America has spoken. The 2016 presidential primaries have come to a close and the nominating conventions are on the horizon. Republicans will meet in Cleveland, Ohio from July 18 to 21 to nominate businessman Donald Trump in the hopes of reclaiming the White House. Democrats will meet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from July 25 to 28 to nominate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the Democratic standard-bearer, looking to solidify Obama’s legacy and usher in a new era of progressive policies and reforms.
We’ve heard a lot about Clinton and Trump. But leading up to the conventions, a lot of attention is being paid not to the presidential candidates themselves, but to their potential No. 2’s – the vice presidential running mates. Donald Trump is expected to announce his running mate before the Republican convention, meaning a selection could be imminent. An announcement from the Clinton campaign should come soon thereafter. Reports have surfaced that the list of contenders Clinton is seriously weighing is fewer than five, and that she will announce her decision immediately after the Republican convention ends on July 21.
While an interesting thought experiment, it really isn’t worth speculating who the top contenders are for vice president. We will know the actual answer for both candidates in a few weeks. But it is useful to understand this decision in terms of the following framework. When choosing a vice president, presidential candidates typically have three options to choose from: an August, a November, or a January. Here’s what I mean.
Option 1: The August
If you pick an August, you are choosing a running mate to help you bring together your own party. Primaries often expose deep ideological divisions, and by choosing an August, you are indicating that you want the party to settle their differences and repair, or at least paper over, its open wounds. The August VP selection is meant to facilitate that healing process.
The classic example of an August selection is George H.W. “Poppy” Bush. During the 1980 campaign, Bush had drawn Ronald Reagan’s ire by referring to his economic agenda of raising defense spending while slashing taxes for the wealthy – now a Republican staple – as “voodoo economics.” Losing to Reagan irritated Bush immensely. Toward the end of the primary, the Bush campaign was peppered with questions about his availability for the vice-presidential nomination. His response: “I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.” Bush later shortened his rejection to a pithy “Take Sherman and cube it.”
According to one of Reagan’s foreign policy advisers, the decision to select Bush was an “unexpected vice-presidential pick at the last minute.” The Reagan camp was seriously considering former President Gerald Ford as his running mate on a “dream ticket”; a possibility that was tabled out of concerns over an unworkable power-sharing agreement in the White House.
But even if that’s the case, and Bush was chosen “largely by a combination of chance and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering,” the result of the selection was to moderate the Reagan ticket, begin to heal primary wounds, and complete a merger of the Republican right with the battered party establishment.
Option 2: The November
If you pick a November, you are choosing a running mate to help you win the general election. The primary rationale behind this choice is to boost vote share on Election Day by, for example, making the ticket more appealing to the (mythical) “independent voter,” swaying voters in critical swing states, or enticing disaffected voters on the other side of the political spectrum.
Bear with me here. A recent example: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. When Sen. John McCain introduced his running mate at a raucous rally in August 2008, he praised her “tenacity” and “skill” in tackling tough problems. According to McCain, Palin, who became the first woman to serve on a GOP presidential ticket, was “exactly who this country needs to help us fight the same old Washington politics of me first and country second.”
The Palin selection reeked of cynical political calculation. Palin clearly had the charisma, a compelling life story, and enormous popularity within her home state of Alaska. But nothing in her background or resume suggested she would be even remotely capable of filling an important cabinet position, let alone being a credible commander in chief.
So why the pick? In her acceptance speech, Palin made an immediate ploy for support from Democratic women. She mentioned that she followed in the footsteps of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential running mate in 1984, and spoke favorably of Sen. Hillary Clinton, who drew 18 million votes in her unsuccessful bid against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. “But it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all,” she said.
The plan backfired. Palin failed to draw support outside the Republican base, and the ticket failed to take down Obama in November. But that doesn’t change the rationale behind the pick.
Option 3: The January
If you pick a January, you don’t necessarily think the person will help you solve primary differences; you don’t necessarily think the person will help in November; but you do think that the person will help you govern when it comes time to govern in January.
The prototype for a January vice presidential selection is Dick Cheney. There were a multitude of reasons that George W. Bush should have avoided Cheney and chosen a more high-profile running mate. Mr. Cheney is not a charismatic figure. His demeanor is serious, even dour. He was “Poppy” Bush’s defense secretary, making it harder for “W” to establish himself as his own man. And going into the 2000 general election, Cheney had already had three mild heart attacks and a quadruple coronary bypass.
What Mr. Cheney brought to the table, however, was an impressive resume: defense secretary under President Bush, architect of the Gulf War, former chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, CEO of Halliburton. In other words, Cheney was an experienced Washington hand, noted for his judgment, his discretion, his loyalty, and his extremely conservative votes.
“I did not pick Dick Cheney because of Wyoming’s three electoral votes,” Mr. Bush said in introducing Cheney as his vice presidential choice. “I picked him because he is without a doubt fully capable of being a President of the United States . . . .”
The reaction to the selection reflected the nature of the choice perfectly: “Mr. Cheney would unquestionably help Mr. Bush if he becomes president; the question is how much he helps him to get there.”
Does the Veep Pick Matter?
Ok, so what? The underlying assumption here is that vice presidential candidates add votes to the party ticket, particularly in their home state. In 2012, we heard about Paul Ryan for Wisconsin, Rob Portman for Ohio, Bob McDonnell for Virginia. This year, we’re hearing that Sherrod Brown can deliver Ohio to the Democrats, or that Tim Kaine could do the same for his state of Virginia.
But to what extent do vice presidential picks influence voting behavior in presidential elections? Does the VP selection really matter?
The answer: not really.
A 2010 study from scholars at the University of California, Irvine, examined voters’ specific preferences for both president and vice president and found that about 11% of the population on average has “conflicted” preferences – that is, where a voter prefers the presidential candidate of one party but likes the vice presidential selection of the other party.
From this data, the authors estimate the degree to which a vice presidential candidate alone might influence the election outcome.
The main conclusion was this: “Only in 1972 was more than 1% of the final vote affected by conflicted vice presidential and presidential preferences; on average, over the 1968-2008 period, the net impact of conflicted presidential and vice presidential choices is only slightly less than 0.6% of the votes shifted.” In other words, the vice presidential candidate is generally less than 1% in terms of getting voters to cross party lines.
Statistically speaking, that probably means the effect is zero.
This does not mean, however, that the selection of a VP is meaningless. In fact, it could have delivered an electorally decisive home state in 2000. That year, Jeanne Shaheen, a two term Democratic governor of New Hampshire, was leaked as a finalist on Al Gore’s vice presidential short list. Gore chose then-Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate instead. But at the same time that Shaheen went on to win reelection that fall, New Hampshire became the only New England state to cast its electoral votes for Republican George W. Bush. A counterfactual Gore-Shaheen ticket might have won the small state of New Hampshire and, assuming the national political dynamics remained the same, that would have resulted in Gore winning a majority of Electoral College Votes, regardless of the outcome in Florida.
Generally speaking, though, unless the candidate is either exceedingly popular or exceedingly unpopular, the vice presidential selection is likely to have little effect.