Do Running Mates Matter?

Authors Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko have focused their careers on studying the Vice Presidency, and have published the first detailed study on what, if any, impact a running mate has in a Presidential election. With Joe Biden set to announce his running mate, we’re happy to share the introduction to Devine and Kopko’s Do Running Mates Matter; The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections.

In January 2015, there were no declared candidates for the next presidential election. It was just too early. Yet the veepstakes already had begun. Rumor had it that Ohio’s senior US senator, Sherrod Brown, was a leading contender for the Democratic vice presidential nomination. On paper, he was the perfect running mate: an experienced, two-term senator from a key battleground state, a vigorous campaigner, and a bona fide progressive who also could appeal to blue-collar swing voters. Many Democrats wanted Brown to run for president, in fact. But, like so many other credible candidates who doubted that Hillary Clinton could be defeated for the party’s nomination, he declined. So, speculation shifted to the next best thing: a slot on the presidential ticket, as Clinton’s running mate. There was one problem: Brown didn’t want it. Not at all. In his words: “I have zero interest in being vice president” (Terris 2015).

Who Wants to be the Vice President?

Brown’s proclaimed disinterest in serving as vice president was not surprising. Throughout US history, the vice presidency has been derided as a dead-end job for ambitious politicians whose talents are spent on helping the presidential candidate to get elected rather than helping the president to govern once in office. In the words of one former vice president, Walter Mondale, “The office is handmade for ridicule and for dismissal. In the nature of it, you always look like a supplicant, a beggar, a person on a string” (Woodward and Broder 1992, 196).

Vice Presidential Power(lessness)

The vice presidency owes its unenviable reputation—notwithstanding many informal expansions of power since the 1970s (see Goldstein 2016)—to its institutional design. Indeed, the US Constitution grants few formal powers to the vice president. These include, first, presiding over the US Senate (a power that Harry Truman’s vice president, Alben Barkley, last exercised with regularity; see Goldstein 2016, 22); second, casting tie-breaking votes in that body (rarely); third, in the presence of the US House and Senate, opening the sealed certificates containing each state’s votes in the Electoral College, and then overseeing the electoral vote count; fourth, and most important, assuming the office of president of the United States upon the president’s death (eight times in US history), resignation (once), removal from office, or incapacitation, and when a presidential election remains unresolved at the time that a new presidential term is scheduled to begin.

Dismissing the Vice Presidency

No one has been more critical of the vice presidency, or so eager to make jokes at its expense, than the vice presidents themselves. Take, for example, John Nance Garner’s dismissal of the vice presidency as being “not worth a bucket of warm spit”—or the favorite tale of several vice presidents, including Thomas Marshall (Milkis and Nelson 2011, 486), Alben Barkley (Smith 2008, 177–178), and Hubert Humphrey (Unger and Unger 1999, 255): “A mother has two sons; one goes off to sea, the other becomes vice president. Neither is heard from again.”

The first vice president, John Adams, famously called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Lyndon Johnson, who served for nearly three years as John Kennedy’s vice president, said of his tenure: “I detested every minute of it” (Baker 2013, 60). Gerald Ford, who briefly served as Richard Nixon’s vice president, reportedly described this as “the worst eight months of [my] life” (60). And Nelson Rockefeller, who was nominated and confirmed to the office following Ford’s succession to the presidency, often referred to the vice president as mere “standby equipment.” He explained: “I did not want to be Vice President. I’m a doer by nature, an activist. And I always felt, and I told Dick Nixon that in 1960 when he asked me to [be his running mate, allegedly], that it was standby equipment and I just wasn’t cut out for it.” Rockefeller added: “I’ve known all the Vice Presidents since Henry Wallace. They were all frustrated, and some of them were pretty bitter.”8 Dick Cheney, one of Rockefeller’s successors, later would concur: “I’d never met a vice president who was happy.”

Conflicted?

Yet many of the same vice presidents and potential running mates who have dismissed the office as ridiculous at other times have betrayed a more conflicted—or, at least, a more nuanced—view of the vice presidency. In a follow-up interview to the one excerpted earlier, Nelson Rockefeller offered a very different assessment of the office:

“I totally disagree with John Nance Gardner [sic]. I think the office is a very important one, depending on the relation between the President and the Vice President and at least during the first 2/3rds–3/4ths of the time I was Vice President I’ve never been busier—heading commissions, undertaking special projects for the President and traveling at home and abroad. It’s a very useful function in terms of both ceremonial activities that relieve the President and which are interesting and important, plus, depending on the experience of the individual, the opportunity to use that experience to undertake assignments for the President.”

Dick Cheney, who initially resisted entreaties to run alongside George W. Bush in 2000, and bluntly recalled the unhappy fate of previous vice presidents, nonetheless said at the end of his two terms in the office: “I don’t regret it for a minute. It’s been a tremendous experience” (Malcolm 2008).

And then there is John McCain. After failing to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2000, McCain brushed off speculation that he would join the ticket as George W. Bush’s running mate. “The vice president has two duties,” he scoffed. “One is to enquire daily as to the health of the president, and the other is to attend the funerals of third world dictators. And neither of those do I find an enjoyable exercise.” Four years later, amid speculation that John Kerry would ask him to run for vice president on the Democratic ticket, McCain joked: “I spent seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, in the dark, fed with scraps. Do you think I want to do that all over again as vice president of the United States?” (Halbfinger 2004).

Yet in 1996, when Bob Dole reportedly weighed selecting him for the Republican ticket, McCain expressed a more sober, reverential view of the vice presidency. “John Nance Garner described the office as not being worth a bucket of warm spit, but I hold the office in higher regard than that,” McCain said. “It is certainly prestigious and would be a wonderful opportunity for some” (Pittman 1996). Then, in 2008, while once more—and this time successfully—seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, McCain said in a debate that “the vice president of the United States is a key and important issue, and must add [sic] in carrying out the responsibilities of the President of the United States.”

Playing the Vice Presidential Game

It is a good indication of the vice presidency’s actual value that—jokes and public disavowals of interest notwithstanding—plenty of qualified individuals are willing to be selected as the running mate and undergo an intensive vetting process for that purpose. In fact, many ambitious politicians actively lobby for their selection, behind the scenes.

Take Dan Quayle, for example. George H. W. Bush’s decision to name Quayle as his running mate in 1988 came as a shock to nearly everyone, including many Bush campaign staffers. But Quayle had been plotting, along with two of his top Senate aides, to secure a slot on the Republican ticket since the day after Bush won New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary, six months earlier (Woodward and Broder 1992, 15). This “sub rosa campaign” was designed to raise Quayle’s profile nationally, and with Bush in particular. In early 1988, Quayle began delivering more speeches in the Senate, issuing more press releases, and writing more newspaper op-eds, particularly on issues of national defense, than at any point during his previous seven years in office. Quayle also tried to make himself more visible to Bush and his inner circle by increasing contact with senior campaign advisers, more regularly visiting the vice president’s office in the US Senate, and taking a more vocal role at the weekly Senate Republican lunches that Bush attended, as vice president. To anyone witnessing these efforts, Quayle’s intentions were clear. As one Republican Senate colleague, William Cohen of Maine, said: “It looked like there was a game plan to get Bush’s attention because Quayle thought he had a shot [at being chosen as Bush’s running mate].”

Yet Quayle would not readily acknowledge his campaigning for the vice presidential nomination, even four years later while serving as vice president. He did so only reluctantly, after Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and David Broder presented Quayle with irrefutable evidence of his efforts. Why play coy? Because, Quayle acknowledged, “You don’t run for vice president.” Rather, to avoid the stigma of failure if passed over—and, probably, to avoid alienating the presidential candidate by seeming overly ambitious—“you keep expectations down and do things as quietly and subtly as possible” (Woodward and Broder 1992, 15–16).

In fact, Quayle had designs on the vice presidency ever since being elected to Congress in 1976, at the age of twenty-nine. At that time, he explained in a 2002 interview, “Obviously you’re thinking about running for President or Vice President. It’s there.” But, he cautioned, “You don’t do it overtly. It’s something you have in the back of your mind and you set out a path to do it.” Quayle followed that path to the US Senate, from where, he observed, most recent vice presidents had come. He described this as a “stepping-stone” to the vice presidency, and ultimately the presidency. “I was positioning myself to eventually run for President,” Quayle explained. “Now, obviously, the Vice Presidency was a stepping-stone to that. I mean, that’s why people want to be Vice President [emphasis added].”

