Politics & Government

Excited about VP picks? In November, they rarely matter

Vice Presidential choices seldom matter - until they do. Vice President Johnson takes the oath of office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Vice Presidential choices seldom matter - until they do. Vice President Johnson takes the oath of office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library / MCT

WASHINGTON — Despite all the hyperventilating about whom they're likely to be, vice presidential candidates rarely make much of a difference in the fall elections.

"They can only make a small difference at the margins," said James Riddlesperger, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth.

They don't get much news coverage after an initial burst when they're selected, and they often lose their own states.

Yet every four years _especially this one, when two people are about to be rocketed into the spotlight — a frenzy of speculation builds about whom it's going to be.

There are reasons for that:

  • The choice is the presumptive nominee's first big president-like decision, so it reveals something about the nominee.
  • There are potential intangible electoral advantages.
  • And it's summer, when speculating about presidential ticket mates becomes a national pastime.
  • Only twice in recent history, however, did a number-two pick arguably make an obvious difference, in 1960 and 1976.

    Democrat Lyndon Johnson, then a Texas senator, "probably delivered the state for (John) Kennedy," Riddlesperger said. Kennedy won the state's 24 electoral votes in 1960 with 50.5 percent of the popular vote.

    In 1976, Democrat Walter Mondale, then a veteran U.S. senator, was invaluable to little-known presidential nominee Jimmy Carter, said Joel Goldstein, a vice-presidential expert at St. Louis University.

    Mondale's opposite number was Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who had a reputation as a slashing critic of his opponents. He burnished that image during his debate with Mondale by railing against "Democrat wars."

    The calmer Mondale looked like a statesman, Goldstein recalled, and was dispatched in the campaign's final days to swing states such as Ohio, which the Democrats won by 0.2 percentage point.

    "It was as though he was running for an Ohio Senate seat," Goldstein chuckled.

    Those elections were the exceptions.

    A few controversial modern picks, notably Richard Nixon in 1952, Spiro Agnew in 1968 and Dan Quayle in 1988, wound up on winning Republican tickets.

    Nixon saved his place on the 1952 ticket with his emotional "Checkers" speech — invoking his dog to gain sympathy amid an alleged scandal — six weeks before the election. Dwight Eisenhower carried 39 of the 48 states with Nixon aboard.

    In 1968, Agnew, then in his second year as the governor of Maryland, was best known for his blunt talk, but presidential nominee Nixon won 32 states and the election with Agnew in tow.

    Those examples proved the rule, analysts said, that people vote for presidents, not their running mates.

    "We can't find any evidence in our recent polling that the vice president made a significant difference," said Frank Newport, the editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

    If one could have, it would've been Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in 1988. A man of almost regal bearing who'd easily won three Senate terms, he had one of the campaign's best-known moments when he icily told Quayle during their debate, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

    But Bentsen and Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis lost Texas by 13 percentage points to George H.W. Bush and Quayle. If there were any doubt that those voters were looking mostly at Dukakis, Bentsen was on that ballot twice and he won re-election to his Senate seat by 19 percentage points.

    Bentsen reflected a recent trend. Since 1984, the losing ticket's vice-presidential nominee has carried his home state only twice.

    In 1992, Quayle's ticket won Indiana, traditionally a Republican stronghold, while eight years later, Democrat Joseph Lieberman's ticket won Connecticut. But Democrats had counted heavily on Lieberman to help presidential candidate Al Gore carry Florida by virtue of his appeal to Jewish voters, and Florida fell narrowly to the Republican ticket.

    A vice-presidential candidate's problems are compounded by invisibility. The two of them usually have only one debate, while presidential candidates typically have two or three. And it's the ticket-toppers who are the subject of commercials and who speak in the biggest venues.

    "People ultimately see the promises, and the voice, coming from one person," said Timothy Walch, an Iowa-based author and vice presidential expert.

    Still, the veep pick can mean something. Political strategists weigh whether a given candidate could help swing a much-needed state in a close election.

    That's why there's talk about whether former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could help Republicans win Michigan — Romney's father was the governor there in the 1960s — or whether former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn could help Democrat Barack Obama carry Nunn's home state of Georgia.

    More important, the pick offers clues about how prospective presidents make personnel decisions.

    "The choice can shape how a presidential nominee is perceived," Goldstein said.

    In 1992, Bill Clinton was still introducing himself to a skeptical American public, and his choice of Al Gore "brought value to the ticket," recalled Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., because it reinforced the idea that Democrats had a young, forward-looking team.

    Eight years later, George W. Bush's choice of Dick Cheney "signaled what kind of a chief executive officer he was going to be," said Allan Louden, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, N.C., by picking someone with an impressive Washington and business resume.

    Chances are, though, that the vice-presidential picks will have no discernible effect on the outcome, so long as the presidential nominees follow a key rule of ticket-making: First, do no harm.

    "The choices may not make a difference," Goldstein said, "if they both pick somebody good."

    On the Web:

    Nixon's "Checkers" speech

    A 1968 Democratic ad against Spiro Agnew

    Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"

    Bob Dole discussing "Democrat wars"