View from Australia: The Veepstakes circus

By Jonathan Bradley

Part of the fun of a primary season is the cast of political freaks, geeks, clowns, contortionists, and conjurers that leaps into the ring while their party undergoes the supposedly serious task of anointing its nominee for the highest office in the land. A neophyte might suppose that Rick Santorum's withdrawal from the Republican race last week would end the carnival for the year, but such an assumption would be foolhardy. Certainly, the inevitability of Mitt Romney's victory has gone from open secret to unofficial certainty, but all that means is a brand new set of higher office aspirants is about to be ushered into the spotlight. If names like Rob Portman, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Susana Martinez, and Bobby Jindal mean nothing to you now, fear not: you'll have a chance to become very familiar with them over the months ahead.

With the primary season unofficially over, the media is readying itself to launch the second greatest show on earth. Roll up, roll up for the Veepstakes circus! Who will Mitt Romney choose to accompany him in criss-crossing the country this fall? Who will put him or herself forward to be understudy to the most powerful ringmaster in the world?

The fun thing about the Veepstakes is that it gives the media something to talk about in the interminable months between the end of the primary season and the conventions that mark the beginning of the fall campaign. That this period coincides with the summer is particularly serendipitous. As I've mentioned before, America gets slightly silly during the summer months, and nothing is conducive to silliness like the speculation surrounding a candidate's choice of running mate.

Walter Shapiro recounts the media's poor track record in this particular predictions department, and offers some advice that the press shall surely disregard:

Reporters and pundits should not pretend to know more than they do in portraying the inner thinking in the Romney camp. This is a moment when most big-name Republican consultants are either out of the loop or have an agenda like boosting a client whose image would be enhanced by a walk-on role in the vice-presidential pageant. So more phone calls generally lead to more conventional wisdom rather than to more insight. Add to the mix the deliberate self-serving leaks that may come from inside the Romney camp in order to signal to independent voters and GOP activists that the almost-nominee is considering women or Latinos or uncompromising social conservatives.

Some more things to ignore: Disavowals of interest in the job. Such a demurral is the easiest, most forgivable lie in the world, and no candidate who previously claimed not to want the job would mind explaining away a change of fancy if a slot on the ticket became available.

What's more, feel free to disregard most of the seemingly scientific musing about the background, moderation, ethnicity, or gender of the candidate in question. Those things might matter around the edges. There are dangers for Romney if he selects a generic, white male Republican as his running mate, forming what Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball calls a "white bread sandwich." And political scientists think a running mate can swing three per cent of her home state vote to the ticket. As such, a swing state pick could prove decisive in a nailbiter of a contest, though the chance that she might deliver a sliver of the vote in one state isn't the best basis for choosing a running mate. In fact, Matt Glassman argues that a VP choice has never changed the winner of an election.

If anything, a running mate is more likely to harm a ticket than to help it, as Sabato explains:

Four years ago, John McCain sought to excite a conservative base that long mistrusted him. Sarah Palin did that, but alienated much of the rest of the country. In 1984 Walter Mondale sought a similar spark from Geraldine Ferraro, but she was dogged by questions about her husband’s finances. George McGovern said he was “1,000 percent” behind his initial pick in 1972, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, right before McGovern dumped Eagleton after stories emerged about his mental illness and electric shock therapy. In 1988, George H.W. Bush picked a youthful Dan Quayle to bridge the generational divide; Quayle eventually became a national punch line.

For this reason, Jonathan Bernstein reckons the best pick is a politician who has already been thoroughly vetted. That counts out House members, even senior ones (sorry Paul Ryan), because they've never run a campaign targeted at a constituency larger than a single district. It also recommends against choosing a small state governor or senator, for the same reason. There's simply too much risk that a skeleton will fall out of his closet a month before election day.

For Bernstein, that means Romney's set of smart choices consists of one man:

The story with running mates is that there’s not all that much they can do to help you win the election; most likely, the upside is a point or three in the VP candidate’s home state. Most of the time, they can’t hurt you very much either, but even if it matters a bit you would presumably want to avoid a scandal or someone who is widely perceived as a disaster. The best way to do that is to select someone who has both the (successful) vetting and the experience with national politics that a serious presidential run provides. Which doesn’t exactly leave a large group of Republicans. Huckabee is, if that’s your priority, the logical choice. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that his constituency is precisely the people whom Romney is probably weakest with.

That doesn't mean Huckabee will be the nominee, of course. As John McCain proved, candidates don't always do the sensible thing when choosing a running mate. McCain's mistake of choosing the ill-prepared Sarah Palin was important because vice-presidents have an awkward habit of eventually becoming presidents. In fact, nine of the country's 44 presidents had held the vice-presidential office. This should influence any reponsible candidate's choice for running mate. As Jennifer Rubin says:

As for the criteria, the biggest cliche in VP-selection — the most important thing is finding someone to step into the presidency, if need be — happens to be true. If someone is not obviously prepared, ready for the hot light of press scrutiny and capable of governance, everything else is immaterial. And to a large degree the other concerns (e.g. executive competence, discipline, judgment, center-right ideology) will be subsumed by a single question: Would the country feel comfortable with this person if he or she stepped into complete the Romney presidency?

All of this points to two lessons to keep in mind between now and whenever Romney announces his selection.

First, the media probably doesn't have any idea who Romney will choose, so there's not much point getting too invested in the various rumours they report.

And second, while debating whether the GOP ticket would be better balanced by a Latina from Ohio or a white woman from Wyoming is fun in the same way fantasy football is fun, it doesn't actually have a whole lot to do with the success or failure of a vice-presidential nominee. The biggest, most important quality to look for in a running mate is the ability not to embarrass the top of the ticket. That's all.

18 April 2012