Joe Lieberman also wanted to be vice president, in 2000—but he, too, could not say so. “You’re not supposed to campaign for the vice presidential nomination,” he explained later. “You can’t even acknowledge that you are under consideration for it” (Lieberman and Lieberman 2003,). When Al Gore’s campaign asked to vet Lieberman for the nomination that year—a process so invasive that Lieberman likened it to “a colonoscopy without anesthesia” —the prospective running mate consented and then, with the help of a close friend, “developed a strategy not simply for surviving the vetting, but for pursuing the nomination.” That strategy included “reach[ing] out, in a very discreet way, to a very few people who we thought might be talking to Gore about this selection,” as well as key constituency groups within the Democratic Party. In all cases, “These contacts were to be made subtly, quietly.”

Lieberman also sought out advice from Chris Dodd, a fellow senator from Connecticut and his most trusted colleague. Dodd counseled, “You should make sure you do everything you can so you will never look back to this time and say, ‘If I had done just one more thing, I might have been the vice presidential nominee.’” But, Dodd acknowledged, “Of course I understand that you can’t go out and campaign for it” (Lieberman and Lieberman 2003, 14).

Even after being selected, Lieberman would disclaim any ambition to the vice presidency. Wondrously, he recalled someone telling him, “This is like the ministry. You’re called to the ministry, you don’t seek it” (Barstow with Seelye 2000). But, of course, Lieberman had sought the vice presidential nomination—enthusiastically and methodically. He wanted to be the vice president. He just could not say so publicly at that time.

Quayle and Lieberman are only two examples, but they illustrate what seems to be a well-known strategy among politicians aspiring to the vice presidency: publicly deny that you are interested—better yet, laugh off the idea as ridiculous—all the while privately working with associates and campaign contacts to cultivate interest in your candidacy. Then, after the selection is made and the election is over, you can publicly admit it: yes, of course, I wanted to be the vice president. I really wanted it, in fact.

And that brings us back to Sherrod Brown.

Zero Interest?

In July 2017, Sherrod Brown gave another interview to Ben Terris, the Washington Post reporter to whom he had protested two-and-a-half years earlier: “I have zero interest in being vice president.” A lot had changed since that time. In the summer of 2016—despite reiterating that April, “I’ve made it clear [that] I don’t really want the job” (Raju and Schleifer 2016)—Brown agreed to be considered for selection as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. He even participated in a vetting process that Connie Schultz—his wife, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist—described as “excruciating.” Brown was a finalist for selection; in fact, according to two highly placed sources, he was the first runner-up to Virginia senator Tim Kaine, whom Clinton selected only after initially favoring Brown (Terris 2017; but see, e.g., Allen and Parnes 2017; Baumgartner 2016). Perhaps the biggest strike against Brown was that, if elected, his replacement in the closely divided US Senate would be appointed by Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich.

For a man who had expressed “zero interest in the vice presidency,” being passed over for the position should have come as a relief. But Brown was disappointed—devastated, in fact. “By the end,” he admitted, “I really wanted it.” Brown wanted it so badly that he envisioned, in Terris’s words, “liv[ing] out of a bus” and barnstorming across the Midwest throughout the fall campaign. Might this have changed the election’s outcome? In Terris’s article—titled “Sherrod Brown Thinks He Could Have Helped Democrats Win in 2016. But What about 2020?”—Brown answered cautiously: “I don’t pretend that my being on the ticket would have made [Clinton] win. I don’t know. I mean, if I had gone to Wisconsin and Michigan a lot, anything would have changed those two states.” But then, perhaps to cover this tracks, he added: “My wife thinks we would have won. She thinks we would have won Ohio.” Of course, Donald Trump won Ohio instead—helping him to become the next president of the United States. And Brown was left to wonder whether he could have made the difference in the Electoral College, apparently haunted by the regret that he did not get that chance.

As it turns out, Sherrod Brown really wanted to be vice president.

A Fundamental Tension

The preceding examples illustrate a fundamental tension in public opinion about the vice presidency as a governing institution. On the one hand, everyone is aware of the office’s institutional weakness and its beleaguered reputation. This makes it easy to dismiss the vice presidency as a joke, and to belittle or reject the prospect of seeking that office. Yet many of the news or opinion articles that repeat those jokes—including, almost invariably, a reference to Garner’s metaphorical “bucket of warm spit” (and, just as invariably, a caveat noting that he probably used more graphic language)14—or report a potential running mate’s lack of interest in auditioning for the role, ironically, if not hypocritically, also engage in fevered speculation about the vice presidential selection process or the running mate’s likely effect on the presidential race.15 And, as we have seen, many of the vice presidents or prospective running mates who have disparaged the office or foresworn interest in seeking it at other times have celebrated its significance or actively campaigned for selection behind the scenes.

We do not argue that every such dismissal of the vice presidency or the prospect of running for it is insincere. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Sherrod Brown’s initial denials of interest in the vice presidency were genuine, and that later he had a change of heart—or that, in Terris’s (2017) words, “Sherrod Brown never wanted to be vice president, until one day he did.” Nor do we contend that a vice president plainly contradicts himself when he is quoted both lamenting and praising his experiences in that office. For example, Nelson Rockefeller truly might have felt like “standby equipment” at some times and like someone serving “a very useful function” at others. Such inconsistency, we argue, is indicative not of insincerity but of a pervasive conflict—or a “fundamental tension”—in attitudes toward the vice presidency, among political elites and within the mass public generally. In short, the vice presidency’s public image—truth be told—is not that of an inconsequential institution or an immensely powerful one (at least by its design); rather, it is an institution characterized by obvious strengths and weaknesses, the relative weight of which is difficult to calculate and often context-dependent.

John Adams provided perhaps the most profound articulation of this truth when he said: “I am vice president. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything” (Milkis and Nelson 2011, 486). Here he was referring to the possibility of succession to the presidency. In the era of the “modern vice presidency” (Goldstein 2016), when the power of that institution remains constitutionally stagnant but informally expansive, the tension between viewing the vice presidency as powerless and powerful is that much greater.

Who Cares About the Running Mate?

This book is about vice presidential candidates, not vice presidents. But the two roles are intertwined—and not just because, barring extraordinary circumstances, serving as the former is a prerequisite to serving as the latter. It is also because the (perceived) weakness of the vice presidency, as a governing institution, has shaped perceptions of the vice presidential candidate, as an electoral institution. Given the vice president’s limited constitutional powers, and the remote possibility of presidential succession, running mates traditionally have been selected (by party conventions and then, starting in the 1940s, by presidential candidates) on the basis of electoral considerations, typically in order to provide geographic, demographic, or ideological “ticket balancing” (Baumgartner 2012; Baumgartner with Crumblin 2015; Goldstein 2016). Even so, most voters have had little incentive to weigh the running mate’s credentials when voting in presidential elections, at least not to the extent of casting a vote on that basis, since only the president is guaranteed to exercise substantial power once in office. Recent expansions of vice presidential power might have altered that equation somewhat, but—as indicated by the evidence presented earlier, and by the predominant caricature of vice presidents in popular culture as buffoonish incompetents—for the most part, the office’s unenviable reputation is engrained and enduring.

A Fundamental Tension (Continued)

It is, therefore, no mystery that the same fundamental tension that characterizes attitudes toward the vice presidency also extends to vice presidential candidates. On the one hand, political observers and practitioners recognize the limited powers of the vice presidency, and so they are duly cautious about overstating the running mate’s (likely) influence on presidential voting. Often, they do so by repeating well-worn aphorisms to downplay veepstakes speculation—referring to it merely as a “parlor game,” for instance. Or they cite the conventional wisdom that “Vice presidential candidates can’t help you, they can only hurt you,” and that “People don’t vote for a vice president, they vote for a president.” We do not argue that such folk wisdom is wrong, necessarily; in fact, some of the empirical evidence that we present in this book would tend to support these claims. Nor do we contend that expressing such skepticism is insincere or contradictory, on its face. But it is important to recognize that these sentiments often exist in tension with other statements or behaviors that directly express or clearly imply a perception that running mates are electorally significant and potentially helpful—even decisive. In chapters 1 and 2, we provide evidence of such tension in the attitudes expressed by presidential candidates and voters, respectively. For now, consider one prominent and consequential example.

When asked to describe his criteria for selecting a running mate in July 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain said: “First, you want to make sure you have a candidate that’s not going to hurt the ticket” (J. Mason 2008). In 1996, when discussing then-Republican nominee Bob Dole’s selection of a running mate, McCain expressed essentially the same view by saying that the selection process sometimes “brings you the person who might not necessarily help you the most, but hurt you the least” (Pittman 1996). At the same time, he indicated that a running mate might confer significant electoral benefits by suggesting that Dole select someone who appealed not only to Republican voters but also “to those that make the difference between winning and losing campaigns”—presumably, Independents.

