Does the VP Matter?

Vice Presidential Candidates and American Politics: Four Questions with Joseph Luders  

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is close to selecting his vice presidential running mate. According to several news reports, the short list includes Ohio Senator Rob Portman, former Minnesota Goverenor Tim Pawlenty, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. But how important is this choice?

Dr. Joseph Luders, is the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in Political Science at YU.

YUNews spoke with Dr. Joseph Luders, Yeshiva University’s David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in Political Science, about what factors presidential candidates consider in choosing a running mate, the impact a vice presidential nominee can have on a campaign, and how all of it plays out in the 2012 election.

What do presidential hopefuls look for in a vice presidential candidate?

The conventional wisdom is that presidential candidates often seek to “balance” the ticket in some fashion, whether to make up a gap in age, experience, or region, and they often hope to obtain an electoral edge by winning a key state or demographic. Sometimes religion, ethnicity, or gender can be a factor in a bid to lure a sliver of a desired demographic to the ticket. And it is presumed to be advantageous to pick a VP nominee from a pivotal swing state, such as Ohio or Florida.

How is that playing out in this year’s election?

There’s a lot of media speculation about the pros and cons of each running mate Mitt Romney could pick.  Journalists start sizing up the backgrounds, personalities, credentials and home states of the prospective nominees.

If Romney’s team uses the electoral calculus above, Jindal does not bring a lot to the ticket. They’re going to win Louisiana without him, and while he does add ethnic diversity, it probably won’t win over many Latinos, Asians or African Americans. Pawlenty may help with Minnesota, but probably not enough and that would only bring you 10 Electoral College votes, whereas Portman’s Ohio has 20. And Ohio is a much more competitive state where Democrats may only be ahead by a couple percentage points in the fall. In that case, it may help Romney win the state, which may be all he needs to come out ahead. While there are no perfect VP picks, Portman is smart, seasoned and possibly capable of bringing a key swing state with him.

Senator Rob Portman campaigns for Romney (flickr.com/mittromney)

What impact do running mates have on a presidential campaign?

Most political science models for predicting the winner of the U.S. presidential elections do not include a variable for the vice president. Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, for instance, considers just three major variables: presidential approval in June, change in the Gross Domestic Product toward the beginning of an election year, and whether or not a candidate is an incumbent. Despite the journalistic frenzy that accompanies VP selection decisions, political science research does not indicate that a VP pick makes much difference. While there might be a slight, temporary bounce in public opinion polls, these will fizzle out as the polls settle back into their previous dynamic.

Some research suggests that a VP pick produces for the ticket about a three percent point vote gain in her or his home state (though other research indicates that the effect is smaller). Nationally, the effect is not large, perhaps a gain or loss of approximately 1-2 percentage points – certainly not as huge an effect as some pundits might suggest. All that said, in a very tight race, as the 2012 race is expected to be, an extraordinary vice presidential pick or a real clunker might actually matter.

What are some examples of VP picks which have hurt or helped a candidate?

Dan Quayle is sometimes mentioned as a VP pick that very mildly hurt George Bush Sr. More recently, some research points to Sarah Palin as, again, a modest negative for the ticket. On the plus side, Al Gore (1992), and Joe Lieberman (2000) probably helped as vice presidential nominees—Gore and Lieberman had favorable poll ratings at the time—strong enough to be a slight net gain for the ticket, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Lieberman  may have helped Gore win Jewish votes in Florida.

All that said, I do not recall a single election in which the win in a presidential election was attributed to the vice presidential pick. That is, the ultimate outcome would have occurred anyway, with or without the VP on the ticket. Does the VP pick matter? Yes, it’s possible, particularly in this election cycle, but, most of the time, it matters much less than most media commentators assume. For most voters, it really comes down to their own partisanship, the state of the economy, the popularity of the incumbent and so forth. It’s possible that if Romney chooses Portman and goes on to win Ohio by a hair as well as the presidency, people will say that that choice made all the difference. In the end, whoever Romney picks as his running mate, this election is going to be nail-biter.

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