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The Running Mate Calculus

Now that the nominations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump appear inevitable, attention turns, as it always does at this time, to the vice presidential selections. This year presents the fifth time in 40 years that both parties will select new running mates. Although Trump’s recent victories have eliminated the prospect of a brokered Republican convention with its range of possibilities for vice presidential selection, the running mate decisions still present complexities.

Vice presidential selection is dictated by the pool of available candidates, the context in which the decision is made, and the way in which the presidential nominee and others around him/her evaluate information regarding options and the political environment. Some aspects of the context are beginning to emerge although many others remain obscure, making prediction of ultimate choices premature. What is becoming clear is that both sides will face some unusual challenges in creating, narrowing, and selecting from the available pool but that the difficulties on the Republican side outweigh the challenges their opponents face.

1. Some General Observations

Vice presidential selection has been fundamentally different the last 40 years as a shift to a primary and caucus system resolves presidential nominations more quickly and creates a lengthy pre-convention vice presidential selection process. The selection furnishes the first presidential decision for presidential nominees (other than Gerald Ford).

Presidential candidates typically empower distinguished party insiders (such as Warren Christopher, Robert Ellsworth, Dick Cheney, Jim Johnson, and A.B. Culvahouse) or close lawyer-confidantes (such as Phil Buchen, Ed Schmults, Charles Kirbo, Paul Brountas, Eric Holder, and Beth Myers) to head the selection process. A reputation for discretion is critical as prospective running mates are asked to provide information of the most personal nature.

Every presidential nominee dreams of a highly accomplished, skillful, and compatible running mate from a large swing state who will shore up some of the presidential nominee’s weaknesses, a person Bob Dole used to call a “10.” Ultimately, candidates must choose among real-world options, which sometimes include “10s” but often requires compromising with reality.

In modern times, the key requirements for vice presidential nominees are presidential quality and the ability to pass a vetting screen that confirms that he/she doesn’t carry disqualifying baggage. The decision sends messages about the presidential candidate’s decision-making ability and values. The importance of the choice has been a factor generally limiting those given prime consideration to public servants with governmental experience in a small set of feeder positions. Not since Alf Landon chose newspaper publisher Frank Knox in 1936 has a first-time vice presidential candidate lacked prior experience as a senator, high national executive branch official, governor, or member of the House of Representatives. Walter Mondale considered a number of mayors in 1984 — Dianne Feinstein, Tom Bradley, Henry Cisneros, and Wilson Goode — but his commitment to opening the process to historically excluded groups required going beyond the traditional feeder positions then. A few other mayors have been seriously considered — Joseph Alioto (1968), Kevin White (1972), and Michael Bloomberg (2008). Supreme Court Justice William Douglas was a vice presidential finalist or offeree in 1944 and 1948, and Richard Nixon apparently considered his long-time ally, California Lt. Gov. Robert Finch, in 1968. But consideration of those candidates were anomalous, and these nontraditional possibilities generally came before the rise of the vice presidency as a more influential office or were floated by presidential candidates who had extensive national experience, which compensated for these candidates’ lack of typical experience.

Most running mates over the last 40 years have had considerable experience in these four feeder positions before being chosen. The average for the last 14 first-time running mates is 14 years. Only three — Geraldine Ferraro, John Edwards, and Sarah Palin — had less than six years.

Within these four categories, senators are by far the most common source of first-time nominees followed by high executive branch officials, governors, and members of the House, in that order. Since 1940, when presidential candidates began to assert control over the selection, 18 of the 31 first-time vice presidential selectees had most recently been senators, six had most recently held high federal executive office, four had most recently been governors, and three were members of the House. Those numbers hide a marked partisan difference. All but three (Henry Wallace, Sargent Shriver, and Ferraro) of the 17 Democratic choices were senators, whereas the 14 Republican running mates were evenly divided among senators, governors, and former or current executive officials (four apiece) and two members of the House. The Democrats have not nominated a governor to run for vice president since Charles Bryan in 1924.

In recent times, presidential nominees with little or no experience in Congress or the national executive branch have invariably selected running mates with Washington, D.C. backgrounds. The last outsider-outsider team paired Govs. Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren in 1948. That occurred in an earlier period, and both had been past presidential candidates and were governors of very large states. Govs. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney each chose running mates who had extensive Beltway experience as did Govs. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Michael Dukakis, as well as Sen. Barack Obama. That pattern would suggest that Trump, who has less governmental experience than any Republican candidate since Wendell Willkie in 1940, would select a D.C. partner to compensate for his lack of experience regarding national government and national security issues, and some of his statements have suggested such an orientation.

