Now that we are fully in the throes of pure and undiluted obsession as we work to guess who John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s Vice Presidential picks will be and as we speculate on whether one pick or another will be able to move a state or an electoral group into the Blue or Red columns respectively, let us remind ourselves anew that when it comes to herding votes one way or another, Vice Presidential picks almost never matter at all.
Yes, I know that the above is heresy. But it also has the virtue of being true. Take the period from 1960-2004–11 Presidential elections in the modern period since the advent of the primary system should serve as a good and comprehensive case study–and ask yourself the following question: When was the last time that a Vice Presidential pick actually helped the top of the ticket win a Presidential election? About the only pick I can point to whose personal example endorsed the idea that a Vice Presidential selection can have powerful electoral consequences is Lyndon Johnson in 1960. Johnson was able to ensure that Texas remained in the Democratic column for John F. Kennedy, but the thing is that he shouldn’t have had to have been relied on to deliver the Lone Star State. Back in the day, Texas was as reliably Democratic as it is now reliably Republican and Johnson was able to ensure that it remained Democratic in 1960 by calling on the allegedly corrupt electoral tactics to carry John F. Kennedy to the White House. Arguably, this represents yet another blow to the theory that the Vice Presidential selection is electorally significant; if LBJ, the senior Senator from Texas and the Senate Majority Leader at the time he was selected as JFK’s Vice Presidential pick, had to resort to skulduggery and shenanigans to deliver Texas instead of relying on straight up electoral charm, maybe we need to re-examine our belief that the Vice Presidential selection moves any electoral chess pieces at all.
Other than the arguable example that LBJ provides, there really is no evidence whatsoever that a Vice Presidential pick matters electorally. For any Vice Presidential pick since 1960 who delivered his home state to his side of the electoral divide, the argument could be made that the home state in question should have been delivered irrespective of whether the Vice Presidential candidate in question was on the ticket. Did anyone really expect that Jimmy Carter would have lost Minnesota in 1976 or 1980 if Walter Mondale was on the ticket? Did anyone genuinely think that Indiana was in danger of going to the Democrats in 1988 or 1992 if Dan Quayle was not the official Second Banana choice on the Republican side? And of course, while Vice Presidential choices almost never add anything electorally to their tickets, it is true that they oftentimes lose their home states when the general election rolls around. Henry Cabot Lodge didn’t help Richard Nixon win Massachusetts against JFK–who, of course, was also from Massachusetts. Geraldine Ferraro helped Walter Mondale lose her home state of New York in 1984. Lloyd Bentsen was hailed as a genuine Texan in 1988–in contrast to Connecticut-transplant-to-Texas George Herbert Walker Bush, but when the votes were cast, Texans preferred the ticket with their transplanted resident to the one with their homegrown resident.
One can make the argument that certain tickets can, if the Vice Presidential pick is handled carefully enough, fill a certain type of marketing niche. Clinton and Gore were the Southern Baby Boomers in 1992. Bush and Cheney were the return of Republican normalcy in 2000. But Clinton–a Southerner himself–did not need another Southerner to help him do well electorally. All he needed was the perception that the United States was in recession and a badly run Republican Presidential campaign and that is precisely what he got. And while Dick Cheney added a load of gravitas to the 2000 ticket, no one actually thinks that he moved votes George W. Bush’s way.
So why do we continue to make a big deal of the Vice Presidential pick? Well, probably because we enjoy parlor games and the hottest parlor game going on right now is the effort to figure out who McCain and Obama will pick to round out their respective tickets. That’s fine. I am for interesting water cooler conversations, just like the next person. But if we are going to care about the Vice Presidential picks, let’s care about having the candidates pick running mates with whom they have a good rapport, who complement the skills that the Presidential nominees will bring and who will bring strengths to the table that the Presidential nominees themselves may not have, and who will be good Presidents should the need arise for them to succeed to the office. And not necessarily in that order.