The Myth of the Shiny Veep

What do the following names have in common?  John Edwards. Sarah Palin. Paul Ryan.  If you guessed “Veepstakes has-beens,” then you are correct.  But if you look deeper there is something else.  Each was picked for their potential to deliver an energy burst to their older, less charismatic nominees.

Every four years when the dust has settled on the silly season, the pontification begins about who the presumptive nominees should choose as their running mate.  The choices always start with what the potential candidate can bring to the campaign.  Can they deliver a swing state?  Do they add expertise in a weak policy area?  Are they exciting?

Despite the almost unanimous assertion that excitability is required for a running mate, three of the last four losing campaigns featured a “young and exciting” running mate.  

When looking at who will decide a presidential election, the difference is found in the margins.  Between 2004 and 2016, polling has shown that party affiliation has barely shifted more than 2-3% in either direction, with both Democrats and Republicans hovering around 45%.  The battle is for that final 10% of voters.

With the outcome of major elections teetering on such a small group of people, any number of factors could swing the race.  A major gaffe, a significant current event, an economic swing, a great speech, or in theory a running mate selection.

University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato points out that a running mate pick can and should be exciting, but in a unique way, not in an entertainment sense.  Sabato points primarily to the example of Al Gore in 1992.  

Gore wasn’t exactly known as the most charismatic guy in the room, but he didn’t need to be.  The Clinton-Gore ticket meant that two southern Democrats – Arkansas and Tennessee – with their drawls and mannerisms preaching empathy and hope could compete for territory traditionally ceded to the Republicans.  The strategy succeeded and Clinton swept across the south on his way to a victory on the back of states that have gone red ever since.

On the other end of the spectrum are Palin, Edwards, and Ryan.  John Edwards was a young, attractive, first term Senator with southern charm.  Sarah Palin was a young, attractive, first term Governor with a penchant for fiery word-vomit.  Paul Ryan was a young, attractive, seven-term Congressman with a tendency to get “caught” working out.  Notice a trend?  

In 2008, John McCain was running steady a few points behind Barack Obama.  When tactic after tactic failed to close the gap, the biggest option left for a game-changer was the running mate slot.  Early rumors had McCain’s short list including such serious candidates as former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.  None of those candidates got the job.  I’d continue the story but you know the rest.

McCain’s choice of Palin, while not entirely the reason he lost, ended up being a complete and total disaster for his campaign.  Nothing went right.  She caused controversy with a Neimann Marcus shopping spree.  She had a disastrous interview with Katie Couric. Rumors later circulated that she was “going rogue” and throwing out prepared speeches.  John McCain the maverick had been out-mavericked.

McCain’s obviously political gamble backfired and instead it displayed a seriously lack of judgment.

Now, John Edwards was certainly no Sarah Palin, but his selection came with its own flaws.  In 2004, the United States was still in the early phases of the Iraq War and the threat from Al Qaeda was still fresh on the mind of the public and overshadowed most other domestic issues.  Senator Kerry, who is a Vietnam veteran, was campaigning against an incumbent whose vice president was a former Secretary of Defense.  As a result, Kerry was starting behind the eight ball in the single most important issue in the election; national security.

In Edwards, Kerry selected a former rival and first term senator.  Despite having served five years in the Senate, Edwards had little to no foreign policy chops.  In fact, Edwards was on Al Gore’s short list in 2000 before he had even served two full years.  Edwards had two things going for him that bested experience.  He was from North Carolina – a swing state – and was seemingly charming.  His selection was more to lock up a permanent surrogate for the Kerry campaign who could repeat talking points and look good doing it.

In the end, John Kerry lost in 2004 because he failed to prove to the American public why he was genuinely different from George Bush.  However, given that the election came down to a difference of 90,000 votes in Ohio, maybe a ticket featuring a seasoned economic or military veteran would have made the difference a slick salesman couldn’t.

Last but not least, Mitt Romney also fell for the shiny bright object trap in his selection of Paul Ryan.  Jeremy Lott, then of Real Clear Politics, argues that Ryan was tapped because he fit a bill that included potentially being able to deliver the swing state of Wisconsin, rally the base, sympathize with the Tea Party, and demonstrate that Romney was serious about the economy given Ryan’s chairmanship of the House Budget Committee.  

While Ryan certainly played a serious and well documented wonkish role in the House, on the campaign trail he attracted more attention as the young quick-rising counter to Mitt Romney’s stiff & waspy appeal.  Similar to what Kerry & Edwards faced in 2004, Romney & Ryan were up against a sitting president and a vice president whose experience spanned nearly half a century in public life.

As with Kerry, Romney had his own problems that cost him the election.  He failed to reach out to minority groups including Hispanics and African-Americans and marginalized many poorer American’s with his “47-percent” comments.  Rather than hurt him, in the month after the announcement of Paul Ryan as a running mate, the Romney-Ryan ticket closed the gap on Obama-Biden by a full 3 points.

With all analysis one must be careful not to equate correlation with causation.  In each scenario, the candidate at the top of the ticket had their own flaws that prevented them from emerging victorious.  However, the running mate selection is the first major choice a potential president must make and each failed that test to a certain extent. 

As we await the running mate selections of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I would caution both against picking a shiny object – something The Donald has never been able to resist- and to make a pick worthy of the seriousness of the office.  

Follow on Twitter @EighteenthandU

Photo credit: (HBO)

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