Presidential nominees rarely choose those who ran against them, particularly in modern times. The chance of such a selection recedes if there has been a prolonged battle for the nomination as occurred between President Gerald Ford and Reagan in 1976. The few recent exceptions — John Kennedy-Lyndon Johnson, Reagan-George H.W. Bush, John Kerry-Edwards, and Obama-Joe Biden — generally followed relatively short contests, either because the unsuccessful candidate entered very late (Kennedy-Johnson) or withdrew very early (Kerry-Edwards and Obama-Biden) before things got acrimonious. And except for Obama-Biden, the person chosen was the runner-up; also-rans are occasionally considered but generally not chosen. The historical pattern tends to predict against a Trump-Sen. Ted Cruz pairing or a ticket of Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Although pundits routinely assume presidential candidates will choose someone from a swing state rich in electoral votes, they almost never have in modern times. Kennedy chose Johnson to help him in the South, not just in Texas, and had Dukakis adopted a swing-state strategy, he would more likely have chosen Ohio’s John Glenn than Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. More often, running mates come from states like Delaware, Alaska, Wyoming, Maine, Connecticut, and Kansas, often in preference to those from larger states.

2. The Republican Process

The Trump selection process has gotten off to a somewhat rocky start. Whereas a recent report by a Bipartisan Policy Center working group recommended on April 22 that the work be underway, Trump was first constructing his process two weeks later. Trump initially named Dr. Ben Carson as a key member of his selection committee. Carson suggested Trump might choose a Democrat, a suggestion Trump quickly repudiated.  Trump insiders reportedly listed possible running mates like Sen. Rob Portman and Gov. Nikki Haley, who quickly suggested they would not participate in the vetting. On May 10, multiple sources reported that Trump had chosen his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to head his process, a somewhat unconventional choice because Lewandowski is neither a lawyer nor someone experienced in vice presidential selection. Reports suggested that Carson had stepped away from that process to work on other projects, and late Wednesday multiple outlets reported that Culvahouse, the veteran Republican insider mentioned above who vetted running mates for John McCain in 2008, will help vet vice presidential candidates for Trump.

Trump may well have a smaller pool of possible selectees than has generally been the case. The largest constraint on the pool is likely to come from misgivings about Trump among those holding traditional feeder positions and pessimism regarding the likelihood of ticket success. Trump won only one endorsement from a sitting senator (Jeff Sessions) and three from current governors (Chris Christie, Rick Scott, and Paul LePage) before securing the nomination, and the hostility of the Republican establishment to him was suggested by the number of Republican officials who ultimately supported Cruz notwithstanding the reports of widespread antipathy to Cruz among Republican senators. Even once Trump secured the nomination, a number of party luminaries distanced themselves from him either by refusing to attend the convention, stating they would not support him, or stating simply that they would support the nominee without mentioning Trump by name. Trump’s running mate will inevitably be required to defend the presidential nominee’s actions and statements in a high-profile way, a duty some may not wish to assume.

It seems inconceivable that Trump and Cruz would run together given the acrimony of their contest.  Trump has suggested he might be open to picking Sen. Marco Rubio, but since leaving the presidential race Rubio has made pretty definite statements closing the door on a vice presidential race. Gov. John Kasich is frequently mentioned as a possible Trump running mate, and his experience in Congress and as governor of Ohio as well as identification with the Republican establishment would be helpful. His strategist has, however, described his aversion to running as Shermanesque, and Kasich himself has said that he’s “not inclined” to join Trump on the GOP ticket. One suspects Christie has burned bridges with his endorsement of Trump, so such a selection would not unify the GOP, and Christie has other baggage. Gov. Scott Walker has left the door open to a vice presidential run but he — like Rubio, Christie, Carly Fiorina, and other unsuccessful presidential candidates — did not help his cause by his unimpressive presidential run. Other than Kasich, none of these former candidates would add gravitas to a Trump ticket, as Dick Cheney did for George W. Bush.