Yet, when it came time to select his running mate, in 2008, McCain passed over the quintessential “do no harm” candidate, in Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (the runner-up), and instead accepted his campaign advisers’ recommendation to choose a risky but potentially “game-changing” vice presidential candidate, in Sarah Palin. McCain made this choice after meeting the Alaska governor only for the second time, and following a rushed seventy-two-hour vetting process (see chapter 1). This hardly fulfilled his top criterion: “mak[ing] sure you have a candidate that’s not going to hurt the ticket.” In fact, following her rocky vice presidential campaign, Palin was widely perceived as hurting the ticket in exactly the way that McCain previously had warned against—a perception validated by subsequent empirical analyses (e.g., Court and Lynch 2015; Elis, Hillygus, and Nie 2010; Knuckey 2012).

McCain illustrates the fundamental tension apparent in many people’s—including presidential candidates’—expressed views regarding running mates’ electoral significance. He repeatedly stated, and he genuinely might have believed, that the overriding principle of vice presidential selection is “First, do no harm.” But, as is the case with matters of public opinion more generally (Zaller 1992), McCain’s judgments on the matter seem to have drawn on a mix of considerations. Thus, when pressured by campaign advisers to adopt an alternative approach, he sampled from those conflicting considerations to arrive at a decision fundamentally opposed to his oft-stated conviction. In other words, no matter how confidently McCain stated this conviction in public, and when discussing vice presidential selection in the abstract, to some extent he also believed that it was possible—maybe just in these special circumstances—that a running mate could yield transformative electoral benefits, and that the chances of this happening in 2008 were good enough to justify picking Sarah Palin.

What to Believe?

It is ironic that McCain, of all people, would stand out as the presidential candidate who most obviously threw a “Hail Mary” pass, with his choice of a running mate, in order to win an election. Yet, because he at least entertained principles directly in conflict with his oft-stated, and quite possibly genuine, philosophy of vice presidential selection, we suspect that McCain is not a hypocritical outlier but an exemplar of the fundamental tension that characterizes much of public discourse regarding vice presidential candidates and their electoral significance.

Indeed, McCain’s is the same type of conflicted opinion that we see in the journalist (Chris Cillizza) who declares that “the vice presidential pick—viewed through the lens of history—has almost no broad influence on the fate of the ticket and, to the extent the VP choice has mattered, it’s been in a negative way”—yet, when ranking veepstakes contenders, regularly dangles the prospect of a decisive home state advantage (Devine and Kopko 2016, 14). Or the scholar (Stuart Rothenberg) who scorns veepstakes speculation as “a game” to be played at “cocktail parties or around the kitchen table” before condescending to remind readers that this year’s election actually is between two presidential candidates—yet in other writings, indeed in the same year, plays precisely that game by rating contenders largely on the basis of their ability to deliver swing states or the party’s base (13). Or the presidential candidate (George W. Bush) who writes, “I believe voters base their decision on the presidential candidate, not the VP”—yet also speculates that several other vice presidential finalists on his list might have delivered their home state in the general election (see chapter 1).

Like McCain, these actors state their convictions about running mates’ electoral effects definitively—with little, if any, hint of nuance. And, like McCain, it is entirely possible that they have expressed their convictions sincerely. (Bush, for example, did choose a running mate with little electoral appeal and no prospect of delivering a swing state.) But there is also good reason to believe that they, like many other actors in the electoral process that we analyze in later chapters, are more conflicted about running mates’ electoral significance than they let on. In reality, they probably entertain a mixture of views and therefore, under a particular set of circumstances (e.g., a close election, a popular governor, a divided party), might draw on considerations that conflict with their prevailing philosophy to determine that a (potential) running mate really could make a difference in the election—maybe this one time.

That is why one must be careful not to take the conventional wisdom about vice presidential candidates at face value, no matter how frequently or confidently it is publicly pronounced. As is true of the vice presidency itself, evaluations of the running mate’s electoral significance are complex, and often they reveal, on close inspection, quite a bit of internal conflict, especially when moving from the abstract to the particular.

In this book, we take nothing about running mates’ electoral significance for granted. Whatever our preconceptions about their effects on presidential voting—and it would be fair to describe us as skeptics—our commitment is to let the empirical data speak for themselves.

Do Running Mates Matter?

Recognizing the fundamental tension in public attitudes toward vice presidential candidates, described earlier, in this book we ask: Do running mates matter? That is to say, do they influence voting in presidential elections? And, if so, how? Do running mates influence voters, in general, or only targeted subsets of the electorate? Do they, in fact, “deliver” their home state or region? Affiliated demographic groups? Ideological allies? And, to the extent that running mates influence elections, is this because voters actually cast votes for (or against) a vice presidential candidate? Or is it because running mates help to shape voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidate who selected them, thereby exerting an indirect effect on vote choice?

To emphasize the practical significance of this research, and the manner in which we present it, our fundamental research question may be reformulated as follows: Do running mates do what people—namely, presidential candidates and voters—think they do, electorally speaking? Our objective is to answer this question, by testing perceptions of the running mate’s (potential) electoral significance against the relevant empirical data. To do this, we divide our research into two essential and integrally related parts. In the following, we briefly describe each chapter’s methods of analysis and its empirical results.

Part I: Perceptions of Running Mate Effects

Part I (comprising chapters 1 and 2) analyzes perceptions of the running mate’s electoral significance. In particular, we evaluate, first, whether, and to what extent, presidential candidates and voters believe that running mates influence vote choice in presidential elections; and, second, what criteria—particularly in terms of electoral versus governing considerations—they use to evaluate (potential) vice presidential candidates. The purpose of this analysis is to set the agenda for the empirical analyses that follow in part II. In other words, we seek to establish—based on systematic evidence, rather than mere assumption—that it is relevant to ask whether running mates matter in the first place. Moreover, we seek to identify the nature of these perceived electoral effects. Having done so, in part II we can test whether running mates matter in the way that people—particularly, those who select and elect them—think they do.

Chapter 1: (Why) Do Presidential Candidates Think That Running Mates Matter?
In this chapter, we use qualitative evidence from the 1976–2016 elections (i.e., the era of the modern vice presidency) to evaluate presidential candidates’ perceptions of running mate effects. In particular, we seek to determine whether, and why, presidential candidates think that running mates have the potential to influence election outcomes. We have gathered evidence for this analysis from a diverse range of sources, including public speeches and interviews, media coverage, personal memoirs, oral histories, and archival materials from presidential or other public libraries.

Our analysis indicates that most presidential candidates perceive vice presidential candidates to be electorally consequential—and, in some cases, determinative—but in public they downplay or deny such considerations, so as to focus on governing qualifications. In fact, presidential candidates in nearly all recent elections have publicly communicated a remarkably consistent set of selection criteria: that running mates must be qualified to serve as (vice) president, first and foremost; next, they must be personally and politically compatible with the presidential candidate; finally, as something of a bonus, they may provide a modest electoral advantage. But privately, or in subsequent public comments, many presidential candidates emphasize electoral considerations quite a bit more, and governing considerations less, than they do in public during the campaign.

While we cannot generalize across all selection processes, it is fair to say that most presidential candidates think that running mates matter, electorally speaking, and might even prove decisive in a close race. Such perceptions have the potential to influence the actual selection of a vice presidential candidate—and, in turn, who serves in office as vice president.

Chapter 2: (Why) Do Voters Think That Running Mates Matter?
In this chapter, we analyze public polling data on vice presidential selection, mostly from the 2000–2016 presidential elections. The purpose of this analysis is to determine, first, whether voters think that running mates influence their votes, or election outcomes more generally, and second, what criteria voters use to evaluate (potential) running mates, such that we might characterize the nature of their electoral appeal.

Our analysis indicates that voters have mixed, or conflicted, perceptions of running mate effects. Generally, survey respondents affirm the importance of vice presidential selection, in the abstract, and in many cases they report being more or less likely to vote for a given presidential candidate based on his or her choice of a running mate. Yet, at the same time, respondents rate vice presidential selection as less important than nearly all other electoral considerations; fewer than one in ten respondents say that a running mate ever has changed their presidential vote; and when given the opportunity to explain, in their own words, why they support or oppose a particular presidential candidate, few, if any, respondents cite the candidate’s choice of a running mate.

Also, voters seem not to have fixed criteria in mind when evaluating (potential) vice presidential candidates. However, they do prefer running mates who balance a given ticket by compensating for the presidential candidate’s perceived deficiencies. This is evident with respect to attributes of professional experience, in particular, but not demographic characteristics. Indeed, voters seem to value the running mate’s qualifications very highly, and for the most part they do not give credence to electoral considerations.

