How Much Does a VP Pick Really Matter?
by Connor McLean
by Connor McLean
One of the most anticipated announcements of the 2020 presidential campaign season is now mere days away: presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate. Based on reports, the Biden campaign is deciding between two options: Senator Kamala Harris and former UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Political observers are writing about how the decision should be made, what it could mean for the Biden campaign and its fundraising efforts, and how Republican strategists will respond. Media coverage can make it seem as if a VP could be the ticket to the White House, but when you look back at the last 50 years of presidential campaigns, history tells a different story.
Running Mates Are Often Chosen for the Wrong Reasons
Conventional wisdom holds that vice-presidential candidates offer one of three advantages:
While we do not have conclusive data on the third point, we can delve deeper into how the other two play out in reality. For all the time and energy each party spends agonizing over VP selection, voters often support presidential candidates, not their running mate.
From a home state perspective, VP home-state voters aren’t actually “more likely to turn out to vote, volunteer for or donate money to a campaign, influence other voters, or attend political rallies.”
From a regional or national perspective, VP candidates must have sky-high popularity to sway voters one way or the other. The 1960 election is one of the classic political science case studies of a VP’s ability to “deliver a region,” but Lyndon B. Johnson was probably not the reason Kennedy won the south. According to an ANES survey, Texas (LBJ’s home state) had a more negative opinion of LBJ than other southerners did, and southerners viewed LBJ more negatively than non-southerners. The vast majority of voters made their choices based on Kennedy himself.
More Risks Than Rewards
The VP choice also has the potential to actively hurt a candidate’s chances. In 2008, Alaska governor Sarah Palin joined Senator John McCain’s presidential ticket. Although relatively unfamiliar to the American public before her selection, Palin quickly began to generate headlines about her policy positions, command of the issues, and perceived tendency toward verbal gaffes. As the campaign wore on, she was frequently parodied, criticized, and scrutinized. Her unfavorable ratings among undecided voters skyrocketed, and independents eventually viewed her more negatively than any other candidate in the race. According to a Stanford University study, McCain’s VP choice ultimately cost him nearly 2 million votes (or 1.6% of 2008 voters).
We don’t have the same level of polling data available for every year, but there are many other cases where a running mate has drawn media attention the campaign would have preferred to avoid. Take former Vice President Dan Quayle, during George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 1992. Quayle became the butt of late-night TV jokes after spelling the word “potato” incorrectly while administering an elementary school spelling bee, sending the campaign into damage control mode.
A few decades prior, Senator Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern’s running mate on the Democratic ticket in 1972, was revealed to have previously undergone treatment for clinical depression. The 1970s were a different era as far as public discussions about mental health went—questions about Eagleton’s fitness to serve plagued him wherever he went, eventually leading to McGovern asking him to resign from the ticket.
Why Some Believe 2020 Is Different
Even if you buy the argument that VP choices don’t generally matter, there are three reasons why we might want to keep our minds open on whether 2020 will be an exception to the rule.
The full extent to which any of these concerns will influence voters (if at all) won’t likely be known until long after the VP candidate is announced and the election results are in. But this doesn’t mean the Biden campaign has been wrong to put so much thought and strategy into their VP choice. If there’s reason to believe choosing a certain running mate can persuade even 1% of the electorate—the margin of victory in some swing states in the 2016 election—the decision is worth the painstaking deliberation. And as history shows us, picking a conspicuously weak candidate is often the greater risk than not picking the perfect one. If proper vetting can help avoid that, it’s one less headache for the campaign to deal with as the election enters the home stretch.
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