Why the Vice-Presidential Nominees Will Be Presidential
by Joel K. Goldstein on Jul 18, 2008
Unlike many of their predecessors, this year’s vice-presidential candidates won’t be chosen primarily because they’re from a large state or to balance the ticket’s geography or philosophy. They’ll be chosen because they’re presidential.
It’s not that Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama are nobler than prior presidential nominees. Rather, they operate in a changed political context, which dictates that vice-presidential candidates themselves be qualified to serve in the Oval Office, and thus reduces the importance of such traditional ticket-balancing considerations as the home state of the potential choices.
Not long ago, vice-presidential selections occurred during the final day of each party’s convention. Party leaders, not the presidential nominees, chose the running mate and they retained considerable influence in the choice even after power began to shift away from them around 1940. Selection criteria emphasized placating a disgruntled wing of the party, balancing the ticket in terms of geography and philosophy or appealing to voters in an important swing state. Some vice-presidential candidates were capable leaders, but their talents played only a modest role in the process.
The current selection process bears no resemblance to this old model. It emerged only after the old regime broke down, piece by piece, owing to factors that often had no apparent connection to the vice presidency. The rise of the presidency and decline of party machines since the New Deal gave presidential candidates control over the selection of their running mates. America’s expanded international posture magnified the importance of the national-security credentials of the person first in line of succession to the presidency. In addition, the increasing demands on government made high-level political help from the vice-president more valuable to the president.
As is the case this year, since 1976 most presidential nominations have been evident before the convention. This early resolution has provided greater time and attention for the vice-presidential selection and the relative merits of those being considered.
As time passed, air travel made campaigning a national, not regional, activity, and the technology of the information age meant that comments made anywhere are now instantly transmitted everywhere. In this new context, running mates need to avoid gaffes that can be rebroadcast and dissected repeatedly. The running mate’s national credibility and skill matter far more than residence.
Two changes that related directly to the vice presidency also shaped the modern selection process. Beginning with Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential term in 1977, vice presidents obtained new resources that have allowed them to become significant ongoing participants in the White House. This change raised public expectations for the vice president. And televised vice-presidential debates in every election since 1976 (except one) increased the visibility of vice-presidential candidates.
The new political environment in which the vice-presidential choice now occurs has made the threshold requirement for selection the criteria which should be most important: Is the vice-presidential candidate qualified to be president and can he or she work with and help the president as Al Gore helped Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney has aided George Bush?
The public has more reason and opportunity to measure the vice-presidential candidates. Also, the media focus on the choice increases the likelihood that a vice-presidential candidate’s selection will affect public perceptions of the presidential nominee. Neither McCain nor Obama will wish to present himself as a person who would put someone of modest credentials a heartbeat from the Oval Office simply because he or she comes from a large, competitive state.
This year’s presidential candidates will find that their electoral prospects will suffer if they name someone as their running mate who is not presidential. Some presidential candidates (e.g. Richard Nixon in 1968 and George H.W. Bush in 1988) have been elected despite imprudent vice-presidential selections (Spiro T. Agnew and Dan Quayle respectively). In both cases, the Democrats emphasized their vice-presidential choices (Edmund S. Muskie vs. Agnew, Lloyd Bentsen vs. Quayle) whereas Republicans tried to hide their Veep candidates. Given the other advantages the Republican tickets had those years, the vice-presidential choices did not cost them the election but clearly made success more difficult. And a good choice can be critical — as Jimmy Carter learned in 1976 when Mondale’s vice-presidential campaign helped the Democrats carry Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to secure a narrow electoral vote margin.
Senators McCain and Obama will choose presidential running mates in order to demonstrate that they themselves will be worthy presidents. The new context aligns political expediency more closely with considerations of good government. To convince voters, McCain and Obama have compelling reason to choose qualified, knowledgeable, commanding people. That’s a far cry from the way it used to be.
Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at the Saint Louis University School of Law and a writer for the History News Service.