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Melissa Flandreau

With the increased speculation over Mitt Romney’s choice for vice-presidential candidate, it’s easy to think the media firestorm means the selection will have a significant impact on the election this fall. For example, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio could help Romney increase his appeal to Hispanic voters (though there’s been much debate over Rubio’s actual pull). As an alternative, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman is safe, solid conservative who won’t draw undue criticism (or call to mind 2008’s polarizing choice of Sarah Palin), and might help Romney win a swing state.

There is some literature to support the idea that vice-presidential candidates are crucial in getting presidential nominees votes in whichever region or demographic they are most desperately needed. In their article “The Veepstakes: Strategic Choice in Presidential Running Mate Selection,” Lee Sigelman and Paul Wahlbeck emphasize this importance and argue that presidential candidates will make their selection based on “who will provide the greatest boost to their chances of being elected.”

But while the Republican VP debate will likely rage on until November, there’s a critical question that’s not being asked: Does Romney’s choice actually matter?

There are arguments to be made either way, and some research indicates vice-presidential candidates have significant influence on individuals’ voting preferences — even if they don’t greatly affect aggregate-level voting. But in his article “Requiem for a Lightweight: Vice Presidential Candidate Evaluations and the Presidential Vote,” David Romero argues that this individual influence has been greatly overstated. Instead, he says, “Vice presidential candidate evaluations have no meaningful substantive or statistical influence on the presidential vote” (461).  Romero states that because of voter predispositions — party, presidential candidate preferences, etc. — vice-presidential candidates don’t make an impact on voters. He does admit, however, that it’s possible they have “an indirect influence through presidential candidate evaluations” (461).

While I think Romero is right to dismiss the findings that indicate vice-presidential candidates significantly influence which candidate voters choose, I feel that his caveat about indirect influence is more important than he makes it seem. Throughout the semester, we’ve talked a lot about the public’s perception of candidates, and I think that vice-presidential candidates can be important in affecting this.

It might not be likely that a vice-presidential candidate would cause someone to change their vote from one party to another, but it is possible that it would increase or decrease their overall happiness with the presidential nominee. A smartly chosen vice-presidential candidate can help change the public’s perception of a presidential candidate, and I don’t think that effect should be overlooked. Perhaps President Obama didn’t gain a significant number of votes by selecting Joe Biden as his running mate, but he did add much-needed experience to his ticket. By doing that, he altered his appearance of being too inexperienced, and allowed his youth to be portrayed and perceived as a strength.

Although Romney’s choice for running mate is unlikely to influence the election’s outcome in a significant way, it could help bolster support within the Republican Party. A more conservative VP choice might balance out some of the perception that Romney is too liberal. Likewise, a charismatic candidate who appeals to younger voters might lessen criticism that Romney is too stiff and help him succeed in connecting with the public.

A vice-presidential candidate might not mean additional votes, but additional overall happiness with a candidate isn’t something to overlook entirely.

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