The many misconceptions of Mitt Romney's veepstakes

The Week

The punditocracy assumes Mitt will surely pick a No. 2 who can deliver a swing state. Don't bet on it

Now that Mitt Romney has the Republican nomination in the bag, the pundits have been yakking up a storm about who he'll pick as his running mate. Romney has already enlisted Beth Myers, a trusted lieutenant from his days as governor of Massachusetts, to do the vetting. So who will Team Romney choose? 

Eager to forecast Romney's pick, the supposedly smart crowd, as they do every four years, will do the electoral math, scan voting patterns, read the tea leaves, and then generate some all-too-easily-predictable guesses that Mitt's No. 2 will be someone from a swing state with lots of electoral votes who happens to be telegenic, smart, and young. 

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The problem? The smart crowd has never been too smart with its predictions. Most running mates tend to fall into few — or none — of the above categories. 

Since 1960, only seven of 27 running mates have come from large states.

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Think back to 2008. Barack Obama picked Joe Biden of Delaware (an uncontested blue state with just three electoral votes) while John McCain picked Sarah Palin of Alaska (an uncontested red state with just three electoral votes). Biden might have been smart, but telegenic and young? As for Palin, young and telegenic, sure. But smart?  

And it's not like 2008 was an anomaly. George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 pick, Dick Cheney, hailed from tiny, red Wyoming, with a whopping three electoral votes. And young and telegenic, Cheney is not. John Kerry's 2004 pick was John Edwards of North Carolina (not yet considered a swing state), and in 2000, Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, a small state whose deep blue hue was never in doubt. 

In the modern era, writes Professor Joel K. Goldstein of Saint Louis University School of Law, presidential nominees "almost never choose a running mate based on the assumption that he or she can swing a state with a lot of electoral votes. The running mate often comes from a state with few electoral votes and/or a safe state." 

Goldstein points out that since 1960, the year of John F. Kennedy's narrow win over Richard Nixon, only seven of 27 running mates have come from large states (defined as having 20+ electoral votes). 

As implausible as it may seem, presidential nominees often pass over running mates from large swing states in favor of those from small states whose electoral votes are never in doubt. Case in point: In 1976, Jimmy Carter might have chosen the popular senator and astronaut John Glenn from swing state Ohio (25 electoral votes), but he went for Walter Mondale from small, blue Minnesota (10 electoral votes) instead. That same year, President Gerald Ford chose Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (7 electoral votes) over possibilities from Texas (26), Indiana (13), and Tennessee (10). 

What's going on here? The pundits often overlook the philosophical factor. A nominee will often place a great priority on party unity and select a running mate who will bring all factions of that party together. Conservative Ronald Reagan in 1980, for example, needed to appeal to his party's moderate wing (yes, there used to be moderates in the GOP) by selecting George H.W. Bush. Bush had ties to three states: Tiny blue Maine and Connecticut, and deep-red Texas. But Bush wasn't selected out of geographic strategy. Bush was picked because he brought GOP moderates into the Reagan camp.

Where does this leave Romney? Let's take a quick look at five names said to be on his short list. You decide what each may — or may not — bring to the party:

1. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio
Mega swing-state Florida, a telegenic young Latino: Rubio has much to offer, by any conventional measure. But more importantly, Romney's "self-deportation" remarks and opposition to the DREAM Act haven't won him many Latino friends, and Rubio could theoretically help blunt this. He has proposed a plan that would put the children of illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship — but this has angered many hardcore Republicans who are already leery of Romney. And Rubio, 41, has been in the Senate just two years and is seen by many as too inexperienced. He may not be the uniting force Romney needs.

2. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
Romney's trouble with women wouldn't be helped by McDonnell's signing of a law last month requiring Virginia women to undergo an ultrasound prior to having an abortion. But that law aside, the relatively moderate McDonnell is philosophically compatible with Romney, potentially eliciting concerns about the pair not being conservative enough. And because they're so similar, they might not be able to woo sparring factions of a bitterly divided GOP to gather under the big tent. 

3. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
A darling of the deficit hawks, Christie would be enormously attractive to the far Right, thus allowing Romney some philosophical leeway to move to the center. In that sense, Christie could certainly help shore up the base and unite the GOP — just as Romney needs. And Christie is also intriguing in that he managed to get elected in the first place. New Jersey is a reliably blue state — Obama won by nearly 16 percent in 2008. If Christie's message resonates there — his current approval ratings are at an all-time high — Romney may decide that it can elsewhere. But Christie may love the media spotlight too much for Romney. Rule one for any VP: Don't upstage the boss. And in our superficial, image-conscious age, Christie's weight may also be a problem. 

4. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan
Another deficit hawk, the House budget chairman gets into the weeds of spending and entitlements better than any other Republican. For this reason, Ryan could offset Romney's coming move to the middle, and help unite fiscal conservatives behind Romney. But remember: Ryan is a divisive figure who could fire up liberals who hate him as much as conservatives who love him. And the central issue this fall will be President Obama and his handling of the economy. The "Ryan plan" is just that — a plan, not a law — and Romney clearly prefers to focus on what he sees as four years of mistakes by the incumbent president rather than the Wisconsin congressman's controversial budget blueprint. Ryan may appear on a national ticket one day — but probably not this year. 

5. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman
The selection of Portman — George W. Bush's budget director from 2006 to 2007 — would surely revive stories of how Bush took a budget surplus and turned it into a $400 billon deficit when he left office. This would be a distraction to Romney's message of economic competence and stewardship. Plus, is a relatively subdued Washington insider little known outside the Beltway and the Buckeye State really the right person to help Romney unite the GOP?

This is a minefield for Romney. He won the Republican nomination by moving to the right. But he knows he's unlikely to win in November unless he moves closer to the center. How do you keep hardcore conservatives happy while appealing to the middle? How well he's able to straddle this gap will help determine his electoral success come November. 

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