Part II: Evidence of Running Mate Effects

Part II (comprising chapters 3–5) tests perceptions of the running mate’s influence, as established in part I, against the relevant empirical evidence. Essentially, our objective in these chapters is to evaluate whether running mates matter in the way that relevant political actors think they matter. Each chapter examines a distinct—but not mutually exclusive—process whereby running mate effects might occur: first, by directly influencing vote choice among voters, in general (chapter 3); second, by directly influencing vote choice among targeted subsets of voters (chapter 4); third, by indirect means—that is, by influencing voters’ evaluations of the presidential candidates, which, in turn, directly influence vote choice (chapter 5). For this analysis, we use a diverse range of data sources and research methods. Indeed, the depth and breadth of our analysis of vice presidential candidates’ electoral influence are unprecedented in the political science literature.

Chapter 3: Direct Effects

In this chapter, we evaluate the running mate’s direct effect on voting, generally. First, we do so by providing descriptive statistics on presidential versus vice presidential candidate preferences, based on data from the 1968–2016 American National Election Studies (ANES). Next, using the same data, we estimate the relative influence of vice presidential versus presidential candidate evaluations on vote choice, via logistic regression analyses. Finally, and for the first time in the literature, we test the causal effects of dynamic changes in running mate evaluations (i.e., favorability ratings) on intended vote choice, as well as presidential candidate evaluations, over the course of a campaign. We do so using time series (i.e., rolling cross-sectional) data from the 2000 and 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES).

Our analyses indicate that running mates do, in fact, directly influence vote choice, but only to a limited extent. Indeed, vice presidential candidate evaluations have much less influence on vote choice than do presidential candidate evaluations. Furthermore, our vector autoregression analysis indicates that while running mates can influence intended vote choice during a campaign, in most cases their effects last only for a few days. This analysis also indicates that presidential and vice presidential candidate evaluations are interdependent (or endogenous) over time. Such direct evidence of interdependent intraparty candidate evaluations is important because it shows that running mates are not just shadows of the presidential candidate. Rather, voters view vice presidential candidates, in part, as a reflection on the presidential candidate—such that reevaluating the former may cause them to reevaluate the latter.

Chapter 4: Targeted Effects

Perhaps, then, running mates are most effective at influencing vote choice among particular groups of voters that presidential campaigns may wish to “target” in order to win an election. To evaluate this possibility, in chapter 4 we examine running mates’ “targeted effects” on vote choice among groups of voters with whom they share a salient geographic (i.e., home state or region), demographic (i.e., gender, religious), or ideological (i.e., liberal, conservative) identity. For example, we assess whether women were more likely than in other years to vote for the Democratic ticket in 1984 or the Republican ticket in 2008, both of which featured a woman running mate (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, respectively). Our analysis draws on three distinct, high-quality data sources—the American National Election Studies (1952–2016), the National Annenberg Election Studies (2000–2008), and The American Panel Survey (2012–2016)—and estimates running mate effects by using a multimethod approach that includes linear or logistic regression analyses, for cross-sectional data, and an adaptation of Lenz’s (2012) three-wave test, for panel data.

We find little evidence of targeted running mate effects. For instance, cross-sectional data indicate that Catholics were no more likely to vote for the Democratic Party in 2016, when Tim Kaine was the vice presidential nominee, than in previous elections. And panel data indicate that the effect of Catholic identification on intended vote choice did not change from the period before versus after Kaine’s selection. Likewise, we observe no significant change in women’s voting behavior in response to the Ferraro or Palin selections. The only clear evidence of a targeted effect comes from 2012, when conservative support for the Republican ticket significantly increased following Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, and ultimately influenced vote choice. In all other cases, we see no such effects at any point during the campaign, or, at best, a temporary increase in support that fades away by Election Day.

Chapter 5: Indirect Effects

In chapter 5, we expand the scope of our analysis to include indirect running mate effects—or the effects of vice presidential candidate evaluations on presidential candidate evaluations, which, subsequently, influence vote choice. This, we argue, is the most realistic conception of running mate effects. Yet indirect effects have gone almost entirely unexplored in the scholarly literature, to date (two exceptions are found in Kenski, Hardy, and Jamieson [2010] and Romero [2001]; but see chapter 5, note 6). In this chapter, we provide an unprecedented analysis of indirect running mate effects, using data from the ANES (1968–2016), NAES (2000–2008), and Knowledge Networks (2008), and a multimethod approach comprising logistic regression analyses and structural equation models (cross-sectional data), vector autoregression (rolling cross-sectional data), and an adaptation of Lenz’s (2012) three-wave test (panel data). Moreover, we evaluate indirect effects based on a diverse range of candidate evaluations, including ones pertaining to ideology, experience, and various professional or personal attributes, as well as general favorability.

Our analysis of more than two hundred statistical models provides overwhelming evidence that running mates influence voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidate who selected him or her. We also present structural equation models demonstrating that running mate evaluations indirectly influence vote choice. In other words, running mates have indirect, as well as direct, effects on voting—although the former appear to be much stronger than the latter. To provide one example of such an effect, in 2008 respondents were significantly more likely to approve of John McCain’s judgment if they believed that his choice of a running mate, Sarah Palin, was ready to be president. Specifically, respondents who rated Palin as “extremely” ready to be president, versus “not at all,” rated McCain’s judgment 2.2 points higher on a scale of 0 to 10. This, in turn, decreased the respondent’s likelihood of voting for the Democratic ticket by 7 percentage points, according to our structural equation models. Nor are these effects limited to perceptions of judgment. Indeed, we find strong and consistent evidence that respondents’ perceptions of the presidential candidate—across a wide range of attributes relating to leadership skills, trustworthiness, and competence—are shaped by their evaluation of the running mate, in terms of overall favorability or experience.

Chapter 6: Why Does This Matter?
This book’s final chapter emphasizes the practical implications of our research findings by discussing several key takeaway points that may help to better inform future deliberations over vice presidential selection among political practitioners, journalists, and the public at large. We present these takeaway points as five recommendations to presidential candidates and their campaigns, when engaging in vice presidential selection. Our recommendations are as follows:
1. Pick someone who can be a good vice president.
2. Don’t just say it; mean it.
3. Ask whether the running mate will matter enough.
4. Don’t expect the running mate to “deliver” a key voting bloc.
5. Don’t just take our word for it.
In each case, we summarize the research findings that inform our recommendation and discuss their implications for vice presidential selection, presidential campaign strategy, and presidential administration. In the course of this discussion, we also consider the limitations of the present research, opportunities for future research, and the role that vice presidential candidates may play in the 2020 election.

So, What if Running Mates Matter?

To be sure, we are not the first scholars to analyze the electoral significance of vice presidential candidates. The existing literature on “running mate effects,” in fact, attests to the importance of a subject that easily can be mistaken as insignificant or even frivolous. And this literature provides valuable perspective—in terms of theory, methodology, and substantive conclusions—that helps to guide our research, while also raising questions that we hope to answer, with a greater measure of clarity, in the pages that follow.

Scholarly Literature
Numerous studies examine running mates’ effects on elections generally (e.g., Adkison 1982; Burmila and Ryan 2013; Devine and Kopko 2016, chap. 8; Grofman and Kline 2010; Ulbig 2010; Wattenberg 1984, 1995; Wattenberg and Grofman 1993), and with respect to specific considerations such as party identification (Court and Lynch 2015), ideology (Court 2012; Krumel and Enami 2017), demography (Jelen 2018), and geography (J. Campbell 1992; J. Campbell, Ali, and Jalalzai 2006; Devine and Kopko 2011, 2013, 2016, 2019; Dudley and Rapoport 1989; Garand 1988; Heersink and Peterson 2016; Holbrook 1991; Kahane 2009; Mixon and Tyrone 2004; Morini 2015; Rosenstone 1983; Schultz 2016; Tubbesing 1973). We review these literatures in the relevant chapters to follow. Also, many studies examine secondary matters that we reference in this book, including media coverage of vice presidential candidates (e.g., Ulbig 2010, 2013) and the vice presidential selection process (e.g., Baumgartner 2012, 2016; Hiller and Kriner 2008; Sigelman and Wahlbeck 1997). But the existing literature has two significant limitations.

First, many of these studies narrowly focus on one aspect of running mate effects, such as geography (e.g., Devine and Kopko 2016) or media coverage (e.g., Ulbig 2013). Second, other more comprehensive studies analyze vice presidential candidates, as an electoral institution, within the broader context of the vice presidency, as a governing institution, and with a predominant focus on the latter (e.g., Baumgartner with Crumblin 2015; Goldstein 2016). Such studies represent tremendous contributions to scholars’ understanding of the vice presidency, which we make no attempt to challenge or to significantly revise here. However, these studies do not provide a comprehensive, empirically driven analysis of running mates’ electoral effects, along the lines of what we present in this book.

