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Vice Presidential Selection 2016: Will the Patterns Predict the Picks?

Dear Readers: As Donald Trump reportedly prepares to announce a running mate next week and Hillary Clinton, dealing with the aftereffects of FBI Director James Comey’s announcement regarding her email scandal, ponders her choice as well, we again welcome Prof. Joel Goldstein to weigh in on the veepstakes. Goldstein is the nation’s leading expert on the vice presidency, and his piece discusses the historic patterns of VP selection and how this year’s picks might resemble or diverge from them. We are planning to weigh in as soon as possible after each selection is made with our own analysis, but in the meantime we have made some adjustments to our lists of Democratic and Republican veepstakes participants. Check that out here after reading this week’s Crystal Ball.

— The Editors

Recurring patterns appear in vice presidential selection that often help predict future choices. Yet change also occurs, sometimes rendering predictions based on past patterns wrong. Presidential nominees ticket-balance, until they reinforce. They choose Protestant or male running mates, until they don’t. They generally avoid members of the House of Representatives unless their ticket is weak, until one chooses a future speaker. They tend to emphasize the presidential quality of prospective running mates and value candidates with records of governing experience or political performance, until one chooses a neophyte not ready for prime time. Every vice presidential selection is distinctive because the selector, prospective candidates, and the context are never the same. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are unique, and their vice presidential options and circumstances limit their choices.

Still, patterns recur. Although some political scientists and pundits seem fixated on discussing running mates based on the size or competitiveness of their home state, presidential candidates and those around them have paid little attention to those variables during the last one-half century. John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon B. Johnson to help him win the South, not just Texas, and Lloyd Bentsen was chosen because he was Michael Dukakis’s most presidential option and signaled openness to other views, not to carry Texas, but those are the closest recent instances in which a vice presidential candidate’s home state electoral dowry even arguably influenced the selection. Presidential candidates repeatedly weigh other factors much more heavily than whether the running mate comes from a large or swing state. That’s not to say that Clinton or Trump won’t select someone from Ohio or Texas. If they do, it will not necessarily indicate that the selector’s choice was driven by a belief that decision would corral its electoral votes. It may be that choice is the most presidential option or helps sends messages the selector wishes to send.

A second recurring pattern is that political outsiders, which prior to this election meant governors, always choose political insiders as their running mates. They do so to try to acquire by political association expertise and credibility regarding Washington, Congress, and national security or to reassure voters that they will surround themselves with advisers with such important knowledge. Since 1976, all six governors or former governors (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Dukakis, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney) have followed this practice. Trump has indicated that he will probably select someone with D.C. governing experience. That would be a conventional move for the ultimate outsider. But he might not if, for instance, he becomes the first outsider to choose a governor in nearly 70 years.

Clinton, by contrast, has extensive experience, as First Lady, senator from New York, Secretary of State, and a two-time presidential candidate. That does not mean she will select an outsider. Contrary to some suggestion, insiders almost never select outsiders. Richard Nixon (Spiro Agnew, 1968) did the second time around but not the first (former Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., 1960), as did John McCain (Sarah Palin, 2008), but Kennedy (Johnson, 1960), Johnson (Sen. Hubert Humphrey, 1964), Barry Goldwater (Rep. William Miller, 1964), Humphrey (Sen. Edmund Muskie, 1968), George McGovern (Sen. Thomas Eagleton, and then former Ambassador R. Sargent Shriver, 1972), Gerald Ford (Sen. Bob Dole, 1976), Walter Mondale (Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, 1984), George H.W. Bush (Sen. Dan Quayle, 1988), Dole (former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, 1996), Al Gore (Sen. Joe Lieberman, 2000), John Kerry (Sen. John Edwards, 2004), and Barack Obama (Sen. Joe Biden, 2008), all current or former officers of the national executive or legislative branch chose other insiders. Thus, 13 of the last 15 insider presidential candidates since 1960 have chosen insider running mates. If the past is a guide Clinton is much more likely to choose someone with national government experience than a governor. Indeed, the last time a governor received the Democratic vice presidential nomination was in 1924 back when conventions, not presidential candidates, chose the running mate.

