For years, people both among the political elites and within the greater American public have questioned the importance of the vice presidential selection and their subsequent duties in the executive branch. According to Amy Gaudion and Douglas Stuart of The New York Times, even John Adams, the nation’s very first vice president, said the position was “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” Adams’ comment brings up the question asked with regularity every four years – does the vice presidential pick even matter? Sure a presidential candidate may deliberate for weeks over who to select as his running mate, and sure the media may capitalize on the speculation, but in the end, is the vice presidential pick that important in the greater context of the presidential campaign? Beyond balancing the ticket, targeting a key state or adding political experience, what does the vice presidential candidate bring to the table?
As Christian Heinze wrote for The Hill, “Over the past 30 years, it’s rare to find a time when a vice presidential pick actually made a difference – for either the good or the bad.” Ezra Klein wrote in The Washington Post Wonkblog, “The base case with any vice presidential pick is that, if they do a good job, they don’t do any harm.” And Chris Cillizza, writing for The Washington Post’s The Fix, says “the simple reality is that the vice presidential pick – viewed through the lens of recent history – has almost no broad influence on the fate of the ticket.” So needless to say, doubt abounds when it comes to the significance of the vice presidential candidate selection in a presidential campaign.
If it’s the case that the vice presidential pick has relatively little influence on the outcome of the ticket, then what does the selected running mate contribute to the public conversation surrounding the campaign? Rather than offering American voters a reason to either vote for a ticket or not, I would argue that the vice presidential pick offers more of a reflection on the presidential candidate’s governing style, judgment and values. And, while the candidates attempt to convey all of these elements throughout the course of the entire campaign, the selection of their running mate provides perhaps the clearest perspective on these important aspects of the candidate himself. Indeed, the vice presidential selection offers a way for the presidential candidate to convey his own message and ideals, and communicate with the American public in a basic, authentic way.
Yet in their article, Lee Sigelman and Paul Wahlbeck contend that the “outcome of the ‘veepstakes’ is far more likely to be based on short-term electoral calculations than on long-term governance.” Sigelman and Wahlbeck argue that ticket balance is key – whether that means selecting a running mate more or less moderate than the candidate to appease the range of the party, selecting a running mate with more experience to accompany a less experienced candidate (ex. Obama’s choice of Joe Biden), or selecting a running mate older or younger than the candidate to appeal to more age demographics. They say, “Balancing the ticket ideologically has the potential to reconcile disaffected elements of the party and to broaden the presidential nominee’s appeal.”
Mark Hiller and Douglas Kriner take that assessment one step further in arguing that presidential candidate must look for a running mate in terms of “maximizing their chances of actually being elected president and selecting a vice president who is capable of sharing the burdens of governments and if necessary, succeeding to the presidency.” However they, like Sigelman and Wahlbeck, say that “selecting a vice president from a disaffected region or from a large state with important party leaders was critical for forming a unified partisan front that could mobilize effectively the entire party apparatus for the general campaign.” The authors argue that not only is vice presidential selection important to the presidential candidate’s chances in the election, but it also has to be considered in terms of their potential to assume the role of the president in extenuating circumstances.
Looking at these two articles would appear to signal the importance, rather than the lack of importance, in selecting the vice president. The arguments put forth by both Sigelman and Wahlbeck, and Hiller and Kriner would appear to contradict the arguments of today’s prominent political commenters like Ezra Klein and Chris Cillizza, who contend that the running mate selection has relatively little significance or impact on the overall presidential race. Indeed, Klein points out in his article that “it’s difficult to imagine that the post-Ryan bump will be radically different from what Romney would have received from any credible VP pick,” suggesting that really any qualified candidate could be selected and it wouldn’t sway the race one way or the other, diminishing the importance of that selection.
However, I would argue that rather than the academic findings contradicting the conclusions drawn by political commenters, they instead are just looking at the vice presidential selection process from two different communication perspectives. Sigelman and Wahlbeck, and Hiller and Kriner root their arguments for the importance of the vice presidential selection in the perspective of the presidential candidate and his campaign, while Klein and other media professional root their arguments to the contrary in the perspective of the public.
From the candidate’s perspective, the vice presidential pick is important because it communicates a message of balance and comprehensive experience, a message that appeals to broader demographics because of the complementary experiences and backgrounds of the candidate and the running mate. But from the public’s perspective, the vice presidential selection is not as important because it doesn’t communicate as much about the running mate as it does about the presidential candidate himself – his good judgment in choosing a qualified running mate, or his poor judgment in choosing a mate that appears extreme or inexperienced (ex. John McCain’s choice backfired with Sarah Palin). The vice presidential selection also communicates to the public the sort of values and policies that are important to the candidate, perhaps more so than debates or speeches are able to communicate the same information. Thus, from both perspectives, the selection of the vice president is a means of communicating a message to the public – yet what message the public receives and interprets may be considerably different than the message the campaign hopes to craft.