In fact, no book to date has been devoted exclusively to the subject of vice presidential candidates’ effects on presidential voting, in general or along several dimensions at a time, such as ideology, geography, and demographics. Also, ours is the first study to systematically examine voters’ perceptions of vice presidential candidates’ electoral influence and their criteria for vice presidential selection (chapter 2). Finally, ours is the first study to analyze how voters’ perceptions of a vice presidential candidate’s characteristics (e.g., readiness to be president) influence their perceptions of the presidential candidate’s characteristics (e.g., judgment), as well as how these perceptions may influence vote choice (chapter 5).

Running Mates and the Vice Presidency

A clarification of terms is in order, also, before proceeding with this analysis. The title of this book, and our central research question, asks: Do running mates matter? We are not asking whether vice presidents matter. Goldstein (2016), in particular, has answered that question rather definitively, and in the affirmative. Although vice presidents have little constitutional power, since the inception of the “modern vice presidency,” under Jimmy Carter, they have wielded significant and growing power as a result of informal institutional changes. In particular, as Goldstein explains, this power comes from serving as a senior adviser to, and troubleshooter for, the president, with the support of extensive personal access and in-house resources. Indeed, many of the most recent vice presidents—including Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden—have played a major role in shaping administration policy on foreign and domestic matters, and in advancing the president’s agenda through their work with Congress and foreign leaders.

Unfortunately, we think, it is all too common—particularly among journalists—to treat the terms “vice president” and “vice presidential candidate” interchangeably. Needless to say (but we will, anyway), the two roles are different, and they coincide only when an incumbent vice president is seeking reelection. In fact, we see the study of vice presidential candidates, as an electoral institution, as quite distinct from the study of vice presidents, as a governing institution (although there is good reason to draw relevant connections between the two at times, in the same way that, say, studying judicial nomination and confirmation processes is connected to, but distinct from, studying judicial behavior). That is why, as noted previously, we explicitly characterize our work as a study of vice presidential candidates, not vice presidents. And it is why, in hopes of limiting confusion about our subject matter and research objectives, we emphasize that distinction by framing our title, research question, and much of the language to follow in terms of “running mates.”

This discussion also provides a useful reminder as to why it is important to know whether, and in what ways, running mates matter. Regardless of their electoral influence, running mates ultimately matter because, if successful, they become vice presidents. And, as the research cited earlier demonstrates, vice presidents are highly, and increasingly, influential actors in American government. If it is the case that presidential candidates (at least sometimes) misjudge the nature of running mates’ effects on presidential voting—perhaps by overestimating their ability to “deliver” a home state or an affiliated demographic group—then they might select someone who is unqualified, or at least less qualified than other credible alternatives, to serve as a partner in government and next in the line of presidential succession, simply because an electoral consideration tipped the scales. This may seem like a remote possibility, but—perhaps depending on one’s political views—it is not difficult to think of a time when it nearly happened or actually did (e.g., Dan Quayle, John Edwards, Sarah Palin).

To the extent that our research validates some perceptions of running mate effects, perhaps it will help to inform presidential candidates, their campaigns, and members of the news media when gaming out viable electoral strategies. But, to the extent that our research challenges errant or oversimplified perceptions of running mate effects, then perhaps it will help to divert attention away from illusions of electoral advantage and redirect it toward efforts to identify the person best qualified to serve as vice president.

About the Author

Christopher J. Devine is assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. Kyle C. Kopko is associate professor of political science, associate dean, and director of the legal studies major at Elizabethtown College.

Devine and Kopko discuss “Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections”

The American vice presidency, as the saying goes, “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Yet vice presidential candidates, many people believe, can make all the difference in winning—or losing—a presidential election. Is that true, though? Did Sarah Palin, for example, sink John McCain’s campaign in 2008? Did Joe Biden help Barack Obama win? Do running mates actually matter? In the first book to put this question to a rigorous test, Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko draw upon an unprecedented range of empirical data to reveal how, and how much, running mates influence voting in presidential elections.

Building on their previous work in The VP Advantage and evidence from over 200 statistical models spanning the 1952 to 2016 presidential elections, the authors analyze three pathways by which running mates might influence vote choice. First, of course, they test for direct effects, or whether evaluations of the running mate influence vote choice among voters in general. Next, they test for targeted effects—if, that is, running mates win votes among key subsets of voters who share their gender, religion, ideology, or geographic identity. Finally, the authors examine indirect effects—that is, whether running mates shape perceptions of the presidential candidate who selected them, which in turn influence vote choice. Here, in this last category, is where we see running mates most clearly influencing presidential voting—especially when it comes to their qualifications for holding office and taking over as president, if necessary. Picking a running mate from a key voting bloc probably won’t make a difference, the authors conclude. But picking an experienced, well-qualified running mate will make the presidential candidate look better to voters—and win some votes.

1. What’s your elevator pitch for Do Running Mates Matter? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

This is the most comprehensive analysis yet on the effect of vice presidential candidates in presidential elections. Believe it or not, we find that running mates have very little direct effect on voters, in general, nor do they “deliver” targeted geographic or demographic groups. Instead, running mates matter primarily because they influence voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidates who selected them–which means that they are really voting to elect a president rather than a vice president, in the end.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the influence of Vice Presidential candidates?

It started back in 2008, right after John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. We were graduate students at the time, at The Ohio State University, and took a road trip together to see a friend in South Carolina. Naturally, like any political junkies at that time, we were discussing the pros and cons of the Palin pick. One issue was whether McCain should have picked someone from Ohio or another battleground state, to pick up votes in the Electoral College. A lot of pundits were throwing that idea around. We started asking: Is that even true? Has anyone researched this? Back then, we didn’t have internet access on our cell phones and couldn’t look anything up. So we spent most of that drive developing hypotheses and sketching out a research design. That led to our first article, on the vice presidential home state advantage, and then another article and later our first book, The VP Advantage. But we still found ourselves asking whether running mates mattered more broadly, beyond the home state advantage. We wanted to tackle that question in the most comprehensive way possible. So, we knew we had to write this book.

3. You have been researching running mates for most of your career. What is the most challenging aspect of your research?

There isn’t just one way of measuring the effect of a vice presidential candidate, and it’s not always clear which way is best. That’s why, in this book, we use a wide variety of data sources and methodologies to test running mate effects in the most comprehensive way possible. Our conclusions do not rest on a single survey or method of analysis—far from it. We try to show that these results hold up even when you use a range of different approaches. Hopefully, this will give other researchers ideas about how to study this topic and provide further insights into running mate effects in the future.

4. What has been the most consequential Vice Presidential candidate choice of the past 50 years?

Great question. Joel Goldstein—author of The White House Vice Presidency, also from UPK—provides excellent insight here. His research shows that Jimmy Carter’s choice of Walter Mondale in 1976, and their subsequent election, really started a transformation of the vice president’s role into the more consequential one that we know today. If we’re talking about electoral consequences, though, perhaps John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in 2008 is the most notable. Our research shows that voters’ perceptions of Palin’s readiness—or lack thereof—to serve as president, if necessary, really affected their perceptions of McCain’s judgment, and even whether he was too old to be president. In that sense, choosing Palin undermined the rationale for McCain’s candidacy—that he had what it took to be president, and Barack Obama did not.

5. What is one common misconception about the influence of running mates in presidential elections?

That running mates are, or can be, “game changers”—in other words, a brilliant strategic choice that can rescue a losing campaign, if needed. This is what the McCain campaign expected in 2008, when choosing Sarah Palin. And, we say at one point in the book, this kind of pick is really quite foolish—and reckless, to boot. Running mates matter, but mostly at the margins, and probably can do more to hurt rather than help a campaign. Chances are, voters are going to see such a desperate electoral strategy for what it is, and think all the worse of a presidential candidate for making an irresponsible choice. But even if that presidential candidate were to win the race, now he or she will be deprived of an effective partner in the White House for four or years to come—or, worse yet, saddled with someone who is a hindrance to the administration, or a distraction. Ultimately, we think—and our research shows—that the best electoral strategy is to choose a running mate who is clearly qualified to be the next vice president, or president, if necessary.

6. Has the importance of running mates increased or decreased since the election of 1952?

We don’t see any evidence, in our book, that running mates have any more effect on presidential election outcomes over time. But, certainly, vice presidents have become much more important since the 1950s—and so the stakes of selecting and electing a vice presidential candidate have increased. Here, we’d refer back to Joel Goldstein’s outstanding research on The White House Vice Presidency. Starting with Mondale in the 1970s, vice presidents have come to play a key role as a general advisor to the president and a liaison in terms of congressional relations and foreign affairs. And it’s very likely that vice presidents will continue to be influential in future administrations.