A third pattern is that presidential candidates tend to choose running mates with considerable experience as senators, in high national executive positions, as governors, or as members of the House of Representatives. First-time running mates since 1976 have averaged about 14.4 years of experience in those positions when chosen. Only Ferraro (six), Edwards (six) and Palin (two) fell far short of that average. They were chosen by presidential nominees with considerable experience in those same feeder positions — former Vice President Mondale (16), Kerry (20) and McCain (26). In fact, first-time presidential candidates during that period average about 15.4 years of experience in those same positions. It is probably no coincidence that presidential candidates with the least experience (Obama, four; Romney, four; George W. Bush, six) chose running mates with considerable experience (Biden, 36; Paul Ryan, 14; Dick Cheney, 16).

This history creates an expectation that a presidential candidate will choose a running mate with considerable experience in these four feeder positions. While long experience does not make someone presidential (think Strom Thurmond) and lack thereof is not disqualifying (e.g., Abraham Lincoln with two years in the House), experience in governing positions generally allows able people to develop and demonstrate political skill and substantive expertise. Past practice also suggests that presidential candidates with relatively little governing experience choose running mates with extensive experience. Trump’s unusual lack of governing experience would suggest he would choose a running mate with considerable service.

These patterns reduce the likelihood that Clinton would suggest Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez (four) or Secretary of HUD Julian Castro (three) or that Trump would select Sens. Joni Ernst (two), Tom Cotton (four), Deb Fischer (four), or former Gov. Jan Brewer (6). Sen. Elizabeth Warren (four) seems to have achieved a presidential profile, as has Gov. Chris Christie (seven), and it’s certainly possible that one or both presidential nominees would deviate from norms, especially if they determine that an inexperienced prospective running mate brings high quality to their ticket and/or is their best available option.

Whereas the foregoing suggests some patterns that may (or may not) hold, in other ways this year’s vice presidential selections are already taking some unusual paths. Trump’s unorthodox approach has affected his process. Whereas most presidential candidates are inclusive in their comments about vice presidential possibilities, Trump has said that he “never considered” Gov. Nikki Haley as his running mate on May 5, went out of his way to deny that Sen. Marco Rubio is under consideration, and criticized Gov. Susana Martinez in her home state of New Mexico. Trump’s approach may simply reciprocate the unenthusiastic reaction of many Republican leaders to his ascendance.

The aversion of many Republicans to Trump presents a related problem — his pool seems unusually shallow. Although it is not clear who has actually submitted to vice presidential vetting, many prominent prospective Republican running mates have disclaimed interest in being on Trump’s ticket in ways that go beyond the norm. This development is anomalous since, in modern times, few seemingly attractive running mates have excluded themselves from consideration, a relatively small list that includes former President Ford (1980), Dale Bumpers (1984), Bill Bradley and Thomas Foley (1988), Colin Powell (1992, 1996, 2000), Mario Cuomo (1984, 1992), William Bennett (1996), and Connie Mack (2000). Yet Govs. John Kasich, Haley, Martinez, and Rick Scott and Sens. Rob Portman and Rubio, all of whom would normally receive serious consideration, have gone pretty far to disclaim any interest. That leaves Trump with a list consisting of some baggage-laden former presidential candidates (Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Christie), some senators not previously viewed as presidential figures (Jeff Sessions and Bob Corker, before he removed himself from consideration on Wednesday), some very inexperienced options (Ernst, Cotton, Fischer, and Brewer), and an assortment of others (Sens. John Thune and Shelley Moore Capito, Govs. Mike Pence and Mary Fallin).

In normal times, vice presidential wannabes try discreetly to position themselves for ticket consideration. Gerald Pomper’s classic 1966 article, “The Nomination of Hubert Humphrey for Vice- President,” rebutted the conventional wisdom that no one campaigns for the second spot by tracing Humphrey’s successful effort to secure the support of President Johnson and the nomination. Since then, a variety of candidates have successfully or unsuccessfully tried to enhance their selection prospects. Ferraro’s selection in 1984 and Quayle’s in 1988 followed strategic behavior on their parts designed to at least receive attention as a shortlister and optimally gain selection as they did. Candidates like Dukakis and Romney campaigned with various possibilities to see them perform, a practice an expert study group of the Bipartisan Policy Center has recently endorsed (Clinton and Trump have done this to some extent). Once he withdrew from the presidential race, Edwards did what he could to raise money for Kerry and demonstrate to him that he would be an effective running mate during the selection period.

