Every four years, just as the speculation over potential running mates reaches a fever pitch, contrarian voices speak up to dismiss it all as much ado about nothing. They are wrong.
Take, for example, this Sunday’s Meet the Press. After discussing this year’s usual VP suspects with the shows’ other two panelists, moderator Tom Brokaw turned to Judy Woodruff, cited the example of 1988 – when the Democratic ticket received no tangible Election Day boost from Lloyd Bentsen’s utter dominance of Dan Quayle in the VP matchup – and asked: “In the final analysis, Judy, how much difference does it make?”
Woodruff took the cue. In addition to the Bentsen example, she invoked the name of Spiro Agnew, an unpopular pick by Richard Nixon, who nonetheless won the White House in both 1968 and 1972. “I think,” Woodruff said, “a lot of these arguments that people talk about, you know, the ‘first do no harm’ – you can do a little harm and still cross the finish line.”
She also targeted the geography argument – the notion that a VP candidate will at the very least secure his (or her) home state for the ticket – claiming that the last VP nominee actually to affect the outcome in his home state was L.B.J. in Texas. “Lyndon Johnson helped John Kennedy, and that was almost a half a century ago,” Woodruff declared.
There is plenty of superficial appeal for this argument. After all, as we always hear when the exit polls are reviewed on Election Night, almost no voters cite that the identity of either party’s VP candidate as a major consideration in their decision. But data like that, like the historical examples of superior running mates on losing tickets, can be highly misleading.
Start with the geography argument. L.B.J. was certainly instrumental in securing Kennedy’s two-point win in Texas (a state that had voted Republican in the two previous elections), but there are other examples.
Bill Clinton carried Tennessee by just five points in 1992 and by just two in his 1996 reelection effort. Both of those victories can be credibly attributed to Al Gore’s presence. Some will say that Gore lost his home state as a presidential candidate in 2000, but he performed better in Tennessee in 2000 than in any other (non-Florida) Southern state, a clear sign that he still brought extra votes to the Democratic ticket. And his home- state popularity dropped off markedly as the ’90s progressed – recall that he handily won his 1990 Senate reelection race – meaning that he was still a net asset in both ’92 and ’96.
Similarly, Ed Muskie’s exalted status in his home state was probably the decisive factor in Hubert Humphrey’s 12-point win in Maine in 1968. The state (save for the ’64 L.B.J. landslide) had been solidly Republican since World War II, and its northern New England neighbors, New Hampshire and Vermont, both favored Nixon over Humphrey by nearly 10 points in ’68. Walter Mondale can also be credited with securing Jimmy Carter’s slim 3.9 percent victory in Minnesota in 1980 – one of only five states Carter carried that year. And it’s not impossible that Bob Dole made the difference for Gerald Ford in 1976 in Kansas, a deeply Republican state that – like other Republican prairie states such as South Dakota (a one-point Ford win in ’76), North Dakota (Ford by four), and Iowa (Ford by one) – was very much within reach for the Democrats’ Carter-Mondale ticket that year. With Dole on his team, Ford carried Kansas by seven points.
Those are just the most obvious and direct examples of running mates providing a geographic boost. A compelling case can be made, for instance, that Mondale also brought Wisconsin into the Democratic fold in 1976, with his Minnesota roots appealing to just enough Badger State voters to lift Carter to a two-point win. In that same way, Dole’s prairie background probably helped Ford not just in Kansas, but in the other close states mentioned above.
Similarly, Gore’s presence in ’92 gave the Democrats their most Southern-accented ticket ever – surely a boost in Georgia (a one-point Clinton win), and Kentucky (Clinton by three in ’92 – and again by a point in ’96).
It also must be noted that geography isn’t always the rationale for a candidates’ VP pick. For example, neither Dick Cheney (of red-state Wyoming) nor Joe Lieberman (of Democratic Connecticut) was picked in 2000 to win their home states or regions (although Lieberman’s selection, in part, was aimed at winning Florida – which, some might argue, he did help accomplish). Neither was geography a consideration when Bob Dole chose New York’s Jack Kemp in ’96, or when George H. W. Bush tapped Dan Quayle of Indiana in 1988, or when Walter Mondale went with Queens’ own Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, or even when Barry Goldwater picked William Miller of New York in 1964.
In fact, if you consider the 24 major party running mates from 1960 through 2004, 14 of them were clearly not picked with the aim of securing a victory in a specific state or state. This only serves to disprove the notion that presidential nominees try – and fail – every four years to pick off a specific state or two with their VP selection. It says nothing that VP nominee Henry Cabot Lodge failed to carry Massachusetts for Nixon and the Republicans in 1960.
Moreover, since Kennedy’s razor-thin election in ’60, we have seen sweeping national landslides in 1964, 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988, years in which one party won 40 or more states. There really isn’t much that even the best VP candidates can do in years like those. Because of Minnesota’s Democratic bent, Mondale’s presence in ’80 was probably just enough to prevent his home state from slipping from Carter to Ronald Reagan.
By contrast, there was nothing that Bentsen could do for Michael Dukakis in deep-red Texas in 1988. Had Dukakis been in a neck-and-neck race nationally and in Texas, Bentsen could well have provided him with a pivotal boost in his home state. But the national race was simply too uncompetitive to truly test Bentsen’s pull. (It also didn’t help that Bentsen used the "L.B.J. loophole" to simultaneously seek reelection to the Senate in ’88, giving Texans a chance to vote for him and against Dukakis at the same time.)
But the real flaw with an argument like Woodruff’s is that it ignores the less obvious and direct – but no less powerful and significant – ways that VP nominees can shape the public’s perception of a presidential candidate. One of the most common mistakes in political analysis comes from relying too much on polls that ask voters about what issues and forces motivate them. So it is that analysts like to point out how few voters cite the identity of either party’s VP candidate when telling exit pollsters how they made up their minds.
It’s not that they’re being untruthful. Undoubtedly, the presidential candidates alone – and not their running mates – are on the minds of most voters when they cast their ballots. But their basic perception of the candidates – whether they like, trust and have confidence in them – is what tends to drive voters’ reactions to the candidates’ issues platforms. And those perceptions are shaped in many ways.
In this sense, a VP candidate whose selection captures the country’s interest (in a positive way) and who performs skillfully in the fall debate can dramatically improve the public’s instinctive, knee-jerk impression of the presidential candidate with whom he or she is running – making it much more likely that voters will view that presidential candidate favorably when they consider “the issues.”
A terrific example of this is 2000. On the Republican side, Cheney brought Bush a week’s worth of favorable press about the wisdom he, an inexperienced and untested governor, had displayed in tapping such a wise and seasoned foreign policy master and his “gravitas.” Cheney followed that up with a surprisingly strong and humorous showing in his VP debate with Lieberman. It’s impossible to quantify the effect Cheney had, and you certainly can’t pinpoint it to one state or region. But his presence, and the press he received, almost certainly made many voters more receptive to Bush and his message.
At the same time, Lieberman also boosted Gore – again, not in one specific state or region (outside of Florida). Instead, his August selection injected a badly needed dose of excitement into Gore’s then-flagging campaign. Bill Clinton’s “stiff” and “wooden” vice president won international plaudits for his boldness in tapping an Orthodox Jew for the national ticket and for showing independence from Clinton, whom Lieberman had memorably chastised in 1998. By Election Day, no one (again, outside Florida) was voting specifically for Joe Lieberman, but how many voters started to give Gore a second look when they digested the news of the Lieberman pick?
A VP nominee need not carry his or her home state to make the difference in a close election. You can bet the campaigns know that, even if some pundits say otherwise.