Donald Trump needs gravitas. Hillary Clinton needs passion.
But first, as they consider their vice presidential running-mates, they need to remember time-tested rules.
First, pick someone who can survive having their entire life picked apart.
“The number one thing is having somebody thoroughly vetted so you’re prepared for the onslaught that’s coming,” said David Carney, President George H. W. Bush’s White House director of political affairs.
There’s no handy primer. 1996 GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole started with a list of about 20 names, finally paring it to four. Dole faced a tough political climate for a challenger: The economy was roaring. The nation wasn’t at war.
“We needed a different kind of candidate,” recalled Scott Reed, Dole’s campaign manager, “someone who would generate electricity and excitement.” Jack Kemp, a former congressman, cabinet secretary and conservative hero, was the pick. Though Dole lost in November, Kemp proved overwhelmingly popular with Republicans.
The biggest running-mate fiascos in recent campaigns involved candidates not ready for the relentless spotlight, nominees who had a tough time convincing voters that they could take over the presidency. Even if the candidates ultimately put the initial controversy aside, the initial image has a way of lingering and stinging.
Surviving the initial public scrutiny, though, is only the entrance exam. Should he or she emerge with a resume that will do no harm to the presidential candidate, they face a gauntlet of other tests.
–Is there chemistry? John Edwards, then a senator from North Carolina from middle-class roots, seemed like a logical choice for privileged New Englander John Kerry in 2004. But the two were clearly never comfortable with one another.
Al Gore, on the other hand, had known Joe Lieberman for a dozen years in the Senate, and their 2000 ticket was a smooth fit.
“Chemistry is important, and you really need someone you know will have your back,” said Dan Gerstein, a top Lieberman adviser who now directs Gotham Ghostwriters, a New York-based group specializing in political messaging. “You don’t want this to look like a shotgun wedding.”
Advantage: Clinton, who’s got a history of getting along with fellow Democrats.
–Is there contrast? Trump has never held elective office. In recent times, “every outsider has picked an insider,” said Joel Goldstein, vice presidential expert and professor of law at Saint Louis University. Clinton needs someone whose energetic style contrasts her more serious, methodical demeanor.
Then there’s age. Trump is 70. Clinton will turn 69 in October.
Among Trump’s needs, said Reed, are bolstering his national security credentials. In 2000, George W. Bush, then governor of Texas with an image of lacking depth, “understood he needed someone with gravitas,” recalled Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Bush turned to Washington insider Dick Cheney.
Advantage: Trump, because it’s easier to find someone to compensate for his shortcomings.
Trump as an outsider is both repelled and attracted by someone with experience.
Timothy Walch, vice presidential expert and author
–Can the new team endure the media storm? Too often the campaign’s investigators pay too much attention to rampant speculation about who’s being considered.
Fearing leaks, they go into a sort of quiet mode, making it harder for presumptive presidential nominees to have serious conversations with past friends and colleagues of the potential running-mate. It also can limit the time the potential running-mates can spend face-to-face, since their every move is being stalked by reporters.
More familiarity could have helped John McCain in 2008, as he barely knew eventual pick Sarah Palin.
Carney was in Alaska that year, and found no one who would praise her political or policy skills. “Not a single positive thing was said” by Republican leaders there, he recalled, yet the McCain team seemed unaware.
Advantage: Clinton, who’s got experience watching her husband conduct a search.
–Does geography matter? “That criteria has become meaningless,” said Gerstein.
The last time a VP pick’s home state mattered involved Lyndon Johnson, the senator from Texas who won his state in 1960 and helped elect John Kennedy president.
Recent swing-state picks haven’t proved as useful. Paul Ryan couldn’t carry Wisconsin for Romney in 2012. Edwards couldn’t carry North Carolina in 2004. The Democratic ticket that year lost the state by 13 percentage points.
Advantage: Trump, whose unorthodox campaign has already defied political logic in state after state.
–Should the choice be announced during the convention? George H.W. Bush was the most recent nominee to unveil his pick during convention week, and the 1988 introduction of Dan Quayle was widely viewed as troubled. Quayle, as well as the Bush staff, appeared unprepared and his boyish demeanor hardly seemed presidential.
The Republican National Convention will meet July 18-21. Democrats will meet July 25-28.
Trump has suggested he’ll wait till the GOP convention to announce his choice. Goldstein warned against it. “It will make people focus on number two,” he said, instead of concentrating on Trump day after day.
Advantage: Clinton, because she knows well the perils of a convention-week announcement.
Above all, say the experts, Trump and Clinton must remember it’s ultimately about them. “It’s really the first time candidates are in charge of their campaign since they announced,” said Reed. No more having to rely on voters or volunteers. This is the first big decision the nominee makes, the first executive presidential action the public can judge.
If that decision is regarded as sloppy or questionable, it’s costly. Democratic nominee George McGovern in 1972 was likely to lose that year’s election anyway, but he certainly never recovered from the controversy over his initial pick, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, who left the ticket after news broke about his treatment for depression.
It all comes back to that “do no harm” rule. Remember, said Timothy Walch, an Iowa-based vice presidential expert, that if all goes well, “the choice matters for a news cycle, maybe two.”