7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

We want to give readers the opportunity to put the conventional wisdom about vice presidential candidates to the test. Frankly, there’s a lot of bad punditry out there—on this topic, perhaps more than any other. For years, too many people have treated the “veepstakes” as something of a parlor game—brazenly strategizing about how to buy votes on the cheap through vice presidential selection, as if voters are so easily manipulated (when the presumed strategist, of course, is not) and the whole exercise is merely symbolic. Rarely have their assumptions been put to the test, and nowhere as comprehensively as what we provide in our book. With this research, we hope not only to help inform readers about the myths and realities of running mate effects but also to empower them to reject bad punditry and demand better in the future.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Joe Biden—or any other presidential candidate who has the responsibility of choosing a running mate, in a given election year. It bears repeating that vice presidents play a major role in modern American government. They can be a tremendous asset to any presidential administration trying to enact its agenda and lead the country responsibly. What a shame it would be—for the president, and for the country—if someone came into that office not because he or she is the most qualified person to do so, but because Joe Biden or any other presidential candidate overestimated a running mate’s ability to influence the outcome of an election. By providing a more realistic assessment of running mate effects, we hope to convince our readers—which, ideally, could include presidential candidates and their advisers—to focus on the real importance of a potential vice president’s qualifications, rather than his or her purported electoral advantages.

 

Christopher J. Devine is assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. Kyle C. Kopko is associate professor of political science, associate dean, and director of the legal studies major at Elizabethtown College.

Goldstein Grades “Vice”

When VICE, the new Dick Cheney biopic, was released we couldn’t wait to get Joel Goldstein’s opinion of the film. Goldstein is the preeminent expert on the vice presidency and wrote extensively about how Cheney worked to transform the role and influence of the office in his book The White House Vice Presidency.

“Cheney established an unprecedented level of vice-presidential influence during Bush’s first term,” he wrote in his 2017 book. “Cheney functioned primarily as an adviser who could become involved in any issue and attend any meeting.” His take on the film follows…

VICE by Joel Goldstein

The vice presidency is not usually the subject of December box office movie sensations. Long before Vice President John Nance Garner said that the vice presidency wasn’t worth a bucket of warm whatever-liquid- he-really-said, his predecessor, Thomas Marshall, joked about the parents who had two sons, one who went to sea, one became vice president, neither was ever heard from again.

Dick Cheney, the 46th vice president, thought the nation’s second office was worth giving up a bucket of dollars and incentives as Halliburton’s CEO, and has been heard from since, again and again.  And now, a decade after he left office, his political life is the subject of the smash movie, “Vice.”

Cheney might have preferred that the movie be called “Vice President,” rather than “Vice,” but the choice of title was not inadvertent.  Moviemaker Adam McKay is clearly not a Cheney fan.  Cheney was an architect of the Bush administration’s war against Iraq, authorization of interrogation techniques many considered torture, and the warrantless surveillance program, and the title speaks to the conclusion that these and other initiatives were neither virtuous nor wise.

The movie also rests on familiar, yet exaggerated or mistaken, premises, about Cheney’s vice presidency. For instance, the movie disparages the pre-Cheney vice presidency as a nothing job.  After Cheney initially declined to be Governor George W. Bush’s running mate but agreed to head the vice-presidential search (which did actually happen), the Dick and Lynne Cheney characters (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) trash the office during a private exchange.  We don’t know whether the conversation took place but it totally mischaracterized the office as of 2000 when the events allegedly occurred. Under President Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale had invented and implemented the White House vice presidency almost a quarter century earlier, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle had basically followed Mondale’s model in their vice presidencies, and Al Gore was nearing the end of what was at that point the most engaged two-term vice presidency in history.

“Vice” implies that Cheney’s initial refusal to run with Bush was part of a Machiavellian plot  whereby Cheney would escape the scrutiny vice-presidential contenders usually get (what Joe Lieberman once analogized to “a colonoscopy without anesthesia”), control the search, and ultimately land the spot in a stronger position nonetheless.  Perhaps, but I doubt it.   More likely, Cheney was reluctant to leave his high-paying CEO gig at Haliburton for an uncertain run for vice president but, as he became comfortable working with Bush and saw the possibilities of life as the number two to a president who liked to delegate and as he saw the limited alternative options available to Bush, warmed to the idea of accepting the second spot.

The movie advances the familiar premise that in the Bush White House Cheney was the power behind the curtain, the ventriloquist pulling the strings that generated Bush’s words and acts.  Indeed, a familiar joke suggested that Bush was a heartbeat from the presidency.  Yes, Cheney was very powerful, especially in the first term, but Bush, not Cheney, was always president, and Cheney, though influential, was never co-president.  Cheney had used his role directing the 2000-2001 transition to place allies throughout the administration but Cheney generally needed to persuade Bush on important matters.  Although he often succeeded, Cheney lost some battles in the first term and many more in the second term after Bush began to see some of Cheney’s limitations and biases and recognized that some of Cheney’s assurances, including about the war in Iraq, had not been borne out, and that Cheney’s penchant for secrecy often had negative political consequences.

“Vice” does not present this aspect, but Bush believed that Cheney’s lack of presidential ambition would commit him to Bush’s agenda and mitigate the tensions that sometimes develop between the two top officers and their teams.  In fact, Cheney’s lack of presidential ambition made him less democratically accountable.  This characteristic manifested itself most clearly in spring 2004 when Cheney did not let Bush know until the last moment that the justice department was resisting reauthorizing the secret warrantless surveillance program and that some high-level members were prepared to resign over the issue.  Bush recognized that such an event would make the blowback from Richard M. Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre look like back page news by comparison, would expose the program, and would make him a one term president.  He must also have realized that Cheney was not as wise as he had thought.  In any event, Cheney had less influence during the second term than the first and left office with his approval rating under water.

This warrantless surveillance episode is not presented in “Vice” but it is discussed, as are these other points, in The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.  After you watch “Vice,” I hope you’ll pursue them there.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of numerous works on the vice presidency, presidential succession, and constitutional law.

How Spiro Agnew Gave My Life Direction

by Joel Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden

I got my start due to Spiro Agnew.

I have spent much of my career writing about the American vice presidency and America’s system for handling presidential succession and inability, including my most recent book, The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016).  It never would have happened had not Agnew, one of our least distinguished vice presidents, gotten in trouble for allegedly taking kickbacks from contractors and been forced to resign as vice president and plead nolo contendere to tax evasion to escape more serious criminal charges 45 years ago, on October 10, 1973,

I was a sophomore at Princeton University then and in those days, before cell phones and inexpensive long-distance call options, college students called home on Sunday to check in with our parents.  On my call home one Sunday in October, 1973,  I reported that I was looking for a paper topic for Professor Stanley Kelley, Jr.’s course on Party Politics. My father mentioned having heard a discussion on the Today Show about the Twenty-fifth Amendment and its procedures to allow a president to nominate someone to fill a vice-presidential vacancy subject to confirmation of both houses of Congress.  President Richard M. Nixon had nominated Representative Gerald R. Ford, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, as the first person presented under the Amendment which had gone into effect in February, 1967 and Congress was preparing for its first application.  Professor Kelley approved the topic and it later expanded to become my Princeton senior thesis topic which Professor Kelley, a gifted and dedicated scholar and teacher, supervised.

In spring, 1975, in the course of completing my senior thesis, I met John D. Feerick, who had, as a young New York lawyer, played a critical role in designing and achieving ratification of the Twenty-fifth Amendment and who had established himself as the leading scholar regarding it.  Although Feerick was incredibly busy as a large-firm lawyer and active public citizen, he spent a lot of time speaking to me about the subject and, in one discussion, suggested that I write a book on the vice presidency since no serious academic study had been produced for a couple of decades.  A year and a half later, he included me in a Symposium on the Vice Presidency he organized for the American Bar Association along with luminaries like Senators Birch Bayh, Robert Griffin and Margaret Chase Smith, presidential scholars and former White House aides George Reedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Charles Kirbo, the confidante of President-elect Jimmy Carter, among others.

The project Feerick suggested became my doctoral dissertation at Oxford University and, after revisions and expansions, my first book, The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution which Princeton University Press published in 1982.  The book, which focused on the vice presidency from Richard M. Nixon in 1953 to Walter F. Mondale a quarter century later, argued that the office had changed dramatically during that period but that the development was due largely to major shifts in the larger context of American government and politics beginning with the New Deal and World War II.  As national government had assumed an expanded role and international and national security issues loomed larger, the presidency became more important and drew the vice presidency away from the legislative branch towards the executive branch, the book argued.  The study taught me that constitutional institutions do not operate in isolation but in a larger context in which changes in one part of the system have repercussions elsewhere.