Against this historical pattern where vice presidential aspirants cater to the selector and demonstrate their loyalty and skill as an echo, the strong criticism of Trump by some likely contenders was striking.  Corker used a nationally televised interview to condemn Trump’s comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel as “wrong” “at every level” and said that “time is running short” for Trump to clean up his act. Gingrich called Trump’s comments “inexcusable” and among Trump’s “worst mistakes,” which prompted Trump to call Gingrich’s comments “inappropriate.” Thune called them “inappropriate comments” and questioned whether being Trump’s running mate would be a good option for anyone.

Clinton also has some unusual decisions to make. As the first woman major-party presidential nominee, she faced the question of whether her running mate needed to be a man to provide gender balance. Choosing a male running mate is, of course, the norm since only two women — Ferraro and Palin — have been major-party nominees for vice president. And prior to 2016, relatively few women have received serious consideration as vice presidential candidates, the list consisting essentially of Ambassador Anne Armstrong (1976), Ferraro, Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Martha Layne Collins (1984), Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole (1988), Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (2000), Palin, and Clinton (2008). Of course, gender balance is a relatively new idea since only two major-party tickets in 57 presidential elections have had gender balance. It seems anomalous to suggest this new balance as a requisite now that a woman is running for the presidency.

The number of women holding traditional vice presidential feeder positions has increased dramatically since Ford considered Armstrong or Mondale chose Ferraro. Whereas in 1984, only two Republican women (Paula Hawkins and Nancy L. Kassebaum) served in the Senate, now 20 women (14 Democrats and six Republicans) do. In 1984, the newly-elected Collins was the only woman serving as governor; now six do, three of whom (Haley, Martinez, and Fallin) have been mentioned as possible vice presidential candidates as have former Govs. Brewer and Napolitano. Whereas one woman (Carla Hills) served in Ford’s Cabinet when he considered Armstrong in 1976 and two (Dole and Margaret Heckler) served in Reagan’s Cabinet in 1984 when Mondale chose Ferraro, President Obama has named eight women to Cabinet positions. There were 22 women in the House in 1984; now there are 84, nearly 20% of that body.

There are accordingly many women running mate possibilities with experience in traditional feeder positions. It seems likely that going forward women will regularly be considered for president and vice president. Warren appears among those Clinton is most likely to consider seriously and other women might also receive attention. Nonetheless, men still outnumber women in these offices (e.g., 32 Democratic men senators to 14 women senators; 15 Democratic men state governors to three women state governors), which is a factor skewing the likelihood in favor of a male running mate.

Democratic presidential candidates tend to choose senators as their running mates. Since 1940, 14 of the last 17 first-time Democratic running mates have been senators. Yet some of Clinton’s possible choices from the Senate, including Sens. Sherrod Brown, Warren, Cory Booker, Martin Heinrich, and Bill Nelson represent states with Republican governors; choosing any of them or several others as her running mate could cost the Democrats a crucial Senate seat in what is expected to be a very competitive battle to control the upper chamber of Congress. Even Democratic-held Senate seats in states with Democratic governors, like that of Tim Kaine, could be jeopardized if the sitting senator were selected.

Since 1940, when presidential candidates began controlling the choice of their running mate, most Democratic vice presidential candidates from the Senate have come from states where the governor who would appoint their successor was a Democrat. On only two (of the 14) occasions has a Democratic presidential candidate chosen a running mate from a state where election would have allowed a Republican party governor to name a successor: Lloyd Bentsen (1988) and Joe Lieberman (2000). Missouri had a Republican governor, Forrest Donnell, when Harry S. Truman was elected vice president, but Truman delayed his resignation until Donnell’s Democratic successor had been installed. Had Tom Eagleton been elected vice president in 1972, he could have resigned while Democrat Warren Hearnes was governor and before Republican Kit Bond took office. Finally, Edwards had decided not to run for reelection so his selection did not affect the composition of the new senate. Thus, 86% of the time the selection of a Democratic senator as running mate would not have cost the party a seat. All four Republican senator-vice presidential candidates since 1940 (Charles McNary, Richard M. Nixon, Dole, and Quayle) came from states with Republican governors.

