With Mitt Romney nearly certain to be the Republican Presidential nominee, more than a little speculation has begun to develop around his likely pick for the vice presidential slot. Every pundit who gets asked offers a different way of looking at things and a different theory about the way VP slot can swing the vote.
Marco Rubio, it's said, can deliver Florida and some of the Hispanic vote; Bob McDonnell, similarly, is a fellow technocrat who can probably deliver the key swing state of Virginia; Tim Pawlenty has crossover appeal to Democrats; Susana Martinez could close the "gender gap." And so forth. If Romney acts like most presidential candidates, however, he'll ignore all of this unsolicited advice and pick a running mate on the basis that has worked best historically: his own ability to work with the person. Vice Presidential candidates rarely make a difference in outcome of modern elections but can be a distractions -- or major assets -- depending on when they mesh with the person at the top of the ticket. Thus, if he's focused on winning, one can expect Romney to pick a "mini-me" who he personally likes.
Consider the key historical fact first: Vice Presidential candidates simply don't decide elections. Efforts to "swing a state" (Michael Dukakis' pick of Texan Lloyd Bentsen in 1988), close a "gender gap" (Sarah Palin and Geraldine Ferraro), or provide ideological balance haven't done anything to lift doomed tickets. No candidate, not even Lyndon Johnson who is credited with winning Texas for John F. Kennedy, has ever clearly delivered a state to a candidate. (Texas had gone for Dwight Eisenhower in his two overwhelming landslides before JFK ran but, otherwise, was solidly Democratic.) Instead, successful VP candidates of the modern era -- starting with Richard Nixon, the first Vice President to have an Old Executive Office Building Office and spend little time in the Senate -- have fallen into one of two categories.
First, some VP candidates are "mini-mes" who share of ideology, personality, and, often, regional background with the person on the top of the ticket. These people -- men like Al Gore, Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Dick Cheney, and Walter Mondale -- were highly effective surrogates for their bosses, often more politically experienced than the person on top, and had significant impacts on administration policy for good and for ill.
Others are "background players" who are picked so as not to overshadow the person at the top. Personally charismatic Dwight Eisenhower, Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan all picked smart but unflashy running mates (Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Joe Biden) who could offer advice when asked and show up at ceremonial occasions but didn't ever detract from the star quality of the leading man.
Indeed, the only successful Vice Presidential candidate who didn't fall clearly into one of these two categories -- George H.W. Bush's ideological and regional ticket balancer Dan Quayle -- was almost certainly a liability to the ticket although, admittedly, it's very unlikely that the 1992 election outcome would have been different without him on the ticket. And picking a "compatible" veep campaign doesn't guarantee success without a personal fit and momentum: John Kerry and John Edwards were both enormously self-important Senators who talked like moderates and voted to the Left but didn't get along in person. Bob Dole, likewise, was a personal and ideological soul-mate to Gerald Ford but, because of Watergate, no GOP ticket probably could have won in 1976.
Since Romney, obviously, is hardly an exciting person who can afford to pick a "background player" he would be well advised to find a "mini-me" who he can actually work with. And, as a student of history, he almost certainly will do just this. This means that some widely-mentioned choices -- Rubio, Pawlenty, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels -- will probably get real vetting. But, most likely, so will some people not currently in the discussion like Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño, and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker. If Romney wants to win, the key deciding factor should be -- and probably will be -- how he likes the person in question.