WASHINGTON — Political journalists are like sports fans. They get excited over the big game that starts the season, knowing full well that it's only a blip, albeit a sexy one, in a long season before the final showdown.
So it is with the vice presidential selection. Big game. Big names. Big hype. Lots of instant analysis. Then . . . the dogs bark, the presidential caravan moves on and the story changes as more big events such as debates get the breathless treatment.
Still, here are some reasons that the veep pick does matter:
Gravitas. Look at the choices by four recent successful candidates who'd never held national office: Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000. They chose as their veeps respected Washington hands: Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Dick Cheney, respectively. Each added an important quality to voters seeking reassurance that someone in the White House would know how Washington works.
Ready on Day One. Yeah, it's ghoulish, but voters want someone who's ready to take over in an instant, if necessary, as in 1963. Recent veeps have tended to project that quality, particularly Gore and Cheney.
Tiebreaker. If there's one theme emerging this year, it's that swing voters have doubts about Obama (inexperienced and unknown) and McCain (too old and too much like Bush). This could be the year they peek at the running mate to decide.
Symbolism. Maryland's Spiro Agnew was evidence that Richard Nixon wouldn't forget the white South. Bob Dole was Gerald Ford's nod to conservatives, who were still upset that he'd picked their nemesis Nelson Rockefeller as his veep in 1974. Similarly, Dwight Eisenhower picked Nixon in 1952 as a way to keep the right calm. Last, Clinton's choice of fellow young Southerner Gore helped voters bring Clinton into focus. Their synergy helped sell the ticket.
- Key states. They're supposed to help the ticket win key states, especially the one the pick's from. Sometimes they do: Lyndon Johnson probably won Texas for JFK in 1960. The Democrats carried the state by 2 percentage points. Still, Kennedy would've won the election without Texas' 24 electoral votes; he beat Richard Nixon by 303-219 electoral votes. Even so, not having to worry about what was then a sprawling, expensive swing state allowed him to put his resources elsewhere. So LBJ helped the win, but not all that much.