Presidential candidates have considered, but generally passed over, running mates in situations where the governor came from the opposite party. Thus, Carter’s 1976 shortlist included six senators, three from states with Democratic governors (Frank Church, Mondale, and Adlai E. Stevenson III), two from states with Republican governors (John Glenn and Henry Jackson) and Muskie (Maine’s governor was James Longley, an independent). That same year, Ford chose Bob Dole, from Kansas with a Republican governor, over Howard Baker, from Tennessee with a Democrat. In 1988, both presidential candidates considered several senators. Dukakis chose Bentsen from a Republican governor state instead of Glenn and Al Gore from Democratic governor states and Bob Graham from a Republican governor state whereas George H.W. Bush chose Quayle over two other senators from Republican governor states (Dole and Pete Domenici) and one, Alan Simpson, from a Democratic governor state. Bill Clinton chose Gore over three other senators from Democratic governor states (Graham, Bob Kerrey, Harris Wofford) in 1992 and Dole chose Kemp over Senator Connie Mack from a Democratic governor state in 1996. Gore chose Lieberman, from a Republican governor state, over Evan Bayh and John Edwards from Democratic governor states and Kerry (Republican governor). Kerry chose Edwards instead of Bayh (Democrat) or Graham (Republican). Obama chose Joe Biden from a Democratic governor state instead of Bayh from a Republican governor state. President George W. Bush considered replacing Vice President Cheney in 2004 with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from a Democratic governor state, McCain wanted to choose Lieberman from a Republican governor state, and Romney chose Ryan instead of Rob Portman from a Republican governor state.

Although no successful presidential candidate sacrificed a Senate seat in choosing a vice president, Democrats have not done particularly well in holding Senate seats their vice presidents vacated. Since 1940, four of the seats of the seven Democratic vice presidents from the Senate were lost at the special election (Harry Truman, 1946; Johnson, 1961; Mondale, 1978; and Gore, 1994) and Biden’s seat would have been at risk if Rep. Mike Castle had not lost the Republican primary to ultra-conservative Christine O’Donnell. The seats of Alben Barkley, Humphrey, and Biden were held. Vice Presidents Mondale and Gore suffered the embarrassment of having both of their home states’ Senate seats flip in 1978 and 1994, respectively. Republicans held the two Senate seats that Nixon and Quayle vacated for the second office.

Of course, Clinton’s problem is not simply losing a Senate seat but losing the Senate (or, more accurately, complicating a chance to retake the Senate). That was not much of a risk for either party in many presidential election years given the existing party division but it was in 1988 when Dukakis risked Bentsen’s seat (when the Senate was 54-46 Democratic before and 55-45 after the election and seven elections were decided by margins of 4.6 points or less, although most went in the Republicans’ direction) and especially in 2000 (when the Senate was 54-46 in favor of Republicans before the election and 50-50 after it, with seven elections decided by margins of 4.6 points or less). Had Gore won the presidency, Lieberman’s resignation from the Senate to become vice president would have cost the Democrats the Senate. Gore in 2000 and to a much lesser extent Dukakis in 1988 risked the Senate by choosing a running mate whose election would cost the party a seat. In both 1988 and 2000, Bentsen and Lieberman ran concurrently for vice president and for re-election to the Senate. Of course, the way the Senate now is conducted may make controlling it more important now than in 1988 or 2000.

Clinton’s predicament is, accordingly, unusual but not unprecedented. It bears most resemblance to 2000 when two of Gore’s finalists (Lieberman and Kerry) came from Republican-governor states whereas two others (Bayh and Edwards) did not and he chose Lieberman.

This year’s vice presidential selections will test familiar patterns of vice presidential selection. Both candidates face decisions. The choices will provide information about the selectors as the process already has. And they will provide data that will contribute to new patterns, be dismissed as idiosyncratic, or both.

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.