The right senator or former executive branch official would help Trump cover those deficits, but those sources offer few likely options. Twenty-four Republican senators are up for reelection or retiring; although some past vice presidential candidates have been able to run simultaneously for Congress (e.g. Lyndon Johnson, Lloyd Bentsen, Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden, and Paul Ryan), that is not always an option and anyone with a difficult reelection race would be unlikely to assume that burden. Thirteen Republican senators are 70 or older, and accordingly unlikely candidates, and 14 of the 54 Republican senators (including Sen. Joni Ernst) have served six years or less in traditional feeder positions, making them less than optimal running mates, especially for a candidate like Trump. Of the 12 Republican senators who are not up for reelection, who are under 70, and who have served at least six years in traditional feeder positions, Jeff Flake, Dean Heller, and Lindsey Graham have said they will not support Trump, and John Barrasso has emphasized that he will support the ticket without mentioning Trump. Susan Collins has supported same-sex marriage, which would not sit well with social conservatives. Sessions, the only senator to endorse Trump before he won the nomination; Bob Corker, who is now advising him on foreign policy; Mike Rounds, who has gone out of his way to defend Trump; John Cornyn; and Shelley Moore Capito might be options, but most are not A-List possibilities. Nor is it easy to visualize a former George W. Bush Cabinet member joining a Trump ticket. Condoleezza Rice is sometimes mentioned, but she has not shown any disposition to run for office and it would be surprising if she would do so, especially given the Bush family’s hostility to Trump.

Haley, Fiorina, or Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico would add diversity, but none would add any national security credential, and Haley and Martinez have criticized Trump on critical issues that would be hard to walk back. Gov. Mary Fallin did serve two terms in the House before being elected as Oklahoma’s governor in 2010.

Some former politicians such as John Boehner, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Jan Brewer might be considered, and Brewer, Gingrich, Palin, and Perry have expressed openness to the idea. Boehner or Gingrich would add high-level experience to Trump’s ticket but the four combined divorces of a Trump-Gingrich ticket would be four times more than any other ticket in history and would not resonate family values, and the choice of Boehner would not please the Republican right. Palin and Perry seem like long-shots after their disastrous past campaigns.

Ultimately, the Republican nominee may face the shallowest vice presidential pool in recent memory and may find that the available pool includes primarily people not previously thought to be presidential timber or with less experience than normal. Trump has many needs, including addressing his weakness with women and various ethnic groups, his lack of legislative and national security experience, and opposition to his candidacy from the party establishment and social conservatives.

3. The Democratic Pool

Clinton, the apparent Democratic nominee, seems likely to have a much deeper vice presidential pool but not without some unique considerations. Her initial moves in creating a process seem conventional and considered. At the time the BPC recommendation was issued, media outlets reported that Clinton’s process was already preparing information on a long list of 15 to 20 possibilities for further vetting; that the process would be directed by John Podesta, a former White House Chief of Staff and Democratic luminary; and that vetting would be supervised by James Hamilton, a D.C. lawyer who headed or co-headed the prior three Democratic processes.

Some online chatter has suggested Vice President Joe Biden as the perfect running mate for either Clinton or Sanders. Biden’s popularity has remained strong and no one is more experienced. He would provide the missing national security credential for Sanders and help Clinton with Sanders’ voters.

Although the 22nd Amendment precludes a president from being elected to a third term, vice presidents face no term limits. Yet no vice president has ever served more than two terms. Biden is one of only 12 to be elected to a second term; only eight have so far completed two terms. Only one candidate has run for the vice presidency three times: George Clinton, who served as Thomas Jefferson’s second, and James Madison’s first, vice president, having previously been the runner up to John Adams in 1792 for the office. Only five men have sought the vice presidency with at least two different presidential candidates — Clinton, John C. Calhoun (who effectively ran successfully with John Quincy Adams in 1824 and with Andrew Jackson in 1828), Thomas Hendricks, (who ran unsuccessfully with Samuel Tilden in 1876 and successfully with Grover Cleveland in 1884), Adlai Stevenson I (who ran successfully with Grover Cleveland in 1892 and unsuccessfully with William Jennings Bryan in 1900), and Charles Fairbanks (who ran successfully with Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 and unsuccessfully with Charles Evans Hughes in 1916).

It seems highly unlikely that Biden would run again. Having served two very successful terms as vice president, it is more likely that he will move on. Whereas virtually all other major national figures have spent some time in the private sector making money, Biden has held public office for 44 years. It would not be surprising to see him spend the next segment of his life in a private capacity.

Clinton’s pool of possible candidates might be reduced by the Democrats’ interest in taking control of the Senate. Several of those prominently mentioned — Sens. Sherrod Brown (OH), Cory Booker (NJ), Bill Nelson (FL), and Elizabeth Warren (MA) — come from states with Republican governors. Their election as vice president would presumably cost the Democrats a seat and complicate the party’s effort to control the Senate. So, too, would the selection of either of New Mexico’s senators — Tom Udall or Martin Heinrich — or North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp or Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, some more likely to be considered than others.

There are many other Democratic senators or former senators whose election would not immediately cost the Democrats a seat. These would include Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, the latter of whom was apparently the runner-up to Biden eight years ago; Sen. Jack Reed (RI), who declined to be considered in 2008; former Sen. Evan Bayh (IN), who has previously been on a shortlist; Sen. Al Franken (MN); and former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, also a former Colorado senator, as well as some listed below.

Traditional ticket-balancing considerations might suggest that Clinton would not select a woman, yet her campaign has insisted that women will be included as possible choices. In contrast to 1984, the Democratic Party now has a large and growing field of impressive women in traditional vice presidential feeder positions. Some 14 Democratic women serve in the Senate and, of these, Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN), Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell (WA), and Jeanne Shaheen (NH) would seem most likely to be considered, although Shaheen disclaimed interest in 2000 when she was reportedly on Al Gore’s shortlist, and Murray is running for reelection. Although the current Democratic women governors are either recently elected or running for the Senate (Maggie Hassan), former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, might be considered.

Of course, the idea of gender balance is itself a somewhat new idea. Historically, all but two presidential tickets (Mondale-Ferraro and McCain-Palin) have combined two men. For Clinton to exclude women office-holders would eliminate a number of able running mates who a male presidential candidate would have considered and some who might have run for president had Clinton not done so. Moreover, if Clinton concluded that one of these public servants was most qualified, such a selection might be perceived as a bold and principled move that would send a message that she is intent on making the right decision even if unconventional. The closest parallel would be the selection by then-Gov. Bill Clinton of a fellow southern, baby boomer, centrist (Gore), which helped Clinton win the presidency in 1992.

Presidential candidates often choose a running mate who remained neutral or who supported a rival in order to unify the party. Such prominent picks would include Mondale, Dan Quayle, Lloyd Bentsen, Gore, Jack Kemp, and Biden, in addition to those who selected runners up. Dole’s selection of Kemp was most notable because Kemp had endorsed Steve Forbes when Dole’s nomination was inevitable only days before Forbes withdrew from the race. Sanders seems an unlikely choice given his age (74) and the long, increasingly bitter presidential campaign, but Clinton might pick someone identified with Sanders in order to engage his supporters, a challenging strategy because Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR) is the only Sanders endorser who seems a plausible choice. Warren would also fit this description as would Brown.

A number of other figures will no doubt figure prominently in speculation. Obama Cabinet members Julián Castro (Housing and Urban Development) and Thomas Perez (Labor) have been mentioned in part as candidates who might energize Latino voters. Both have held their positions for only two or three years and do not have national security experience, which will cut against their selection. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has longer experience in the Obama Cabinet and as governor of Iowa and was vetted in 2004. Gov. John Hickenlooper (CO) and former Gov. Deval Patrick (MA) have also been mentioned as possibilities.

Four prospective candidates almost certainly to be excluded are Clinton’s fellow New Yorkers: Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bloomberg. The Constitution does not preclude a president and vice president being from the same state, as is often said, but the 12th Amendment provides that an elector cannot vote for both a president and vice president from the elector’s state. Accordingly, New York’s electors could not vote for Clinton and a New York running mate. That requirement led Cheney to change his registration from Texas to Wyoming in order to run with Bush. It is hard to imagine Clinton or one of these figures relocating even if they otherwise made sense as a running mate.

4. Conclusion

Speculation by outsiders is always risky because critical information, such as the vetting and the presidential candidates’ attitudes towards choices, is confined to the presidential candidate’s inner circle. Many mentioned above and in media discussions will probably not be serious candidates.

Nonetheless, it seems evident that Trump is likely to face challenges in choosing from what is likely to be a limited pool to address multiple challenges. Clinton is likely to have far greater options yet also faces some constraints.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law and is one of the nation’s foremost experts on the vice presidency. His new book from the University Press of Kansas, The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden, is on the growing power and stature of vice presidents.