I continued to write about the vice presidency, the Twenty-fifth Amendment, and presidential succession and inability during the rest of the twentieth century and, as I did and as history unfolded, I realized that the Mondale vice presidency was really part of a new era.  Mondale had not only introduced a new model of the office but the new design had stuck.  Mondale and the very talented people he surrounded himself with, people like Robert Barnett, Mike Berman, Jim Johnson, Richard Moe, and others, had imagined a new vision of the vice presidency as an across the board adviser to, and trouble-shooter for, the president and had identified the resources the vice president would need to succeed in that role.  President Jimmy Carter had embraced this new vision and had brought Mondale into the White House and made him part of his inner circle.  When Carter and Mondale lost in 1980, Mondale and his associates had educated the incoming vice president, George H. W. Bush, regarding the new institution they had created and the practices which made it work, and Bush and President Ronald Reagan had adopted the Mondale model.  Bush had continued it with his Vice President, Dan Quayle, as had Bill Clinton and Al Gore, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama and Joe Biden. They didn’t all do it exactly the same way, or exactly as Mondale would have done it, but they all operated as general advisers and trouble-shooters, kept the resources Carter gave Mondale, and functioned as an integral part of the White House.

Whereas my first book demonstrated the dynamic whereby the vice presidency moved from the legislative to the executive branch, The White House Vice Presidency explores the development of a new orientation away from a focus primarily on providing a prepared presidential successor to trying to help the president succeed on an ongoing basis.  Although the new book provides a portrait of what has become a consequential political institution, the White House vice presidency, it also explores two more universal themes: How enduring constitutional change occurs in America through the repetition of practices and the role of enlightened leadership in transforming political institutions.

It’s been a wonderful journey.  I’ve learned a lot and met some terrific people along the way.  And it’s not over.

But who knows what path my life would have taken if the 39th vice president had not gotten into trouble with the law and had not had to resign 45 years ago on October 10, 1973 when I was looking for a topic for a college paper

I owe a lot to Spiro Agnew, and to a number of other people, too!.

The Vice-Presidential Debate: What’s at Stake?

via Blue Nation Review
via Blue Nation Review

Thursdays from now until the election, we will feature a piece by a UPK author that deals with an aspect of American politics. Today, Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency, discuses the importance and possible impact of Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate.

When Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence square off in the vice-presidential debate on October 4, 2016 they will be engaging in an institution that is both unique and important in American government. The debate, which will take place at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., will be the tenth vice-presidential debate over the last 40 years.

The unique quality of a vice-presidential debate comes from several features. The major party presidential candidates typically debate two or three times, but Kaine and Pence will have only one vice-presidential debate, a pattern that has been followed in every presidential campaign beginning with 1976 except 1980. Accordingly, the stakes for the vice-presidential candidates are high; they have no chance to redeem a poor performance as, for instance, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama did in their second debates in 1984 and 2012 respectively.

The debate also presents a novel experience for the running mates. After all, presidential candidates have been debating during the primary season; the vice-presidential candidates have not had that opportunity except in the rare instances where they were unsuccessful presidential candidates that year (John Edwards, 2004; Joe Biden, 2008).

Moreover, the vice-presidential candidates are frequently relatively unknown. It is not unusual for 30% to 50% of the electorate to feel it knows too little about the vice-presidential candidates to have a firm opinion about them. Some surveys suggest that is the case this time. Neither Pence nor Kaine has run for president, served in high visibility roles, or attracted extensive attention (as Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin did).

9780700622023Finally, the focus of the vice-presidential debate is not so much on the two candidates on stage but on the two national candidates who are absent that night, the presidential candidates. The vice-presidential candidates therefore must be conversant regarding their record and that of their counterpart but also with the positions and biography of the two presidential candidates.

These features introduce some interesting dynamics into the debate. Because many voters will not have fixed opinions about them, vice-presidential candidates want to make a good impression in this signature campaign event to help shape the initial public perceptions of them. How they are regarded will affect their utility during the remainder of the campaign and the extent to which the public views them as a plausible president. Accordingly, they want to present themselves in an appealing way which may lead them to minimize the extent to which they attack the opposing ticket. On the other hand, their role is largely to support the party standard-bearer, by echoing his or her themes, defending his/her views, actions and qualifications and attacking those of the opposing presidential candidate. If the vice-presidential candidates spend a lot of time talking about themselves or their opponent, they are probably missing their main mark.

Yet even if the vice-presidential candidates are not entirely the focus of the vice-presidential debate, the vice-presidential debate is an important institution. It gives presidential candidates greater reason to choose a running mate who is able and accomplished and who can perform well under the bright lights of a national campaign. It focuses the spotlight on the second candidates, thereby making it easier for voters to consider them in casting their votes. Thus, the vice-presidential debate contributes to the quality of vice-presidential candidates (and vice presidents) and helps make their election more democratic.

And sometimes the vice-presidential debate makes a difference. In the first debate in 1976, Senator Walter F. Mondale helped, and Senator Bob Dole hurt, his cause. Mondale had themes and presented himself in an appealing way; Dole came across as sarcastic and unfocused. The highlight of the debate came when Dole blamed the Democratic party for all of the wars in the 20th century, prompting Mondale’s rebuke that “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight, by implying, and stating, that World War II and the Korean War were Democratic wars.” Thereafter, Governor Jimmy Carter routinely cited the Mondale-Dole choice as a reason voters should support him, the Democrats used the vice-presidential choice in campaign ads, and Mondale contributed to Carter’s victory.

Dick Cheney was seen as having bested his rivals in the 2000 and 2004 debates; Senator Joe Lieberman’s unwillingness to attack the Republican ticket vigorously in 2000 was seen as a missed opportunity for the Democrats in a painfully close election.

In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden shifted the momentum in the Democrats’ favor after President Barack Obama had a substandard first debate. Biden ridiculed the positions of Governor Mitt Romney and Representative Paul Ryan and his performance energized the Democratic base.

The Biden-Palin debate outdrew the presidential debates that year, the only time the undercard debate has received such relative prominence. After Palin’s disastrous interview with Katie Couric, many watched the debate anticipating a monumental meltdown. She got through the debate without any such debacle but failed to persuade most Americans that she was qualified to be president. By contrast, Biden provided a masterful performance. Whereas the Pew Research Center found that only 42% thought Palin was qualified to be president (compared to 52% who did not), 77% saw Biden as qualified (as opposed to 16%).

The most famous moment in presidential debate history, of course, occurred in the 1988 vice-presidential debate when Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered his “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” putdown to Senator Dan Quayle after the Indiana senator had compared his congressional experience to that of JFK. Quayle had actually done pretty well in the debate, attacking Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as a tax-and-spend liberal. But when the panel of reporters persisted in asking Quayle what he would do if he became president, Quayle misinterpreted the questions as challenging his qualifications and ignored his handlers’ admonition to avoid the JFK comparisons and spoiled an otherwise successful evening. The rest, as they say, is history.

Quayle went on to become vice president and contributed in that role to the George H.W. Bush administration. But he never escaped that dramatic moment and we’re reminded of it every four years about this time as it is replayed again and again.

That provides a cautionary tale for Mssrs. Pence and Kaine as they approach this major event in their national political careers. No matter how well they do in presenting themselves and in sounding campaign themes, celebrating their ticket-mate, and criticizing the opposing presidential candidate, one inopportune moment may prove defining. Or a uniformly impressive performance may enhance their stature and their ticket’s prospects.

By Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law

The Wavering Qualifications of a Vice President

9780700622023In a recent piece on U.S. News & World Report, Robert Schlesinger argues that “The vice presidency, it’s been paraphrased, is not worth a bucket of warm spit. But over the last couple of decades two competing and frankly unsettling trends have occurred around that position.”

Schlesinger sites author Joel Goldstein’s book The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden” to illustrate the increased expectancy of Vice Presidential candidates. He writes that, even though the role and importance of the Vice President has evolved over the past 40 years, the qualifications of the candidates may not always stack up.

“But even as the vice presidency has found its proverbial groove, the quality of candidate for the office has not kept pace, especially since George H. W. Bush,” Schlesinger writes. “He was qualified to follow Mondale, of course, but his own hand-picked successor, Dan Quayle, was famously ‘no Jack Kennedy.’ Quayle’s four years as the number two were a nothingburger (though in fairness, Goldstein says he was a “valuable legislative and political adviser and operative”), for better or worse.”

 

UPK Author Goldstein Analyzes Trump’s Choices for Vice President

9780700622023In USA Today Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency, a new book about how the office and role of VP has grown in importance in recent decades, reviews the numerous possible strategies and candidates for a Trump running mate: insider/outsider?, male/female?, current politician/former politician?, governor/senator?

