John Edwards, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, Aaron Burr, . . .

by Andrew Gelman on September 20, 2009 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections

What does this gang of political punchlines have in common? They were all major-party nominees for Vice President. Presidents and presidential candidates, by comparison, don’t seem so wacky. There was Nixon, but he counts in the vice-presidential ledger too. And there have been failed presidencies (Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush), but these dudes aren’t political jokes along the lines of John Edwards.

What’s going on here? Some possible explanations:

1. I’m not doing a careful historical study. If you list all the pres and vp nominations over the past century, say, you’ll find that the vp nominees are as a sober and reasonable bunch as the guys at the top of the ticket.

2. Just the fact of being president, not to mention what they do in office, bestows an air of seriousness. For example, had Bill Clinton lost in 1992, perhaps he’d be considered a Gennifer Flowers-sized joke. But, since he won, he’s evaluated on the accomplishments of his presidency. Conversely, Geraldine Ferraro is now little more than a political joke, but had she become president, she’d be bestowed a retroactive seriousness. And, if Aaron Burr had been president, maybe he would’ve been too busy to go around shooting people.

3. Presidential nominees really are vetted more closely—by other politicians and by the voters—whereas vp nominees are chosen pretty arbitrarily. For example, it’s hard to take Joe Biden seriously as leader of the free world, but he was considered good enough for the placeholder role of Democratic politico.

Whatever is going on, the contrast is pretty striking to me.


Steven Taylor September 20, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Could it also be a built-in bias of the selection process? That is: presidential nominees choose lesser lights in the hopes of making their own shine brighter? The result is the punch-line factor you note.

LFC September 20, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Joe Biden, while undisciplined in certain respects (i.e. his tendency to ramble on) and while not a great candidate the first time around (when he stole a line unacknowledged from Neil Kinnock, among other things) probably would have made a competent president had he been nominated and elected in 2008. He had been a competent Senator overall and had actually learned a lot about foreign affairs from his time on the For. Relations Cte. Plus Biden is not dumb and is less pompous than, say, Chris Dodd.

John S. September 23, 2009 at 12:06 am

LFC, maybe if you keep repeating that it will come true, but I doubt it. Biden is a national treasure, and by that I mean laughingstock. He’s a dummy who relies on his staff to ventriloquize him. One can see the results when he tries to pull his own string.

Doug September 23, 2009 at 9:54 am

I think a lot of it has to do with perception and expectation. Joe Biden, for example, is not as big a dummy as people think he is. He was my favorite of the dems during the primary debates – made a lot of good points. But now that he’s VP, it seems that everyone’s out to make him look like a dummy. You follow anyone long enough and put the right spin on it, and they will do many things that people percieve to be stupid. Now, as for Dan Quayle, …

Ubs September 24, 2009 at 5:55 pm

I think your #1 and #2 are surely true. In addition to that (or perhaps a corollary to #2), I think your impression of a man who is otherwise unfamiliar is strongly influenced by whether he was president. This is evidenced by your dismissal of Aaron Burr as a guy who “went around shooting people”. Is that how you remember Andrew Jackson?

Was Woodrow Wilson really a more plausible president than Thomas R Marshall? Was James Buchanan really a more plausible president that John C Breckenridge? If you think so, it’s probably only because the ones actually became president.

In contrast, see what happens if you’ve never heard of either. Was Horatio Seymour really a more plausible president than Frank Blair? You probably know next to nothing about either of them, but I doubt most people know any more about Franklin Pierce than they know about Horatio Seymour … except that Pierce was president.

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