Veep Veep

During this lull in the campaign season, I’d like to repeat my recommendation to presidential candidates that the best way to choose a vice-presidential nominee is to forget about ticket-balancing, shock value, winning the news cycle, and all the rest, and instead go for quality.

As I wrote a couple years ago:

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

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.

I followed up with some hypotheses (and Jonathan Bernstein added more), but my real point is there’ve been a lot of stinkers on this list.

At the same time, there’s not much evidence that a VP choice provides electoral benefit. On one hand, we’ve estimated the VP home-state advantage to be about 3 percentage points, enough to win Ohio perhaps (and I’ve heard people credit Lieberman for Gore’s popular-vote victory (estimated at approx 20,000 votes if all the ballots had been counted) in Florida in 2000). On the other hand, actual choices have include probable big-time vote-losers Quayle and Palin. So the electoral benefits would seem to be a wash at best. As a political scientist, I don’t see the evidence that a campaign can improve its chances with an outside-the-box Vice-Presidential nominee.

Put all this together and it leads to the suggestion that a presidential candidate should pick as running mate the person he thinks would be best qualified to become president, if that were to be necessary.

Think of it this way: It’s tough being a politician. No matter what your goals are, you’re always having to compromise. The vice-presidential nomination is one place where playing politics doesn’t seem to work. So I suggest forgetting the cleverness and forgetting about the idea that voters choose candidates based on their looks, and just picking the person you actually think would do the best job. Ruling out the Quayles, the Bidens, and the Palins . . . that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, both as politics and as policy.

8 Responses to Veep Veep

  1. Kevin E. April 6, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    To the dismay of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, Aaron Burr orchestrated the takeover of the New York legislature prior to the election of 1800 (in effect, giving the state’s electoral votes to Jefferson and Burr in the presidential election). I’d say that’s quite the electoral benefit!

  2. Mike Danielson April 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Although I find the overarching argument here to be persuasive, I wouldn’t put Joe Biden in the “game changer”/outside of the box category. I know he’s considered to be something of a gaffe-machine (“the gift that keeps on giving”, as Romney recently called him), but I don’t think this makes him un-presidential. Indeed, I suspect he was picked because the Obama campaign thought he would be a good president, precisely what you suggest a president should do. Actually, I don’t really think Bush II picked Cheney (or Cheney picked Cheney, actually) because he’d be a game changer, but because he thought he knew how to run the country.

  3. Napp Nazworth April 6, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    Yeah, we’re thinking along the same lines.

  4. LFC April 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

    Seconding M. Danielson: Biden is not everyone’s cup of tea, he is not a towering intellect, but he is indisputably qualified to be president. His tenure on the Judiciary Committee featured, to be sure, his long-winded interrogations of Sup Ct nominees, but it can’t have been a complete waste of time. Moreover, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he did a decent job and actually learned something about foreign policy. (It’s hard not to in that position.) To put him in the same list as Palin and Quayle is unwarranted. (As for Cheney, he’s horrible but he also does not belong on the same list as Palin and Quayle.)

  5. Eric April 6, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    Your selections for your list of “political punchlines” seem to invalidate your argument. Irregardless of who actually selected Dick Cheney, he was not selected for electoral benefit, he was selected as someone who could run the country. And he had a lot of influence in running the country, did it very badly, and may have been the worst VP ever. Joe Biden is funny at times, often unintentionally, but that doesn’t make him a political punchline. He seems much more qualified to be president than many of our immediate past presidents.

  6. Phillip April 6, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

    It seems to me the other way around. A VP tends to be remembered for the silliness and gaffes. A President, even when equally silly, is remembered for a lot of other things like policy achievements.

    To put it another way, if W. Bush was a VP, he would be largely remembered for his gaffes, much like a Quayle or Palin. If Clinton was a VP, the sex scandals would almost certainly dominate public perception, much like Edwards.

    • Andrew Gelman April 6, 2012 at 8:05 pm #


      Hmmm, interesting point. Sill, I think people were voting for Bush and Clinton because they (the voters) thought they were the best among the available alternatives. I don’t think anybody thought Quayle or Palin would make the best presidents.

  7. Doc Alpert April 9, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    Based on what we knew about him at the time, wasn’t John Edwards a not-too-bad choice? It’s only in retrospect that he looks bad. And neither Cheney nor Biden were chosen for any of the reasons listed as far as I know (if it were for ticket-balancing, who cares about Wyoming or Delaware? If it were for news, who cares about old white guys?). They were picked for their experience.

    I think it’s more the case that VP is still viewed as a joke of a position, and people look for narratives that fit that view.