Vice Presidential selection is a form of indirect democracy. Citizens vote for the candidates, and the candidates pick their running mate. Voters don’t get one candidate or the other, and the pair is seen as the ultimate package deal. But what is the thought process behind the picking? How much of an effect, either favorably or unfavorably, does the pick have on the overall election outcome? More importantly, with little actual responsibility or power, why would any influential politician want the job? This blog will explore these questions as well as take a look inside the most infamous VP pick of our generation.
The Vice Presidency is an interesting position. Besides the responsibility of being a tiebreaker in the senate and being first in line for the Presidency, the Vice President really has no constitutional duties or responsibilities at all. John Nance Garner, the Vice President to FRD is famous for repeatedly chirping, “The vice-presidency ain’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.” So why would anyone want to be the Vice President of the United States? Many candidates give up much more influential and powerful positions in order to fill the role.
Well, the more recent interpretation of the Vice Presidential role involves a much larger policy advising presence. “The American Vice Presidency has recently matured into a distinguished office of considerable authority.”(3) Cheney proved this theory with his “unprecedented power in the administration of George W. Bush, from advocating the Iraq Way to shaping the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and forging the nation’s energy policy. In addition, “of vice presidents who have served since Richard Nixon’s tenure under Dwight Eisenhower, all but three have been leading contenders for their party’s presidential nomination.” (2)
In addition to a greater role, there has been a growing interest in the vice president as a part of the party ticket. This is evident through the number of polls questions that ask the public about their thoughts on the Vice President specifically, without any reference to the president. This indicates the increased recognition of Vice Presidents as individuals, independent from the President.
Because there is a growing role and importance of the Vice President, it is an important decision for a presidential candidate to make. Hiller and Kriner believe that there are two competing goals to consider when picking a vice presidential candidate. One: “Maximizing their chances of actually being elected president” and two: “selecting a vice president who is capable of sharing the burdens of government and, if necessary, succeeding to the presidency.” However, because number two is irrelevant without number one, there is an academic consensus that the former is what drives most Vice Presidential picks.
Because candidates are so focused on winning elections, running mates are often referred to as a political tool. William Meyer has stated, “for the presidential aspirant who needed a few final votes to achieve or protect his majority, the vice president was an invaluable piece of bair that could be used to attract last-minute support from favorite sons, second tier candidates, interest group representatives, and state party leaders.” (3)
There are a few theories on methods that are used in order to make the best VP pick during election season. The ticket-balancing theory – or picking a candidate that will appeal to the electorate that you don’t – is the most widely hypothesized, but still has little empirical evidence. Interestingly enough, “factors long thought to influence the selection process, including religion, political ideology, race, gender, and ethnicity, were shown, surprisingly, to have little or no effect on the likelihood of selection. Other theories also performed poorly when put to the test. One of the only consistent fact that seems to be true is that “running mates were more likely to be chosen if they hailed from populous states, a different age cohort from the presidential nominee, or had challenged the presidential nominee in the past (but not current) presidential race.” (3)
Region has also been a proved to be a predictor of the vice presidential pick. “Between 1952 and 1980 […] 15 of 16 majority party tickets showed regional balance. But only six showed an ideological balance. Similarly, between 1884 and 1984, only five of 52 major party nominations were not regionally balanced – and in four of these, the party with such a ticket lost.” (4) The concept of “home state advantage” is an important predictor of election results. From 1884 to 1984, “presidential candidates carried their running mate’s state 63.4 percent of the time.”
There have been few attempts to discover whether or not vice presidential picks have direct affects on the vote. However, the two noted are Adkison and Romero, both concluding “individual-level analysis overstates the impact of vice presidential preferences on vote choice, after controlling for rationalization of the vote.”
Wattenberg and Grofman, however, have taken data from 1968-2008, all years in which the perceived importance of the vice presidency was growing. In the table below, the first letter indicates which party the presidential candidate that the voter prefers belongs to. The second level is the party of the preferred vice presidential candidate. The percentage points indicate how likely the voter with these feelings are to vote republican.
Clearly, and intuitively, the highest likelihood of a voter to choose a certain party occurs when the preferred presidential and vice presidential candidates belong to the same party. When the Vice President preferred belongs to a different party that the Presidential preferred, there is certainly more conflict.
There is an average of a .14 increase in likelihood to switch to the vice presidential candidate’s party when compared to the lack of conflict in the decision when both preferred candidates belong to the party. Therefore, although many scholars believe that the Vice Presidential candidates have little to no affect on the vote, this research shows that a likable Vice Presidential candidate on the opposite party could have a somewhat significant effect on the votes. (1)
Eleven percent of the electorate is conflicted and is either DR or RD. Within these numbers, there is nearly a 2 to 1 divide with RD voters outnumbering DR voters. This translates to vice presidential picks generally favoring the Democratic Party. However, overall, of the 11% of the electorate who are conflicted, a shockingly small percentage of them vote based on their vice presidential preference. In fact, “only in 1972 was more than 1% of the final vote affected by conflicted vice presidential and presidential preferences.”
On August 30, 2008, John McCain shocked the nation when he picked Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential candidate. McCain, in his first statements described Palin as “exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics.” Palin branded herself as “just your average hocky mom in Alaska.”
The ticket balancing theory certainly checks out in this case. An old political veteran and a woman fresh to the political game. However, for more reasons than one, Palin ended up hurting the 2008 republican ticket. While, as stated above, vice presidential candidates usually don’t have a huge affect on the public opinion of the ticket, a 2008 AlterNet article just two months before the election is titled “Polls Show Palin is Starting to Drag Down McCain.” While originally bringing rejuvenation to the republican campaign, Palin soon became a liability to the ticket. As spoken to above, vice presidents only have two constitutional duties. Suddenly, one of those duties, being second in line to the presidency, really scared the public.. In fact, Palin’s approval rating dropped a shicking 21 points in just one week. (5)
Looking back in hindsight, Dick Cheney, an expert on the vice presidency, claims that picking Sarah Palin was a mistake. “The test to get on that small list has to be, is this person capable of being president of the United States[…] I don’t think she passed that test.” (6)
Overall, little is known about the decision making process for the Vice Presidential candidate. While the theory remains to be the ticket-balancing strategy, there is little to no empirical evidence supporting it. Geography seems to be the most likely predictor. While VP picks change the mind of less than 1% of Americans, candidates like Sarah Palin may have skewed the numbers. Positive joint tickets may have almost no affect on voter choice, but Palin proves that a bad pick could have voters running to the opposite party.
- Grofman, Bernard, and Reuben Kline. “Evaluating the impact of vice presidential selection on voter choice.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 40.2 (2010): 303+. Academic OneFile. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.
- “The Polls”: Popular Views of the Vice President: Vice Presidential Approval
Jeffrey E. Cohen
Presidential Studies Quarterly , Vol. 31, No. 1 (Mar., 2001), pp. 142-149
- Institutional Change and the Dynamics of Vice Presidential Selection
MARK HILLER and DOUGLAS KRINER
Presidential Studies Quarterly , Vol. 38, No. 3 (September 2008), pp. 401-421
- Vice-Presidential Candidates and the Home State Advantage: Playing Second Banana at Home and on the Road
Robert L. Dudley and Ronald B. Rapoport
American Journal of Political Science , Vol. 33, No. 2 (May, 1989), pp. 537-540