How to predict Mitt Romney’s running mate

With Mitt Romney now reaching the “unless he’s hit by a bus” level of inevitability, two mournful facts are clear. First, the dreams of a brokered, tumultuous convention must be returned to the attic. Second, we’re doomed to spend the next four and a half months speculating about Romney’s vice-presidential choice.

Instead of adding to the conjecture--which generally falls under the old mafia rule that “those who say, don't know; those who know, don’t say,” let me offer a time-saving suggestion: many of the alleged pearls of wisdom about running mates turn out to be highly misleading, ahistorical or flatly wrong.

Take, for instance, the idea that the choice of a running mate centers on his or her ability to deliver a state:  Sen. Marco Rubio for Florida, Sen. Rob Portman for Ohio, Gov. Susana Martinez for New Mexico. This would be a very wise notion--provided you had just jumped into the Hot Tub Time Machine and journeyed back 50 or 100 years.

Yes, in the days when the South was key to the electoral hopes of Democrats--only Al Smith’s Catholicism in 1928 kept the party from winning every electoral vote in the region between 1868 and 1944--the party almost always had a Southern or border state vice-presidential candidate. (Henry Wallace running with FDR in 1940 was the only exception). And in 1960, JFK’s choice of LBJ was crucial, along with some highly creative vote-counting, to his capture of Texas that November. But that was the last time a nominee of either party chose a running mate for the Electoral College? Did George W. Bush worry about Dick Cheney’s Wyoming (or Texas)? Did Barack Obama sweat Joe Biden’s Delaware?. John Kerry chose John Edwards in 2004 because he ran up a impressive vote total in the primaries, not because he offered any real chance of carrying North Carolina--which he didn’t.

Instead of geography, balance of a different sort has come to matter more. Presidential nominees who were governors seek running mates with federal experience: Jimmy Carter chose Sen. Walter Mondale; Ronald Reagan chose ex-representative-ex-UN-ambassador-ex-CIA chief George H.W. Bush; Michael Dukakis chose Sen. Lloyd Bentsen; Bill Clinton chose Sen. Al Gore; George W. Bush chose ex-representative-ex-defense-secretary Cheney. The last time a governor chose a fellow governor was in 1948, when New York’s Tom Dewey added California Gov. Earl Warren to the Republican ticket. (It almost worked: Dewey lost California to Harry Truman by half a percentage point.) This bodes ill for the hopes of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

Ideological balance has also mattered. Reagan’s choice of Bush was a bow to moderate Republicans; Dukakis’ choice of Bentsen was a bow to moderate Democrats. And, at least in the Democratic Party, religious balance has been key. Starting in 1960, non-incumbent Democratic tickets have had a Catholic or Jew 7 out of 10 times. By contrast, the Republican Party has fielded exactly one such candidate in its history: Rep. William Miller, a Catholic, who ran with Barry Goldwater in 1964. (Question to ponder: would Romney want a ticket without a Protestant, given the potential suspicions about his Mormon faith?)


But if you’re looking for what matters most these days, you have to begin by understanding that one of the most frequently citied pieces of wisdom about the vice-presidential selection process is flat wrong. As Richard Nixon is supposed to have said, “The vice president cannot help you; he can only hurt you.” You can understand why Nixon would have believed this. His 1960 running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, hurt him badly in the South by promising “a Negro in the Cabinet,” and in 1968 Spiro Agnew inspired a negative ad that showed Agnew’s name over the soundtrack of hysterical laughter.

The historical record, however, is very different. While the list of running mates who proved to be liabilities is well-known--Agnew, Tom Eagleton and his medical history, Geraldine Ferraro and her husband’s investments, Dan Quayle and his deer-in-the-headlights cluelessness, Sarah Palin’s vacuousness--there are plenty of other examples of running mates who proved significant assets, apart from the role Lyndon Johnson played in 1960.

When Ronald Reagan chose George H.W. Bush in 1980, it was a clear signal that he was running an inclusive campaign; that he welcomed the moderate and even liberal wings of the GOP--there was a liberal wing back then--into his campaign. When Bill Clinton chose Al Gore in 1992--from the same generational, ideological, and geographical background as his--it underscored his campaign’s central argument that this was a clash between the past and the future, that “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” was indeed the campaign’s anthem. When George W. Bush picked Dick Cheney, it was a reassuring sign that the Texas governor would have an experienced, prudent voice at his side. (Whether that worked out in practice is another story). When Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman, it was a clear declaration of independence from President Clinton; no Democrat had been more critical of Clinton’s misconduct.

In each of these cases, the critical factor was less about the running mate and more about what the presidential candidate wanted voters to think about himself: that Reagan was no rigid ideological zealot; that Bush would respect the judgment of more experienced advisors; that Gore was his own man.

You can find the same motive behind a choice that did not work. John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin was supposed to convey a sense of boldness, and a sense that his age did not link him to old ways. And had Palin been equipped with a reasonable level of cognitive skill, the choice might have been a huge asset, rather than persuading a fair number of voters that his judgment was clouded by a reckless streak.

Who knows, maybe this is the year that the importance of electoral geography returns. More likely, though, if you can figure out what Mitt Romney wants to tell us about himself, you’re a long way toward figuring out whom he will choose.

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