a plausible pick, but the odds are against them.

The odds against a governor or member of the House should not cause Republican senators to picture themselves in the Naval Observatory. Although some, like Thune, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Jon Kyl of Arizona or Rob Portman of Ohio might be plausible candidates, history suggests that Republican senators do not often get the call. Whereas 75% of the Democratic vice presidential nominees since 1952 were senators when selected, only 20% of Republican running mates during the same period came from the upper house. Even if one excludes the five Republican incumbent vice presidents who were renominated from the denominator, the odds of a Republican senator being selected are only 30%.

Republican presidential candidates often turn to figures who hold or held appointed positions, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Bush, Kemp and Cheney. Yet it’s hard to imagine that the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate will be an alumnus of the George W. Bush administration, unless he or she can rely on some subsequent service to minimize that baggage, as perhaps Portman could. More likely, some former elected officials might come under consideration. Jeb Bush? Bill Frist?

In essence, it’s too early to expect a (or even The) crystal ball to predict who the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee will be. There are too many unknowns, especially the identity of the presidential candidate. When the glass starts to clear a year or so from now, speculation can more appropriately begin. Then the Republican presidential nominee is likely to follow the patterns history suggests, some of which are outlined above. Unless he or she doesn’t.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. He 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.