So You Want to Be Vice-President

9780700622023Joel K. Goldstein, author of “The White House Vice-Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden,” offers a list of thoughts for potential VPs to consider this election year via Larry J. Sabato’s Cyrstal Ball:

1. Do you want to be vice president?

The first question for a prospective running mate is whether they want to be vice president. The question may sound the same as the one that John Nance Garner, Richard M. Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey and others faced in their days, but the considerations are quite different now. The vice presidency has grown remarkably, moving into the executive branch beginning with Nixon’s VP terms and into the White House since Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale reshaped the office 40 years ago. Whereas the vice presidency used to have formal stature but little role, more recently, the term “second office” has come closer to describing its real significance.

Still, as with many career choices, there are considerations going both ways. The advantages include the fact that since Carter and Mondale created the White House vice presidency, the vice president has become a senior, across-the-board presidential adviser and troubleshooter who counsels the president on the central issues facing the country and represents the United States on significant international missions. In other words, a presidential insider. The specific activities and influence of recent vice presidents have varied but the last six vice presidents (beginning with Mondale) have each performed the roles described above with a set of resources to support that activity. Vice presidents now provide highly significant public service.

Whereas a presidential race presents a daunting challenge, a vice presidential run is much more manageable. Presidential candidates have to spend years raising enormous amounts of money and winters in Iowa and New Hampshire, but a vice presidential race is essentially a 10 to 14 week sprint. Even so, a vice presidential candidate emerges from the campaign with high name recognition, a national platform, and friends around the country.

The vice presidency is also the best presidential springboard. While even most modern vice presidents don’t become president, being vice president enhances the chance that almost any individual will become a presidential nominee (e.g., Nixon, Humphrey, Mondale, and Al Gore) or president (Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and George H.W. Bush). Even many unsuccessful candidates see their stature rise and later assume significant roles (Bob Dole, Edmund Muskie, Lloyd Bentsen, and Paul Ryan). Many future presidential nominees had previously been considered but passed over for the second spot on the ticket (Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney).

There are disadvantages, too. A vice president loses independence in becoming part of the president’s team. The VP’s role is to help the president succeed, not advance an independent agenda. A vice president will be associated even with administration actions he privately opposed. The public may perceive the vice president as a follower, not leader, because that is the public role she plays.

Moreover, being vice president subjects the vice president and family to intense scrutiny. The Naval Observatory and other amenities are attractive, but the vice presidential spouse and children will lose some privacy. An in-law’s shady business dealing or a nephew’s DWI will become national news.

2. Are you suited to being No. 2?

The vice presidency is a much better job than it was even 40 years ago, but it’s still not for every able public official. Although vice presidents must be leaders who can tell the president discretely, but candidly, when he/she is wrong and who can relate to heads of state and congressional leaders as at least equals, they also have to be able to operate comfortably in a subordinate role. LBJ and Nelson Rockefeller were temperamentally unsuited to be vice president. Both were pretty miserable, and not particularly successful, in that office. Someone who cannot follow will probably not do well as vice president. Most recent vice presidents have adjusted pretty well to the role, uncomfortable or unnatural as it was for some of them. It cannot have been easy for Joe Biden, after six terms in the Senate and chairing two major committees, to defer to anyone, especially someone 19 years younger with 32 years less Senate seniority, yet he did. At the least, a vice president probably needs to respect the president and possess interpersonal skills and discipline to manage relationships with the president, the First Spouse, chief of staff, and the young and often overly-assertive campaign associates of the presidential candidate.

3. Do political considerations counsel against a race?

Sometimes political considerations deter a candidacy. Joining a presidential candidate who seems destined to lose has less appeal than running with a likely winner or one who at least has a chance. Similarly, a prospective candidate who is up for re-election is less likely to accept the second spot. Although some recent vice presidential candidates were able to run simultaneously for their current position (LBJ, Bentsen, Joe Lieberman, Biden, Ryan), some others were precluded from doing so by state law or because the competitive nature of their re-election campaign demanded their undivided attention. Further, prudent candidates consider their readiness for a national campaign, an undertaking that focuses attention on a candidate unlike any prior experience. Someone who is not ready for prime time is likely to damage their party’s campaign and their political future, costs that even a post-campaign gig as a talking head may not redeem. Think Sarah Palin. Whereas presidential candidates can hone their pitches long before Iowa and New Hampshire when few are watching closely, a vice presidential candidate has little time to prepare. He/she must step under the campaign’s bright lights immediately. Negative early impressions are difficult to erase especially for those new to the national stage. Finally, association with the presidential candidate may have advantages but also disadvantages. Given Donald Trump’s polarizing place even within the GOP, prospective Republican candidates, particularly those who are considering future runs for office, will have to consider the pluses and minuses of joining Trump’s ticket.

4. Compatibility

The identity of the presidential candidate matters. The experience, as vice presidential candidate and as vice president, will depend on the compatibility, politically and personally, between the presidential and vice presidential candidates. The two principals don’t have to be ideological carbon copies: Carter-Mondale, Ronald Reagan-Bush, Bush-Dan Quayle, among others, were not. Some variation probably helps, from a political and governing standpoint. But their world views must be generally harmonious so that differences occur at the margins, not routinely over matters of principle.

A prospective running mate should also ask whether he/she could envision a beneficial relationship with the presidential candidate over four or eight stressful years in the hierarchical situation the presidency-vice presidency imposes. At its best, it’s a partnership, but the partners do not share power or benefits equally. The vice president is dependent on the president.

Is the presidential candidate someone to be trusted, someone of decency, someone who will treat others as he/she would want to be treated? Does the presidential candidate appreciate the vice presidency as an asset and envision a substantive role like Mondale, Bush, Quayle, Gore, Cheney, and Biden had? Does the presidential candidate value the prospective running mate? Will the president make others in the campaign and administration accord the No. 2 respect? Being Johnson’s or Nixon’s vice president was no picnic. The last six presidents have treated their vice presidents well, but that had something to do with the personalities of the presidents and the relationships of the principals.

5. Does the running mate add value to the ticket?

A vice president is most likely to be successful if he/she adds something of value, not simply during the campaign but after the votes are counted. Of course, a vice president who contributes to the victory, as Mondale and Gore did, will start out with political capital. So will one, like Dick Cheney, who has a strong relationship with the presidential nominee based on prior work together. But such advantages are unlikely to sustain the relationship if the vice president cannot continually prove his/her value. Successful vice presidencies depend on the incumbent’s ability to add value through some combination of his/her knowledge, judgment, skills, relationships and personal characteristics (e.g. loyalty, hard-work). The vice president has to be able to contribute through advising and troubleshooting on some combination of diplomatic, legislative, inter-governmental, political, and constituency work that is significant for the administration.

6. Vettability

A prospective running mate who decides he/she would like to be vice president must also consider whether he/she can pass a rigorous vetting screen. The process of vice presidential vetting has come a long way since 1976 when the questionnaire given Carter’s shortlisters posed fewer than 20 questions. The process is now much, much more burdensome, much more time-consuming, much more costly, and much more intrusive. Joe Lieberman compared it to a “colonoscopy without anesthesia” after 2000 (although he was prepared to undergo another one eight years later to join McCain’s ticket). Between the vetting the presidential candidate imposes, media investigation, and opposition research, a vice presidential candidate has to assume that virtually everything in his/her life will become public. And the scrutiny will extend to their spouse and children who also may be questioned about sexual affairs, sexual orientation, drug use, and other very personal matters. A prospective vice presidential candidate must be prepared to allow his/her personal and family secrets to become fodder for opposing Super PACs.

7. Duty

The foregoing assumes that a prospective running mate would simply consider self-interest in making the decision. Yet some make themselves available because they feel obligated, to country and/or party, to do so. There is reason to believe, for instance, that a sense of duty led John Danforth in 2000 and Biden in 2008 to allow themselves to be considered.

In the 19th century, Daniel Webster declined the second spot because he did “not want to be buried until I die.” In modern times, many of our ablest political leaders have been willing to accept the second spot on a ticket. And vice presidents since Mondale (other than Bush, who later served as president) performed their most consequential public service in the second office. Still, some eminent figures, such as Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, and Colin Powell, have recently declined to be considered. Again, a Trump nomination could create a unique dynamic: Given the intense opposition from many party regulars to his nomination, it is conceivable that at least some prospective running mates may conclude that duty to the party counsels avoiding the second spot on his ticket (whereas others might reach a different conclusion).

In any event, dozens of public figures are now, or will soon be, deciding whether the White House vice presidency appeals to them. Those decisions will be one important variable in shaping the pools from which the major party running mates are chosen.

-Written by Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden