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Veepstakes: How might Romney narrow down the field?

Although his vice presidential selection is likely months away, we suspect that even now, Mitt Romney and his team are beginning to narrow down their list of possibilities. Joel K. Goldstein, the nation’s foremost authority on both the selection and service of modern vice presidents, explains how outside factors influenced previous candidates’ choices, and what Romney’s selection may tell us about him and his decision-making style. 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

Mitt Romney faces a complicated vice presidential choice, and his predicament traces to two factors: His campaign has multiple needs and the pool of potential candidates offers imperfect options. Romney’s situation is not, however, novel. If history is a guide, his options will sort out over time and, like his predecessors, he will ultimately choose from imperfect alternatives.

Vice presidential selection is inherently contextual and relational. It is contextual because the choice invariably depends upon a range of factors over which the candidate has relatively little control, including the race’s apparent competitiveness, the issues most likely to be important and the candidates who are available. Facing an unfavorable political landscape in 1984, Walter F. Mondale saw a need to reshape the terrain and tried to do so by choosing the first woman running mate, Geraldine Ferraro. He might have made a different choice if polls had forecast a closer race. Tax and economic issues seemed a favorable place for Bob Dole to make his stand in 1996, which helped explain the choice of Jack Kemp.

The choice of a running mate is also relational because a presidential nominee must always choose a running mate based upon needs particular to the candidate doing the selecting. The familiar concept of “ticket-balancing,” implies just that — the presidential nominee selects a running mate in relation to his or her own strengths and weaknesses. George H.W. Bush was a good choice in 1980 for Ronald Reagan, who wanted a running mate from the more moderate wing of the party and one with some national security credentials, but Bush would have been a less compelling running mate in 1980 for Gerald Ford. Joe Biden made great sense for Barack Obama, but might have been less likely had Hillary Clinton been the nominee. Mondale was a perfect fit for Jimmy Carter, but an unlikely running mate for Frank Church, Morris Udall or Hubert H. Humphrey. A reinforcing choice, as Bill Clinton made in selecting Al Gore, shares this relational character.  In choosing Gore, Clinton underscored attributes — that he was a southern centrist from the baby boomer generation — that were linked to his own biography.

Most polls forecast a competitive presidential race. If this expectation holds into the summer, Romney will be less likely to attempt to remake the political landscape with an unconventional selection and will be more likely to seek a running mate who appears to be a plausible president. Recent history suggests that most presidential nominees facing competitive races choose a running mate who would make a credible president. Determining whether someone satisfies that test involves subjective judgments, although some other criteria will help inform the decision. These include the amount of experience candidates have in traditional vice presidential feeder positions, their prior consideration for the presidency, their prior consideration for vice president and, most subjective, the way other officials and opinion-molders perceive them.

Since 1976, most first-time vice presidential candidates have been plausible presidential candidates based on these sorts of measures. Those chosen averaged 14.5 years in traditional feeder positions (governor, member of Congress, high executive official) for the vice presidency. All but Ferraro, John Edwards and Sarah Palin had at least 10 years experience in such positions, and Edwards had the compensating credentials of having been runner-up to John Kerry in the 2004 presidential primaries and a serious VP contender for Al Gore’s ticket four years earlier. Surely Dole, Mondale, Bush, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney and Biden were among the leading political figures of their generation when chosen. Dan Quayle had served 12 years in Congress and was building a record in the Senate.

Many of those around whom vice presidential speculation has centered this time do not measure up based on these criteria. Indeed, many of those most prominently mentioned this year have extremely limited experience, have not demonstrated their presidential qualities through a presidential race, or have not even previously been considered for the second spot on a ticket. Chris Christie (NJ) and Bob McDonnell (VA) have been governors for three years; Marco Rubio (FL), Kelly Ayotte (NH) and Rand Paul (KY) have been senators for only two years; and Nikki Haley (SC), Susana Martinez (NM) and Brian Sandoval (NV) have been governors for only two years (all figures rounded up). Based on prior service in traditional feeder positions, these levels place these candidates near the Sarah Palin-Spiro Agnew line (i.e. two years as governor), hardly an aspirational standard.

Of course, one or more of these people may be among those extraordinary figures who are ready to perform well on the national stage in 2012 even though their resumes are short and they have not yet demonstrated success in presidential politics. Many are now trying to make their case during this several-month vice presidential audition period.  And perhaps anti-Washington sentiment makes this year an anomaly. Selecting a political neophyte presents risks, however. These figures have not been tested by campaigns comparable to a presidential contest, and such a choice would draw inevitable comparisons to John McCain’s designation of Palin. If the person selected did not perform well, Romney’s judgment would be questioned.

