Between the time a presidential candidate clinches his party’s nomination and the moment he stands before the convention to kick off the general election campaign, he must make a daunting decision: choose someone to serve as his running mate and, in case of victory, his vice president. During this interval, the presidential candidates contemplate and the political strategists and pundits argue the advantages and disadvantages of the prospects—weighing elements of geography, ideology, personal history, ethnicity, religion, campaign skills, and personal compatibility. It’s one of the most fascinating and suspenseful questions of the entire campaign—and, from a political standpoint, one of the least important.
Why? Because for all the ink and air time devoted to the selection, it’s not likely to have any detectable bearing on the outcome of the race—not this year, and not any year. Given that the vice president can become president at any moment—as 13 vice presidents have done—you would think Americans would place considerable importance on his or her fitness for the top job. An ill-considered No. 2 could become a disastrous chief executive. But the truth is that for better or worse, voters don’t make their decision on that criterion, and they never have. For most Americans, casting a ballot on the basis of the vice-presidential nominee is like choosing a spouse based on the attractiveness of the in-laws.
It’s widely assumed that a poor choice can torpedo a campaign. When George Bush picked Dan Quayle in August 1988, Bush trailed Michael Dukakis in the polls by anywhere from seven to 14 points. Quayle was a disaster from the start when he was swept into a controversy over his Vietnam-era service in the Indiana National Guard, a furor that immediately revealed him to be a vacant boob for whom the term “deer in the headlights” was coined. Things only got worse. In his debate with Dukakis running mate Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle dared to claim that he was just as experienced as John Kennedy was when he ran for president. Bentsen shot back one of the most devastating rejoinders in campaign history: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen, a Senate veteran, was experienced and articulate, with a distinguished record in World War II. Next to him, Quayle was hopelessly outdone by any measure—except one. Bush and Quayle won 54 percent of the popular vote and 426 of the 538 electoral votes. Bentsen couldn’t even carry his home state of Texas.
Quayle was the worst GOP running mate since Richard Nixon chose Spiro Agnew, who also made the leap from complete unknown to national laughingstock practically overnight. His 1968 campaign performance was a catalog of gaffes, from calling a reporter a “fat Jap” to saying, “If you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all.” The Democrats exploited the opening for all it was worth, running one brutally effective ad with Agnew’s visage accompanied by the sound of a man laughing uproariously. Meanwhile, Edmund Muskie quickly proved so impressive as Hubert Humphrey’s sidekick that he was soon hailed as a future president. The vice-presidential competition was a slam-dunk triumph for the Democrats. The election, however, was not.
Plenty of other history confirms the essential irrelevance of running mates. Franklin Roosevelt won with three different ones. Tom Dewey lost in 1944 and 1948 with two different ones, as did Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956.
George McGovern didn’t help his cause when he had to drop Tom Eagleton from the 1972 Democratic ticket after it was learned he had been treated for depression, but McGovern couldn’t have won with Thomas Jefferson on the ticket. Though Bob Dole caught hell in 1976 for denouncing “Democrat wars,” factors such as the pardon of Richard Nixon, the defeat in Vietnam, and the bumpy economy were what really cost Gerald Ford the election. In 1996, sunny and loquacious Jack Kemp was everyone’s idea of the perfect running mate for the laconic, prickly Bob Dole, but Kemp had no discernible impact. In Gallup Polls taken every four years asking if the selection of a particular running mate or a type of running mate (a black, for example, or a woman) would make the respondent more or less likely to vote for either ticket, the invariable consensus choice is that it “doesn’t make much difference.” Even in 1988, 64 percent of voters said that about Quayle. Only 5 percent of those who voted for Dukakis gave Quayle as an explanation.
Michael Barone, co-editor of The Almanac of American Politics, says the closest a running mate has come to deciding an election was 1960, when Lyndon Johnson helped secure Texas by a bare 46,000 votes in an extremely close election. But even if the Democrats had lost there, John Kennedy still would have won with nine electoral votes to spare.
From the early days of the republic, presidential nominees have generally tried to balance the ticket by choosing someone different from themselves in regional origin, philosophy, religion, and the like. Ignoring the usual imperatives in 1992, Bill Clinton chose a fellow moderate, Southern, Protestant baby boomer. Though Gore probably deserves credit for bringing Tennessee into the Democratic column, that made no difference in the outcome, and even two guys from Dixie could carry only five of 12 Southern states in 1992.
Don’t expect any of the prospects being mentioned to make a difference this year. Gray Davis or Dianne Feinstein might nail down California—running mates do tend to help in their home states—but Gore shouldn’t need special help to win there. As for energizing women, neither Feinstein nor any other female is likely to do that, any more than the only previous female choice, Geraldine Ferraro, did in 1984: She and Walter Mondale got the same percentage of the women’s vote (45) that Carter and Mondale had gotten four years earlier. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson was talked about as a way to capture Hispanics—at least until news emerged of nuclear weapons security lapses on his watch—but even a flawless Hispanic probably wouldn’t have the slightest effect on the outcome. Bush will win Texas regardless, and Florida should be his unless his campaign implodes. In Illinois, one of the few really competitive states with many Hispanics, they have a powerful habit of voting Democratic already.
The Illinoisans available, such as Sen. Dick Durbin or Gore campaign manager Bill Daley, have local name recognition lower than that of the Cubs’ backup catcher. Gov. Tom Ridge would help more in Pennsylvania, but he runs the risk of driving anti-abortion Republicans into the arms of Pat Buchanan. John McCain is supposed to be able to deliver hordes of reform-minded independents to Bush, but there is no reason to think his appeal is transferable. Whatever McCain does, they’re likely to split between Bush, Gore, Buchanan, and even Ralph Nader (why do you think they’re called independents?). Though imaginative observers can spin out all sorts of elaborate theories how this or that running mate could be the key to the Oval Office, the Election Day reality never seems to live up to the predictions.
But maybe this year is different. This year, you see, there’s the tantalizing Colin Powell scenario. It goes like this: Bush makes him the first black to run on a major party’s national ticket, millions of black voters are so enthralled by the chance to put one of their own in the nation’s second-highest office that they abandon their traditional party allegiance, turning the tide in one crucial state after another and delivering Bush a stunning victory. Could it happen?