Monday, February 6, 2012

The VP myth

With Romney looking more and more like he will be the Republican candidate for the 2012 Presidential Election, speculation on whom he might select as a his Vice Presidential running mate is increasing. And much of this speculation revolves around the idea that Romney's choice is important for the General Election.

For instance, there's Josh Kraushaar at the National Journal, arguing that Romney's choice for running mate is critical:
If he emerges as the nominee, Romney would face somewhat different challenges: He needs a No. 2 who can excite the base and serve as an effective attack dog against Obama, but without alienating independent voters.
And Steve Chapman at the Chicage Tribune, speaking on the supposed strengths of Marco Rubio in the number two slot:
He's strong among tea party voters, but he hasn't done anything to make himself look like a radical. He's Cuban-American, which could only help Romney with the growing Hispanic community, which went 2-to-1 for Obama. And he's from Florida, a big swing state.
Both writers take it as a given that the VP slot can deliver votes. And they're far from alone. It's almost accepted dogma in punditry world that the choice for running mate can be used to attract voters who might otherwise not vote for a given candidate.

And that's a myth.

Part of the reason why it's a myth is the Electoral College system. The Election is not decided by popular vote, but by State results. So for the myth to be true, VP choices would have to tip the scales in at least one State during the Election and that would have to matter in the final tally. A look at recent history demonstrates that things just don't work that way.

Consider George W. Bush, who won two elections with Dick Cheney.What critical group did Cheney deliver? Wyoming? As if Wyoming was ever in doubt. And he ran against Gore and Lieberman in 2000. Did the Lieberman choice deliver any votes for Gore, any States that he might otherwise failed to win? No, of course not. In 2004, Bush--with Cheney, once again--faced John Kerry and John Edwards. Did Edwards deliver the South (for that was what many pundits claimed his selection would do)? No. He didn't even deliver North Carolina, his home State.

Bill Clinton's two Presidential races tell a similar tale. In 1992, Clinton picked Gore as his running mate. But it's a tough argument to make, that Clinton needed Gore to get those critical Southern States; Clinton, after all, was from Arkansas. And really, the choice was never about delivering such votes. Clinton's pick had far more to do with the DLC than it did with trying to attract a particular demographic. In 1996 Clinton and Gore faced off against Bob Dole and former NY Congressman Jack Kemp. Surely, no one thought Kemp was going to deliver Northeastern States, did they?

In all of the above tickets--save one, Kerry and Edwards--the VP choice was about picking the person the President was comfortable with and/or the person that the national party leadership was comfortable with. The lone exception--when the choice was designed to deliver votes--yielded less-than-spectacular results.

And why should it be otherwise? The VP has almost no power (cabinet positions have far more) and that's common knowledge. The voting public--especially the independents--know this. They vote for (or against) presidential candidates, almost exclusively. After the 2008 Election many pundits claimed--and actually still claim--that somehow, Palin cost McCain the election, that people didn't vote for McCain and/or voted for Obama because of Palin. This is nonsense.

Take a look at an Eeectoral map from the 2008 Election. Which State could Palin possible have lost for McCain? The reality is that McCain was running against a young, energetic candidate who raised significantly more money and who was able to campaign against an unpopular outgoing President during a time of rising economic uncertainty. It was Obama's election to lose from the start and he never did anything to lose it. A different VP selection by McCain would have changed nothing in this regard.

So why does the myth persist, why does it seem to actually be strengthening? Simple, the debate on the VP selection fills space: it's something else for pundits to talk about, to use as a means of displaying their intelligence, to allow them to make "clever" points. And it also fills a niche for paid political consultants: they can use it as a means of selling their own supposed expertise on the matter.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the VP selection is meaningless. It certainly is not. Whomever gets tapped for the spot gains national exposure and has a fair chance of assuming the Presidency, either because an incumbent is unable to continue as President, or because it provides an opportunity in a future election. But with regard to the actual election, the selection really is not all that important, provided that the choice doesn't turn out to be someone with horrible secrets--like a closet full of dead hookers--that come to light during the campaign.

Cheers, all.

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