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The Veepstakes, Part Two: Trump’s Temptation

This is the second of a two-part series analyzing the Democratic and Republican vice presidential possibilities. This week, we examine presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s considerations and options. Last week, we looked at Hillary Clinton’s choices on the Democratic side.

— The Editors

Heading into the 2014 National Football League draft, rumors were swirling that Jerry Jones, the eccentric Dallas Cowboys owner, was considering using his team’s first-round pick on the biggest star available: Johnny Manziel, the controversial star quarterback from Texas A&M. Indeed, when Dallas’ pick came around, and Manziel was still available, Jones reportedly wanted to pick Manziel. But Jones’ son and other team leaders advised Jones against it, and the team instead selected Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin. For months after the May draft, Jones fumed over being talked out of taking Manziel, who he saw as a future star and the kind of flashy selection that defined “America’s Team,” the Cowboys.

“I get madder, every day, about missin’ (Manziel),” Jones said that August.

However, it worked out well for the Cowboys that Jones didn’t get his man. Martin became a Pro Bowl player for the Cowboys and a linchpin of Dallas’ offensive line, which most experts regard as the best in the league. Manziel, meanwhile, went to the cursed Cleveland Browns, who cut the quarterback after just two seasons because of his substance abuse and legal problems (not to mention his largely poor performance on the field). Any team is now free to sign Manziel, but no team has — including Jones’ Cowboys.

So why are we bringing up Manziel and Jones in a piece on Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick? Because we think that Trump could face a decision very similar to the one Jones faced in 2014, a choice between making a flashy pick and playing it safe. Trump is showing plenty of signs of preferring the former option — especially if he unveils his selection during a primetime show at the convention, as seems possible — but it may be that the latter makes more sense, both in football and in politics.

Trump could obviously go any number of ways on his vice presidential pick. His instincts, to the extent that we (or anyone else) can understand them, probably will push him in the direction of an attention-grabbing pick — the Manziel-esque pick. But a better option would probably be a safer, more substantive selection. Here’s why:

Beyond trying to improve his poor favorability numbers and addressing the daily controversies that have defined his campaign, Trump’s major challenge in this campaign is convincing a majority of voters that he’s stable and qualified for the job. It’s a heavy lift for a candidate who is very short on policy specifics and inconsistent to boot. Ultimately, voters are going to judge Trump, and Trump alone, on whether he has a sufficient grasp of government to be president. But perhaps Trump can help reassure voters by surrounding himself with “the best people,” as he himself would put it. That is an argument for choosing a vice president with a great deal of actual governing experience — someone who has spent a fair amount of time in what vice presidential expert Joel Goldstein calls “feeder positions” for the running mate slot: the U.S. Senate and House, state governor, or other high executive offices such as a Cabinet post. (For more on these running mate considerations, see Goldstein’s companion piece in this week’s Crystal Ball.)

A number of the names that have been bandied about strike us as fairly unlikely.

Trump seems too savvy to consider, for instance, 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who did damage to John McCain’s candidacy eight years ago and who certainly would not help him appear more presidential. Another problematic pick would be Ben Carson, the former presidential candidate and neurosurgeon who is now in Trump’s orbit. By the end of his campaign, Carson was behaving erratically on the trail and in debates. While he and Palin have devoted followings, their biggest fans need little additional convincing to back Trump.

Would selecting one of them be attention-getting? You betcha. But they’d also probably be Manziel-esque picks: They would make an initial splash but ultimately not be all that helpful in winning or, arguably, in governing. In fact, it’s easy to imagine either being liabilities and inviting attacks from Democrats — perhaps even inspiring a reprise of this classic ad from 1968 that Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign used to attack Richard Nixon’s controversial running mate, Spiro Agnew.

While Trump might consider Carson or Palin, we don’t see either as plausible. Nor do we see many of Trump’s former presidential rivals as likely possibilities. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are still smarting from the thumping that Trump delivered, and both still seem cool to Trump for many reasons. Both are probably considering encore presidential runs in 2020: Cruz just announced his intention to run for reelection to the Senate in 2018, and on Monday night Rubio criticized reporting about his future plans, including a sarcastic tweet disparaging the conventional wisdom that someone needs to hold office to have a shot at being a successful candidate for president.

There are many factors for Trump to ponder as he mulls his options, some of which may contradict one another. Demographic challenges, potential shortcomings in foreign policy, and a general push for party unity are considerations, as is Trump’s likely interest in making a pick that will maximize media attention (the Jerry Jones instinct). In some ways, Rubio would be an ideal VP candidate for Trump — not only would he be a headline choice but Rubio would also bring foreign policy chops, and at least some appeal to minority voters. But again, there is little sign that Rubio is interested.

Trump has a serious demographic challenge owing to his awful ratings among nonwhite voters, who could make up 30% or so of the electorate in 2016. With Cruz and Rubio off the table, there aren’t many options to counter this problem for Trump, even to the limited extent that a running mate could address that issue. One of the few plausible picks would be Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), the first elected African-American U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction. However, like many names on our list, Scott’s interest is difficult to assess. While he has stated his intent to support Trump, Scott (who backed Rubio in the primary) criticized Trump over his failure to disavow support from white supremacists.

In addition to his terrible favorability among nonwhite voters, Trump also does so poorly among women that this election could potentially see the largest gender gap in the exit poll era. (The 2000 election has the current record: There was a 22-point gap, as Al Gore won women by 11 points and George W. Bush won men by 11.) The GOP has a fair number of women pols who would fit the bill for Trump. But some of them seem unlikely to be interested in accepting an offer for the VP slot, such as Govs. Nikki Haley (R-SC) and Susana Martinez (R-NM), who have both been fairly critical of their party’s presumptive nominee. Still, others might opt to join Trump. Ex-Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ) endorsed Trump in late February and he’s intimated that she’s on his shortlist. Brewer’s anti-illegal immigration rhetoric would double down on that part of Trump’s appeal, though it would certainly not improve his negatives among Latinos. And while it’s hard to forecast how a selection might play back home, the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling recently found that Brewer might actually hurt rather than help Trump in Arizona, a usually reliably Republican state that could become a battleground.

Trump has also had nice words for Gov. Mary Fallin (R-OK). She is nationally unknown but could help a little bit with party unity as a stout social and fiscal conservative. Of course, the Sooner State is as Republican red as can be, so there’s no Electoral College bonus there.

One other traditional role Trump might envisage for his running mate is “attack dog,” and there are few better than Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and 2012 presidential candidate. Gingrich has a long history as a Clinton antagonist, and he might make Trump look temperate by comparison. Gingrich has substantial baggage of his own, though, and he probably wouldn’t make the ticket any more attractive to fence-sitting voters.

In the Senate, there are three other women that Trump could very well be considering. Perhaps the buzziest is Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), a popular conservative from the swing state of Iowa who caught national attention during her successful run for Senate in 2014 with this now-famous ad. She could demonstrate that Trump welcomes a “strong woman” and no doubt, Ernst would be a stump star in her own right on the campaign trail. But if Trump is looking for an experienced No. 2, Ernst isn’t it — she’s been in the Senate for just a year and a half. A better choice might be Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), a political veteran of the House and now Senate who is widely respected, well vetted, and unlikely to commit gaffes. Capito would double down on Trump’s appeal to voters in Greater Appalachia — not really a priority for Trump — but she could also possibly assist in nearby Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he needs a breakthrough. However, some Republicans would view Capito as too moderate on social issues, particularly abortion rights, which might complicate efforts to corral Republicans who supported Ted Cruz and others in the primary. Lastly, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) would be another Republican woman in the Senate with whom Trump could make common cause, though she, like Ernst, is relatively inexperienced.

Trump may also want a running mate who can strengthen his weak portfolio on foreign policy. Recent polls show Americans view Hillary Clinton, Trump’s likely general election opponent, as more trustworthy and capable in handling international relations. For example, a late April survey from George Washington University found “foreign affairs” to be the issue area where Trump had his biggest deficit versus Clinton. Eight years ago, Barack Obama found himself in a somewhat similar situation, leading him to tap Joe Biden, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For Trump, perhaps this would push him in the direction of someone like Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who now chairs Biden’s old committee. On that panel with Corker is Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), whose outsider background and business credentials might mesh with Trump as well.

Another person on Trump’s shortlist could be Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL). Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump, and is a member of the Armed Services Committee. The Alabaman also shares Trump’s ferocity about immigration issues. Sessions would be very much a double down pick designed to excite Trump’s core supporters. So would selecting Govs. Paul LePage (R-ME) or Chris Christie (R-NJ), two Trump supporters who share the presumptive nominee’s brash style. Of course, they also bring baggage to the ticket (LePage has a long history of controversial statements, and Christie’s Bridgegate scandal still hangs over him). Another gubernatorial possibility is Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), a businessman-turned-politician from a crucial swing state. However, Scott only barely won his two off-year, low-turnout elections and has weak job approval numbers.

Want a wild card choice? How about ex-Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), a much-decorated veteran and former Reagan-era Secretary of the Navy who ran a quixotic campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Webb was once a Republican, stresses blue-collar issues, is pro-Second Amendment, and could be appealing to many of the same voters who have backed Trump in the GOP race. Yet Webb is also pro-choice on abortion and supportive of gay rights, so we don’t know if Trump could get him approved by the convention.

As an early Trump endorser who shares his blue-collar appeal, we’ve long thought that Scott Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts who won a 2010 special election, lost in 2012, and then lost a Senate race in New Hampshire in 2014, would make sense as a Trump running mate. But Brown, just like some of the other names on this list, might be too centrist for the GOP nominating convention to stomach. Remember: While Trump is going to have more than enough bound delegate votes to win the nomination on the first ballot, the delegates are not pledged to vote his way on other matters, like selecting a running mate. We suspect the delegates will go along with Trump’s choice, but many of them are very suspicious of him, and they may become even more wary of Trump if he joins forces with a moderate running mate.

This suggests another Trump consideration: party unity. So far, Trump’s apparently brought the lion’s share of Republicans on board, as public-opinion polling has shown him unifying the rank-and-file to a large degree: An NBC News/Survey Monkey national poll showed both Trump and Hillary Clinton winning 87% of their fellow partisans (Clinton led by three points overall in the survey). Trump needs to maintain and expand the strength of the GOP’s fragile unity, and therefore a running mate with widespread party appeal is essential.

Govs. John Kasich (R-OH) and Scott Walker (R-WI), the two former presidential contenders, are probably just pipe dream possibilities for Trump, but they could help with party unity. Both govern Midwestern states where Trump performed relatively poorly in the primaries, and both appeal to constituencies that Trump needs in November. Kasich’s draw is to moderate Republicans, while Walker assists with the conservative party base. Each would have to consider whether they’d want the job, and the early indications are that, no, they do not. Still, politicians can turn on a dime.

Finally, maybe Trump’s VP nominee will be a real contrast with, or complement to, his style, say a low-key but effective legislator such as Sen. John Thune (R-SD). There are not a lot of electoral votes in South Dakota, and the region is heavily Republican anyway, but Thune knows government, has an attractive visage and personality, and wouldn’t cost Trump any support. Additionally, Thune can run for reelection to the Senate this year while also appearing on the South Dakota ballot for vice president thanks to a recent state law change. Another choice in this vein would be Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who is locked in a tough reelection race. Portman is widely respected in Washington and would, like Thune, represent a grown-up choice for Trump. Portman does represent a key swing state, and he too could run for reelection while also being Trump’s No. 2, which is something that is common for running mates: For instance, Joe Biden ran concurrently for reelection to the Senate and for VP in 2008, and Paul Ryan was reelected to the House in 2012 while also serving as the VP nominee. The difference is that Biden, Ryan, and other recent concurrent candidates have generally had easy reelections, while Portman could be in for the fight of his life. Portman also isn’t as well-known statewide or as popular as Kasich, and he might not provide much of a home state boost. Nor does Portman seem likely to want the job.

Now, considering we couldn’t predict Donald Trump’s rise to presumptive Republican presidential nominee, why would we think we could pick his running mate choice? Well, we never say die at the Crystal Ball. However, we also recognize the distinct possibility that Trump’s eventual choice isn’t even on our roll call. So we’re listing the possibilities in simple alphabetical order, to emphasize the Trumpian uncertainty. And we’re leaving the top spot open for a random, outside-the-box pick, which may be just as likely as any of the names mentioned here.

After all, Johnny Manziel doesn’t have anything going on. Too bad he hasn’t hit the constitutional age of 35.

Table 1: 2016 Republican vice presidential possibilities (in alphabetical order)

Candidate Key VP Advantages Key VP Disadvantages
Jan Brewer
Ex-Governor, AZ
•Woman to counteract Clinton
•Strong anti-illegal immigration focus
• Appeal may be too similar to Trump’s
•Inevitable Palin comparisons
Scott Brown
Ex-Senator, MA
•Blue-collar appeal, famous for driving his truck around on campaign trail
•Republican who has won in blue state
•Lost 2014 NH Senate bid
•Style over substance?
•Too moderate? Social views could hurt party unity
Shelley Moore Capito
Senator, WV
•Woman to counteract Clinton
•Well respected and well vetted
•WV is definitely NOT a swing state
•Too moderate? Social views could hurt party unity
Chris Christie
Governor, NJ
•Already on board the Trump Train •Too much of same personality as Trump?
•Bridge scandal hangover?
•Not going to put NJ in play
Bob Corker
Senator, TN
•Brings serious foreign policy cachet to ticket
•Respected member of the Senate, political vet
•Geographical diversity
•Might not be flashy enough for Trump
•TN is not a swing state
Joni Ernst
•Woman to counteract Clinton
•Swing-state senator
•Would bring stylistically different but still-strong stump presence to the ticket
•Lack of high-level governing experience
Deb Fischer
Senator, NE
•Woman to counteract Clinton •NE is not a swing state
Mary Fallin
Governor, OK
•Woman to counteract Clinton
•Credibility with conservatives
•Not a flashy pick
•OK is not a swing state
Newt Gingrich
Ex-Speaker of the House
•Strong on the stump
•Serves as retrospective critic of Bill Clinton’s administration
• History of infidelity might compound Trump’s problems with women
Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC
•Just kidding •Yes, just kidding
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Popular swing-state governor
•Long governing track record
•Could help further unify party
•Might not have mindset to be a No. 2
•Ran toward center in primary, wouldn’t excite conservatives
Paul LePage
Governor, ME
•Outsider qualities
• Duplicates Trump’s appeal
•Loose cannon on the stump
• Duplicates Trump’s shortcomings
David Perdue
Senator, GA
•Outsider credentials
•Businessman with some governing experience
•First-term senator, probably doesn’t compensate enough for the holes in Trump’s resume
Rob Portman
Senator, OH
•Swing-state senator
•Gravitas would reassure elite conservatives
•Fundraising machine
•Faces tough reelection race he would have to run in concurrently
•Not well-known nationally — or really even in Ohio
Rick Scott
Governor, FL
•Swing-state governor
•Already on board the Trump Train
•Mixed governing record, not very popular at home
•Medicare fraud scandal in his past
Tim Scott
Senator, SC
•African American, can help Trump address his problems among nonwhite voters
•Tons of credibility amongst conservatives
•Seems unlikely to want job
•Does not help in swing states, unlikely to make major difference with black voters
Jeff Sessions
Senator, AL
•Already on board the Trump Train, first senator to endorse him •Doesn’t add anything new or different to the ticket
John Thune
Senator, SD
•Respectable, safe Republican who could add gravitas to Trump ticket •Largely anonymous nationally
Scott Walker
Governor, WI
•Heroic conservative credentials
•Checks boxes for many wings of party
•Underwhelmed in presidential campaign
•Backed Ted Cruz in Wisconsin, would Trump pick him?
Jim Webb
Ex-Senator, VA
•Doubles down on white working class appeal
•Foreign policy experience and knowledge
•Ostensibly still a Democrat, could prompt convention revolt
•Poor on the stump