08/20/2008 01:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

VP Preferences Among Democratic Delegates: Some Historical Context

On Monday, CBS News and the New York Times released a survey of delegates attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver next week. The major finding from this survey came from a question asking delegates who they would like to see as the vice presidential candidate. 28% of the delegates interviewed preferred Hillary Clinton, compared to just 6% who selected Joe Biden (the second most popular choice). The support for Hillary Clinton attracted a lot of attention from news outlets, as well as readers. Of particular interest is whether the 28% figure for Clinton is particularly high or low. To answer this question, we could use a little historical context.

I was able to dig up two earlier Democratic delegate surveys which asked similar questions about VP preferences--one from 1988 and the other from 1992. The results from these surveys are presented in the table below. I've shown the top five finishers in each survey, as well as the percentage naming another candidate ("Other") and the percentage declining to name anyone ("no preference").


The first important point that stands out from this table is that support for Clinton is almost twice as high as it was for any other single candidate in 1988 or 1992. Bill Bradley had the support of 15% of Democratic delegates in 1992, while Jesse Jackson was the preferred candidate for 14% in 1988.

The second notable pattern from 1988 and 1992 is that the eventual VP pick was not one that delegates named in large numbers before the convention. In 1988, only 2% of convention delegates mentioned Lloyd Bentsen as a running mate for Dukakis while just 5% recommended Al Gore in 1992. Thus, Clinton's standing in first place does not necessarily bode well for her chances of ending up on the ticket.

Third, notice that VP ambivalence is not a new phenomenon in 2008, nor is the phenomenon of having a wide swath of politicians named. In 1988, one-third of convention delegates declined to state a preference for Dukakis's running mate, while one-quarter of delegates did not name anyone in 1992. In both years (along with 2008) support was scattered across dozens of names, with only one or two candidates even breaking double-digits in any given year.

Finally, I was able to get the raw data for the 1992 convention delegate survey to look at one additional question: to what extent do a losing candidate's delegates promote their candidate for VP? In 1992, Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas lost out on the nomination; but each candidate sent plenty of committed delegates to the Democratic convention. The figure below shows who those delegates preferred for Clinton's VP choice.


The figure reveals mixed patterns. Interestingly, Jerry Brown's supporters picked plenty of different possibilities for a Clinton running mate, but almost none of them supported Brown himself. Tsongas's supporters, on the other hand, were more likely to name Tsongas as a potential running mate, but they were also about as likely to name Bill Bradley. For their part, (Bill) Clinton delegates were the most ambivalent, with one-third of them failing to state a preference.

Overall, the historical comparison reveals that Clinton's support is high compared to delegate preferences in 1988 and 1992. However, pre-convention support among delegates didn't do much for Jesse Jackson in 1988 or Bill Bradley in 1992.