In picking VP, just find someone to help win

April 24th, 2012

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This piece was originally posted on Politico.

Predicting a vice presidential choice is a mug’s game. How many people predicted Sen. John McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008? Who predicted that George H.W. Bush would pick Dan Quayle in 1988? Or that his son would pick Dick Cheney — the man he put in charge of the selection process — in 2000?

There are 10 reasons why you pick a running mate. Reason No. 1: Pick someone who will help you win. The other nine don’t matter.

That’s because, when a candidate picks a running mate, his mind is focused on one and only one thing: winning. Oh yes, compatibility would be nice. But John F. Kennedy was not concerned about compatibility when he named Lyndon B. Johnson to the ticket in 1960. The two rivals were anything but compatible. JFK was concerned about winning. He could not win without Texas. And he could not carry Texas without LBJ on the ticket. End of story.

Since 1960, however, it’s hard to prove that running mates have made a great deal of difference. In the past 12 presidential contests, the party has lost its vice presidential candidate’s home state one out of every three times. Most recently when the Democrats failed to carry Sen. John Edwards’s home state of North Carolina in 2004.

Americans don’t vote for vice president. You can prove it with two words: Dan Quayle. Quayle got elected vice president in 1988 even though most Americans did not believe he was qualified for the presidency. People weren’t voting for Quayle. They were voting for Vice President George H.W. Bush, whose qualifications were never in doubt.

So if vice presidential nominees don’t always carry their own states, and if people don’t vote for vice president, how can a VP choice help you win? Essentially, by giving voters a sense of who you are and how you make decisions.

Bill Clinton did nothing to “balance the ticket” by naming Sen. Al Gore as his running mate in 1992. But he did sharpen his message: New Democrats were coming to power, with a message targeted at middle-of-the-road voters. When Gore put Joe Lieberman on the ticket in 2000, he was trying to distance himself from Clinton’s irresponsible behavior. Lieberman had been Clinton’s sharpest Democratic critic during the Monica Lewinsky affair, the first Democrat to denounce him on the Senate floor.

What’s former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s biggest problem? Well, he’s got a lot of them. He’s a fairly unexciting figure whose campaign has been extraordinarily cautious and methodical. Businesslike, if you wish. Romney doesn’t have a populist bone in his body — demonstrated by the fact that he incessantly calls attention to his wealth in unguarded moments. “Bet you $10,000?” His wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs”? Reporters are just waiting for Romney to say, “Let them eat cake.”

Romney seems to have special problems connecting with women and Latinos, two constituencies that could doom his presidential bid. That has led to a lot of speculation that he will name a female or a Latino as his running mate. But most female and Latino Republican officeholders are relatively new and untested in national politics. They would be a risky choice. Like Palin was for McCain in 2008.

Palin was probably the worst vice presidential choice in modern times. What was McCain thinking? Probably that he needed to shore up his conservative base, which distrusted McCain ever since he challenged conservatives’ ascendancy over the GOP in 2000. Remember McCain’s attack that year on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance”?
The Palin choice hangs over Romney like a sword of doom. As Republican strategist Mike Murphy told POLITICO, “Like war, everybody is always looking at the last battle, and I think post-Palin, there will be real gravity to the argument of ‘Let’s not throw any long bombs or crazy surprises.’”

Still, Romney has the same problem McCain had in 2008: The deep distrust of the conservative base. Angry conservatives can create a big problem for Romney if they don’t like his choice and use the convention in Tampa to show their dissatisfaction. Romney’s strongest imperative is to name someone acceptable to conservatives. Not necessarily a tea party activist — but at least someone who will keep the conservative wing of the party from erupting.

He will be looking for a safe conservative. There are a number of possibilities: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Given his cautious, businesslike style, Romney is less likely to go with a risky choice like rival contender Rick Santorum, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — all controversial figures. Or an untested choice like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

Several people just listed have already said they are not interested in going on the ticket. Don’t believe them. The vice presidency is like the last cookie on the plate. Nobody ever wants it — but somebody always takes it.

Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.