As Mitt Romney slogs on toward the GOP presidential nomination, political talk is turning to his running mate. That discussion has focused on conventional political factors thought to dictate vice-presidential selection. Should Romney select someone from a large swing state or target a particular demographic? Should he focus on energizing his base or on appealing to independents? Some of those factors may come into play, yet the recent history of vice-presidential selection suggests that the key requirement for a running mate is whether he or she is presidential.
It’s curious that this threshold factor is often overlooked. Most recent presidential candidates have recognized that good politics, as well as good governance, requires choosing a running mate who would be a plausible president. Since 1976 presidential candidates from both parties have almost always chosen running mates who would be plausible as president.
The evidence is in the names of those selected. Bob Dole, Walter F. Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, and Joe Biden were among the outstanding political figures of their generations. Before being chosen, they had demonstrated a high degree of political skill and public policy sophistication at the national level. The 13 running mates since 1976 brought an average of 14.5 years experience in high governmental positions, generally with distinction.
Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Conventions, not presidential candidates, used to choose running mates for a variety of political reasons: to balance the ticket, to placate a losing faction, or to appeal to a large swing state.
But that calculus changed as the vice presidency rose in significance, first during the 1950s and more dramatically beginning with the Mondale vice presidency. The rising power of the presidency made the vice president more visible and more important, first as a presidential successor, then as a colleague to conduct the government’s business. Furthermore, in the information age what a vice presidential candidate says anywhere can immediately be transmitted everywhere. Presidential candidates came to understand that a running mate who was not ready to perform under the pressure of a presidential campaign could complicate their chances.
It’s not that citizens base their votes primarily on the running mates. Few do. But they form impressions of presidential candidates in part based on their vice-presidential selection, their first major personnel decision. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all publicly acknowledged this reality and chose able, well-credentialed running mates.
An inexperienced running mate can divert attention from the ticket’s preferred messages. The news media home in on any vice presidential candidate who seems unprepared. During the 1988 vice presidential debate, the underestimated Dan Quayle faced repeated questions regarding his qualifications before he compared his experience to that of John Kennedy in 1960. Quayle’s analogy teed up Bentsen’s famous reply, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” And Katie Couric’s questions to Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008 about newspapers she read and Supreme Court decisions she opposed were designed to test her knowledge.
Presidential candidates still consider political attributes of prospective running mates, but those characteristics matter only after the pool is narrowed to the truly presidential.
Sen. John McCain ignored this lesson of recent history in part because he thought he needed to gamble to have a chance to win. He focused on Palin’s political strengths–her ideology, her appeal to the Republican base, her gender, her maverick image–without imagining her in the Oval Office. Palin did help mobilize the Republican base, but ultimately the choice undermined McCain’s claim to “Put America First” and alienated uncommitted voters he needed. By late in the campaign, various public opinion polls showed that relatively few considered Palin qualified to be president. Her selection diminished voters’ confidence in McCain’s judgment and made some voters less likely to support him.
The Palin selection demonstrates the danger of choosing an untested running mate without carefully assessing whether he or she is presidential. That’s not to say that a good process will inevitably produce a good running mate. Witness the 2004 choice of Sen. John Edwards. But subordinating presidential quality to other political considerations is an invitation to trouble.
Presidential candidates are more likely to serve their country, and themselves, if they make presidential qualifications the threshold test in choosing a running mate, as most recent presidential nominees from both parties have done. The pundits and the people should demand no less.
Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. He has published extensively on the vice presidency.