The Veepstakes: Four Rules

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • Martin Nolan Former reporter, Washington bureau chief, and editorial page editor for the Boston Globe

It's never too early to plan to think about choosing a vice president. Here are some rules.

1. Toss the Pollsters Out of the Room

They know nothing about choosing a VP because most voters are too busy to peruse the details of an office that is still standby equipment. When pollsters troll, the result is well-known names. Just as name ID didn't help President Giuliani, it won't help a presidential nominee.

The most recent and worst example was the Democratic ticket in 2004. John Kerry's surveys pointed to John Edwards. Political reality dictated otherwise, but the polls prevailed. Edwards ran for president in 2004 on a "Two Americas" theme. As a running mate he lost both Americas. He had modulated his anger and smilingly cultivated his nice-guy image for a presidential run in 2008. As an attack dog, Edwards didn't bite. He didn't even bark. He was eloquent and charming, but unhelpful, which suggests another rule.

2. Dare to Be Dull

The vice presidency is a poor pulpit for a charismatic candidate, accustomed to cheering crowds. When a running mate makes major news, it's because the would-be veep has screwed up. Think Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle or the incumbent. Sometimes a second banana misses the bright lights, a nostalgic trait afflicting today's most prominent de facto running mate, Bill Clinton.
The 19th century vice presidential tradition favored an older, established figure little known to voters, but respected within the party, usually representing a different region or ideological faction. Congressional leadership credentials also helped, even in the 20th century. In the past 100 years, the major parties 12 times chose a VP candidate who had experience herding Capitol Hill cats, a sure way to acquire the skills of self-effacement. Joe Robinson and Charles Curtis may not be memorable but they were serviceable. In 1960, Lyndon Johnson was both.

Under this rubric, the logical choice for Kerry would have been Dick Gephardt of Missouri, son of a St. Louis milkman and twice a presidential candidate. As majority leader and minority leader in the House, he was respected and rarely accused of overdosing on charisma. Had Kerry followed his gut, Gephardt could have attracted Missouri's 11 electoral votes. As a longtime friend of labor, he would have helped in Ohio, with 20 electoral votes. Gephardt, 67, makes short-list sense even today. But Edwards won Kerry's polls, even though their conclusion violated another veepstakes imperative.

3. Home-State Geography Matters

Edwards had little impact in North Carolina. In 2000, George W. Bush carried the state with 56 percent. In 2004, with the pride of Robbins and Raleigh adorning the Kerry-Edwards ticket, Bush prevailed with 56 percent again.

Kerry's campaign was still pursuing the once-faddish deconstructionist theory that the Electoral College was irrelevant. Such a view is sooo 20th Century. In 1992, Bill Clinton chose his neighbor on Interstate 40, Al Gore. They won 43 percent of the popular vote because President George H.W. Bush and H. Ross Perot split the conservative vote.

The 2000 election showcased the revenge of the Electoral College. The big news was about Florida. The smaller, but electorally important, news showed that a candidate's home state matters. By choosing Joe Lieberman, Gore assured Connecticut's 8 electoral votes, not enough to atone for his inattention to his own Tennessee and Clinton's Arkansas. Gore lost both, a gift to the Bush-Cheney ticket of 17 electoral votes. (Former vice presidents often make whimsical choices. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey picked Edmund Muskie from Maine, with 4 electoral votes; 20 years later, George H. W. Bush chose Quayle from resolutely Republican Indiana.)

Today's ticket-balancing skills suggest that a senator needs a governor, a youngster needs an oldster and vice versa. Now race and gender are also factors. But echoing the dullness quotient is another rule.

4. Competence Trumps Contrast

In 1948, Missouri's Harry Truman, 64, chose Alben Barkley, 71, from neighboring Kentucky, who had been the Senate's Democratic floor leader for 10 years. Harry was supposed to lose that year, so he asked the most elemental question in politics: Why not choose someone I like who can also do the job?

That question produced the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2000 and 2004, a success electorally, if not historically. Wyoming is no swing state, but it offered a former White House chief of staff and Pentagon boss who, voters hoped, would provide adult supervision. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

One proof of competence is a public record. With three senators contending for president, the vice president may come from a state capitol. Hello, Columbus. Howdy, Tallahassee.
Democrat Ted Strickland, 67, won the Ohio governorship in 2006 with 61 percent. He is a former Methodist minister and a former prison psychologist, which means he can exercise patience. For a decade he represented the 6th congressional district along the Ohio River, a quintessentially heartland precinct bordering Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. Strickland actively backed Hillary Clinton, which could make him even more appealing to Barack Obama.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist supported John McCain early. At 51, Crist has managed to remain popular in the sprawling peninsula with its 27 electoral votes. Neither governor is famous, which may flummox pollsters, but they're more impressive than idle chatter about a "dream ticket" that could become a nightmare.