The risk for Romney would be even greater because his own career in public service is short, consisting of a single term as governor of Massachusetts, and he does not have experience in foreign policy or national government. These gaps in Romney’s resume further diminish the prospects of those mentioned above. Indeed, every governor nominated for president since 1976 has chosen a running mate with extensive experience in national government. Thus, Carter chose Mondale, Reagan chose Bush, Michael Dukakis picked Bentsen, Clinton selected Gore and George W. Bush selected Cheney. For Romney to choose a relative newcomer to high public office would represent a break from the path of these recent governor-presidential candidates.

Conversely, Romney might try to emphasize his theme that he is an economic turnaround expert by selecting a running mate who reinforces that message. That might lead Romney to choose a running mate with experience, but in creating jobs rather than in national public service.

To be sure, the Republican Party does include figures who fare better on some of the standard measures for qualifying running mates. Gov. Mitch Daniels (IN, 10 years), Sen. Rob Portman (OH, 16), Sen. John Thune (SD, 14), Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA, 8), Rep. Paul Ryan (WI, 14) and former Govs. Jeb Bush (FL, 8) and Tim Pawlenty (MN, 8) have all served at least eight years in traditional feeder positions and several were viewed as plausible presidential candidates earlier in this cycle. Jindal and Pawlenty were among those who made McCain’s vice presidential shortlist. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) might also qualify based on the relative success of their presidential runs this year and in 2008, respectively. Yet the acrimonious nature of this year’s campaign will surely disqualify Santorum. A runner-up occasionally has been chosen (Bush, 1980, Edwards, 2004), but they left the race once the ultimate result was evident and conducted less divisive campaigns than did Santorum. Those who run but finish further back in the pack rarely are designated, and Pawlenty’s poor showing certainly did not bolster his chance to become Romney’s choice. Biden is the one exception to this latter pattern, yet he ran against a stronger field in 2008 than this year’s Republican contest featured and, unlike Pawlenty, brought a long record of national public service to the ticket.

In addition to being presidential, potential running mates will need to prove to Romney’s vetting team of lawyers, accountants and other nitpicking specialists that their (and their families’) backgrounds contain no blemishes that would be too difficult to manage. Generally speaking, some past possibilities have been unable to survive a vetting screen because of reputed (or confirmed) philandering, questionable financial dealings, bizarre habits or a tendency to go rogue.  These or other such stains may remove some of those who figure in speculation. And some will not get the nod because of their association with policy positions Romney may seek to avoid. Howard Baker’s role in securing ratification for the Panama Canal treaties damaged his chance of being Reagan’s running mate. Being pro-choice has, in the past, disqualified Sen. Alan Simpson (1988), Gov. Tom Ridge (2000, 2008) and Lieberman (2008). Sandoval will likely be this year’s casualty on these grounds, as will former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has described herself in the past as “mildly pro-choice” (as well as supportive of some affirmative action). Ryan might be an appealing choice, but he comes with his controversial budget plan. Romney has endorsed it, but will he really wish to be defined by that blueprint by choosing him?

Like any presidential nominee, Romney’s choice will respond to his needs as a presidential candidate. Romney enters the race with some obvious weaknesses. First, as mentioned above, Romney’s lack of national security credentials makes it less likely that he will choose someone whose exclusive experience has been as a state governor.

Moreover, the conservative base of the Republican Party has had misgivings about Romney, which contributed to his difficulty securing the nomination against this year’s weak field. Every recent Republican nominee from the more moderate wing of the party (Bush 1988 and 1992, Dole 1996, McCain, 2008) has felt compelled to select a running mate popular with the party’s conservative base. It seems likely that he will need to choose someone who at least will not offend, and perhaps will excite, the Republican base. Romney will want his choice to produce a happy and unified convention.

Yet Romney must balance his desire to pacify the conservative, evangelical base of the Republican Party against his need to appeal to independent and undecided voters in swing states. If he chooses a right-wing hero to prove he’s a true believer, he may offend independent voters. If he makes a choice to appeal to independents, he could provoke a conservative revolt or, perhaps more likely, an apathetic base.

