Monday, April 23, 2018

Choice of running mate matters little in history

The political world is consumed at the moment with trying to divine the identity of Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick. Travel schedules are pored over, public statements are parsed.

Given that level of attention, you would think that the pick is of the utmost importance in the presidential race, that a look back at past picks reveals make or break moments centered on the identity of the presidential nominee's ticketmate.

But the simple reality is that the vice presidential pick, viewed through the lens of recent history, has almost no broad influence on the fate of the ticket and, to the extent the VP choice has mattered, it has been in a negative way.

"VP picks can provide a temporary burst of excitement to a ticket, but pretty soon things settle down and the race is once again about the man at the top," said Ari Fleischer, a former Bush administration official. "With communications reaching everywhere for the last few decades, the race is about the presidency, not the vice presidency."

The most common argument for why the vice presidential pick matters is geography. But, there's scant evidence in recent VP picking that geography really matters.

The last vice presidential pick who could make a real argument that he helped the presidential nominee win a swing state or one that leaned against his party was Al Gore in 1992. After the Democratic presidential nominee had lost the Volunteer State by 16 points in 1984 and 1988, Bill Clinton and Gore carried it, thanks in part to the popularity of the then Tennessee senator.

Prior to Gore, the last Democratic VP choice who can lay a solid claim to delivering a region for the presidential nominee is Lyndon Johnson for John Kennedy way back in 1960. Without Johnson, Kennedy's ability, as a blue-blooded Northeasterner, to play in the South would have been far more complicated. With Johnson, Kennedy carried Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

On the Republican side, Richard Nixon's choice of Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew as VP in 1968 clearly played a role in his carrying the Old Line State. Of course, Agnew wasn't a positive for Nixon once the pair got into office.

A look at the VP picks of the last decade suggests the presidential nominees, and their senior staffs, grasp the declining importance of geography.

In 2000, George W. Bush went with Dick Cheney of Wyoming (not a swing state) while Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (also not a swing state).

Four years later, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry chose then North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and promptly lost the Tar Heel State by 12 points. (In Kerry's defense, he didn't pick Edwards in hopes of carrying North Carolina.)

In 2008, President Barack Obama picked Joe Biden (of strongly Democratic Delaware) while Arizona Sen. John McCain went with Sarah Palin (of strongly Republican Alaska).

The other major argument from the "VP picks matter" camp is that the vice presidential selection is the only major decision a presidential nominee makes in the course of the campaign that provides a window into how he would govern.

The line of reasoning goes like this: Unlike most policy proposals made during a race, which tend to be abandoned or drastically overhauled as campaigning turns to governing, the VP will serve in a critical capacity if the ticket is elected. So, who the nominee picks for such an important role does matter. And how they go about making that selection does too.

True enough. But, that theory assumes that voters are motivated to choose which candidate they would like to be president based on who the guy next to the guy is. And, they aren't.

Here's our analogy: Mrs. Fix is a field hockey coach. When recruits come to visit the program, they may get a tour from an assistant or someone else in the athletic department. But, when they get to the final decision about where to go to school, it's the head coach that is the biggest factor in their choice.

All of the above is not to say the media won't continue to cover the heck out of the Romney veepstakes. Because we will. (I mean, let's just be honest about it.)

Rather, it's simply to remind people that no matter whom Romney ultimately picks, recent history suggests it won't be a game-changing sort of event in the November election. The choice before voters is between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

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