How much of an overrated nothingburger is the vice presidential nomination? During recent chats with officials from the two presidential campaigns, U.S. News reporters and editors asked about potential election game-changers. The answers included the Supreme Court's healthcare decision, the conventions, and the presidential debates. "Those are fixed," says one senior Obama campaign official. "Other things you can bet on but can't plan for." There are, as Don Rumsfeld was fond of opining, known knowns and known unknowns.
One known unknown that did not come up was Mitt Romney's running mate. Asked whether vice presidential nominees make a difference, another senior strategist for President Obama replied, "History teaches you it doesn't, except for '08," referring to Sarah Palin on the national stage. "All the polling shows it doesn't move states," the strategist added.
One Romney official acknowledges that "it's pretty hard to find a place where a VP selection in a cycle actually makes a difference." Another argues that because "it's the first big decision that a nonincumbent nominee makes," it does make a difference.
It's a big decision because the vice presidential nominee could soon be within the proverbial heartbeat of the presidency. There's irony in this, as the Founding Fathers didn't create the position with an eye toward presidential succession.
When the Constitution was being drafted, the founders contemplated a presidential vacancy being filled temporarily until a new president could be elected. How did the vice enter the equation then? The office "was not wanted," Hugh Williamson, a member of the drafting committee that conceived of the office, told the Constitutional Convention. Rather, it "was introduced only for the sake of a valuable mode of election which required two to be chosen at the same time." Presidential electors would cast two ballots, one having to be for a person from somewhere other than their home state. Two votes would force a national choice to emerge. The person with the most electoral votes became president, while the runner-up would be the vice.
But electors started casting party-line votes. In the 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson and running mate Aaron Burr received an equal number of votes, sending the election to the House of Representatives and prompting the 12th Amendment, which required electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president. "With the abolition of the 'valuable mode of election,' the Vice Presidency lost the function for which it had originally been designed," my father, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., wrote in his 1986 book The Cycles of American History, from whence I draw this vice presidential history.
Nevertheless, presidential succession remained murky until 1841, when President William Henry Harrison died in office. "Vice President John Tyler staged a constitutional coup by successfully insisting—'in direct violation,' [former President John Quincy] Adams testily noted, 'both of the grammar and context of the Constitution'—that, when a Vice President inherited the powers and duties of the presidential office, he inherited the office too," my father wrote in The Cycles.
That coup has been enshrined by the 25th Amendment, but it's jarring to realize that the job most people associate with the office—"to ring the White House bell every morning and ask what is the state of health of the president," as Vice President Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's No. 2, put it—is not what the founders envisioned. As early as the 12th Amendment, there were worries that "the question will not be asked, is he capable? is he honest?" Delaware Sen. Samuel White wrote. "But can he by his name, by his connexions, by his wealth, by his local situation, by his influence, or his intrigues, best promote the election of a president?"
Which brings us back to Mitt Romney. White was prescient. The political calculus, especially involving the "local situation," is a focus in the quadrennial Washington parlor game of guess-the-veep-nominee. Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell top many shortlists, owing to their swing-state residencies. Should they?
The New York Times's Nate Silver estimates that running mates provide a 2 to 3 percentage point boost in their home states, with the effect increased in smaller states and diminished in larger ones. That margin could prove the difference between a second term for Obama or a first for Romney, "but it is probably not enough to outweigh the other strengths and weaknesses that a vice presidential candidate could potentially impart," Silver wrote in April. But a recent study for the University of Virginia's Center for Politics by Joel Goldstein, author of a book on the vice presidency, found that in the last 50 years the frequency of running mates from big states has dropped dramatically. As politics has become more nationalized, vice presidential selection strategy has focused on harder-to-quantify strategies like image reinforcement (see Bill Clinton's 1992 selection of Al Gore, doubling down on his "new Democrat" theme).
One rule remains: First, do no harm. There are more No. 2s remembered for problems (see Eagleton, Thomas, and Palin, Sarah) than for boosting the ticket. Thus the watchword from the Romney camp is reportedly boring—"an incredibly boring white guy," a source told Politico.
Blandness is an odd quality to seek in a potential future presidential nominee—one quarter of the vice presidential nominees since 1900 have later been nominated in their own right, according to Silver. It's a pity that, in their wisdom, the founders couldn't foresee the problems with their "valuable mode of election" and dispense with it altogether.
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