Romney faces problems with other demographic groups, women and Hispanics among them.  Some recent polls showed him far behind among Hispanics, an important voting bloc in some swing states, and lagging among women, especially unmarried women. Yet choices thought to appeal to Hispanic voters, like Rubio, Martinez, Sandoval or Jeb Bush, or women, like Ayotte, Haley, Martinez or Rice have other drawbacks, including those suggested elsewhere in this discussion.

Romney’s affluence, coupled with his occasional gaffes that emphasized his economic status (e.g., his $10,000 bet, his wife’s two Cadillacs, etc.) may cause him to look for someone who would not replicate his elite pedigree. Such considerations could work against Portman or Bush among others, and in favor of someone like Pawlenty.

Finally, Romney will be constrained by some filters that are independent of anything he has done. Although past Republican nominees have frequently chosen running mates with substantial experience in the executive branch (e.g., Bush in 1980, Kemp in 1996, Cheney in 2000), this qualification may have less appeal this time. Many of the possible candidates are associated with the George W. Bush administration either based on service (Daniels, Portman, Rice) or family (Jeb Bush). Does Romney wish to associate himself with that administration by choosing a running mate with such baggage? To do so would emphasize the extent to which America’s economic problems predated President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Republicans in Congress will also have one or two strikes against them. Sitting members of the House of Representatives are almost never selected as running mates, in part because they are perceived to have a stature deficit relative to senators, governors or members of the executive branch. Ferraro is the only sitting House member to be selected since 1976, and she was chosen at a time when there were no Democratic women in the Senate and only one recently elected woman Democratic governor. William Miller, in 1964, is the only other House member chosen going back more than 75 years. Barry Goldwater, who had limited options, chose Miller due to his proclivity at provoking Lyndon B. Johnson. Ford was selected under the 25th Amendment, but that was an extraordinary situation.

The bias against choosing a member of the House might count against Ryan, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) or Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA). Moreover, such a selection would associate Romney with the unpopular Congress and perhaps enhance Obama’s ability to tie Romney to it. That consideration might also affect the likelihood that Romney would select Thune, Portman or another Republican senator. Incidentally, although the Senate is an incubator for Democratic running mates, only 20% of Republican vice presidential candidates since 1952 (Nixon, Dole and Quayle) were sitting senators when chosen.

If history is a guide, Romney’s options will clarify in the coming months. The ultimate nominee is almost never apparent in late May of election year. Few would have predicted Mondale, Dole, Bush, Ferraro, Bentsen, Quayle, Gore, Kemp, Lieberman, Cheney, Biden or Palin at that time in the year each was chosen. As the convention approaches, Romney’s relative electoral strengths and weaknesses will become more apparent, and his options will narrow as various prospective choices rise or fall based on the outcomes of the vetting, their own conduct and strategic considerations. And he will probably achieve a better sense of his relative comfort level with the various alternatives as a political partner.

Ultimately, Romney will need to choose between imperfect options. Presidential candidates always do. Bush was a great choice for Reagan in 1980, yet he had labeled Reagan’s signature policies “voodoo economics,” had never been elected to anything outside of Texas’s Seventh Congressional District (although he had won seven primaries or caucuses and previously been considered for the vice presidency) and Reagan had reservations about him. Bentsen disagreed with Dukakis on various issues. Clinton’s selection of Gore violated conventional practices regarding ticket-balancing. Dole chose Kemp although the two had well-publicized differences, which Kemp had exacerbated when he endorsed Steve Forbes at a point when Dole’s nomination was inevitable. Cheney, Biden and Palin were from tiny, safe states.

In picking a running mate, Romney will tell us something about himself. In addition to being contextual and relational, a vice presidential choice is idiosyncratic. It matters who is making the choice and who has his or her ear. Within the constraints a nominee faces, the choice tells us something about the selector’s values and decision-making style and ability.  McCain was perceived to undermine his promise to put “Country First” when he chose Palin. Reagan, Dukakis and Dole signaled they were open to a spectrum of views when they chose Bush, Bentsen and Kemp, respectively. The choice of Cheney in 2000 reassured voters that Bush would choose experienced and able advisers whereas Gore’s selection of Lieberman, an early critic of Clinton regarding the Lewinsky affair, signaled an emphasis on values, independence from Clinton, and boldness in selecting the first Jewish American to run on a national ticket.

Romney, like his predecessors, faces constraints in making his vice-presidential choice. How he decides from a menu of imperfect options will reveal something about him. That, after all, is part of what presidents do, and how they should be judged.