The Wildly Overrated (and Misunderstood) Veepstakes

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Luke Sharrett / The New York Times / Redux

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida introduces Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during a campaign event at Mustang Expediting in Aston, Pa., April 23, 2012.

With the Republican primary over and a long campaign ahead, the political class has found a new pastime: speculation about whom Mitt Romney will choose as his running mate. This exercise has the benefit of involving a wide range of interesting characters, sized up as though they were racehorses at the gate, and allows anyone to participate, given that at this stage it’s all reading tea leaves. (Like whether Marco Rubio was trying to demonstrate this week that he’s not a Palin-style lightweight.)

Obviously it matters a lot to the country whom Romney picks for his running mate; a heartbeat from the presidency and all that. But it matters much less than much of the coverage suggests to the results of the November election. Here are three common assumptions about the veepstakes–and why they’re wrong:

A presidential candidate usually carries his running mate’s home state: Not true. The last time a nominee chose a running mate from a state not already tilted in his favor, John Kerry got thumped in North Carolina, home of John Edwards. (Whatever happened to that guy, anyway? He seemed so charming…). Nate Silver crunches the historical numbers and finds that “the vice presidential nominee’s effect on his or her home state is normally quite modest.” Silver does allow that even a modest effect could tilt a swing state like Florida or Ohio. But, curiously enough, we have few recent examples of running mates from swing states. Which brings us to the next point:

Running mates usually come from a swing state: Not lately. Not Sarah Palin (Alaska), not Joe Biden (Delaware*). Not Dick Cheney (Colorado Wyoming) or Edwards or Joe Lieberman (Connecticut). Bill Clinton did turn Al Gore‘s home state of Tennessee from red blue in 1992 and 1996, and it’s been reliably red ever since. But Jack Kemp (New York) and Dan Quayle (Indiana) didn’t come from contested states, nor did Lloyd Bentsen (Texas).

* Yes, Biden was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a biographical fact he missed few chances to mention in 2008. Still, he had represented Delaware in the Senate since 1973.

“Balance” is critical to success: One reason plenty of modern-era veep picks haven’t come from contested states is that nominees have apparently cared less about specific geography than about ticket “balance.” Hence an aging John McCain goes with an attractive, energetic woman in Sarah Palin. Obama, then a Washington newcomer with an unconventional ethnic background, went with a working class-born Irish Catholic DC insider. George W. Bush had no experience in national security or the federal government, so he tapped Dick Cheney, a former Defense Secretary and bureaucratic shark. Kerry was a “Massachusetts liberal” so he picked a moderate (by reputation) southerner in Edwards. And so on.

But can anyone think of a recent case where “balance” made a critical difference? Would Obama have lost with another young Washington outsider by his side, or if McCain had chosen another grizzled vet? Not likely. Cheney probably helped assuage some doubts about Bush’s experience in 2000, but the doubts lingered anyway. And if Cheney was a liability in 2004, it was over factors like Iraq and the war on terror that stuck to Bush in roughly equal measure. What’s more, one of the most successful veep picks in recent years didn’t involve a balancing act but a doubling-down. When Bill Clinton tapped Al Gore in 1992, he chose a running mate much like himself: a cerebral, moderate southerner in his 40s. And the press swooned: “They and their wives give the impression of two young couples on a summer vacation without the kids, having the time of their lives,” read a typical account of their triumphal post-convention bus tour.

That’s why Romney would do well to discard the myths above and focus on a few simple principles. First, pick someone obviously capable of replacing you. (Palin may not have cost McCain the election, but the campaign wasted a lot of time defending her qualifications.) Second, no skeletons; replacing a damaged nominee in and of itself might not cost you an election, but it will cost you many a news cycle. And third, pick someone you like and trust. You’re going to spend a lot of time with him or her. And it could end badly.

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