POLITICS
04/26/2016 07:18 pm ET

Get Ready For The Veepstakes, Everybody!

The media's quadrennial exercise in overthinking is upon us!
In 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan challenged the notion that two people of the same
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images
In 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan challenged the notion that two people of the same gender could not appear on the same presidential ticket.

For all we argue which American presidents were successful and which were failures, one has to be impressed with the glowing achievements of American vice presidents. Whenever a president is dead, or being driven from office, the vice president must rise to the occasion, and be not-dead, and not-being-driven-from-office. In this regard, our vice presidents have assembled a glowing track record of sustained excellence.

Who will be the next man or woman to add their name to this legend? This is a matter that the media has suddenly begun to take up in earnest, perhaps sensing that this year's primary elections are now more or less decided, and it's time to now move to the next chapter of the story of this election -- the one in which the media ponders what's at stake in the choosing of a running mate in a race to find out which pundit can overthink it the most.

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the Clinton campaign had "begun extensive discussions" about her running mate. The paper's headline notes that the campaign is "cautious but confident," probably because some spokesperson said, "We are cautious but confident." I don't know how you are supposed to fact-check this, but there you go: They are neither reckless nor terrified.

Many names found themselves to be afloat in the Times' reporting. Because Clinton has envisioned her presidential mission as one of "barrier-breaking," in which the nation's economic ends are met by encouraging a continuing diversification of elite aeries, some of those names are Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Massachusetts Gov.r Deval Patrick, and Obama administration Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who worked for the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

As the media will make much of Clinton's need to appeal to working-class white men (and people with more limited connections to Massachusetts), many of the people named are also white guys: Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.

In case you were wondering, yes, Clinton would be open to running with another woman on the ticket. One can easily imagine that this might be the sort of thing that the media could get a little overexcited about, and not necessarily to good purposes. A distant early warning of how that might be received came over the weekend, when former Obama communications director Anita Dunn was asked if Hillary Clinton really could pick another woman as her vice president, as if there was some legal obstacle preventing this arrangement. Dunn replied, "There is some precedent for having a running mate of the same gender." Bu-bu-bu-but, penises?

According to The Washington Post's Robert Costa and Philip Rucker, the veep-game is afoot in GOP circles as well. The campaigns of John Kasich and Ted Cruz have apparently already begun their vetting processes, which seems pretty premature, when you consider the delegate count in that race. They report that the man atop the delegate count, Donald Trump, has given the matter some "serious thought," but has not made it a focus of his campaign, which seems pretty tardy, when you consider the delegate -- you get the idea.

The results of Trump's vice-presidential ministrations are going to be of enormous interest, given the fact that he has a) cast himself as an outsider-basher of the establishment and yet b) desperately needs some insider-establishment type to explain to him basic things, like what a president does, and how Congress works. At the moment, Trump is still getting up to speed on what a "delegate" is, so it's understandable that he's lagging in the Veepstakes. 

Trump's vice-presidential pick will also be a person of interest, in that once Trump discovers that the presidency is a low-prestige job that involves constant criticism, unending demands, and the congenital inability to get Congress to agree to the executive branch vision, there's a good chance he'll just quit, leaving his running mate with the bag.

But I have to give Trump some credit: I've never heard a president talk about what's at stake in the choosing of a vice president with greater realism. As The Washington Post reports:

Trump, who said he wants to pick an experienced political leader, may calculate that he needs a bridge to mainstream Republicans who see his candidacy as radioactive.

“There are two advantages: They can help you with the system, and the politicians have been vetted,” Trump said in the interview. “That’s the biggest advantage to a politician -- their whole life they’ve been vetted and you know everything, whereas if I pick some guy out of a great corporation who has done a job, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Besides demonstrating that they can draw breath and circulate blood, that's literally all a vice president brings a ticket -- a surfeit of institutional knowledge and, hopefully, a past free of scandal. There are literally no further advantages a vice-presidential prospect can bring to the ticket.

Unfortunately for all of us, the Veepstakes is essentially a long-winded exercise in determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If we are at the beginning stage of the Running Of The Running Mates, that means we have a staggering number of hours to endure, in which prospective candidates are hefted for demographic advantages and probed for home-state benefits.

Can the right candidate deliver a larger share of voters from a swing state? Could a certain candidate help maximize turnout from some voting bloc? We are at the precipice of these possibilities being picked to death by pundits eager to battle their colleagues in their traditional game of Sunday morning panel one-upsmanship.

So let's head all of that off at the pass. The home state of the vice-presidential pick? Their ethnicity? Their gender? Their religion? None of that matters. That needle won't jump. You can stop fretting about it.

Over at The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko break out all the relevant research on the matter of vice-presidential prestidigitation, and their overarching conclusion is that it more or less fails to amount to a hill of beans, provided that the presidential candidate remembers to literally not choose an actual hill of beans as their partner-in-crime. (Which, to be honest, is too bad. I for one would vastly prefer to hear what Hill Of Beans has to say about the state of contemporary politics and its preferred policy platform than I would, say ... Carly Fiorina.)

Does the right vice-presidential candidate offer the ticket a home-state advantage? According to Devine and Kopko, in some limited instances, when the vice-presidential pick "comes from a relatively less populous state and has served that state for many years as an elected official," it can. This benefit is then immediately offset by the fact that "less-populous states have very few electoral votes, thus making them unlikely to flip the outcome in the Electoral College."

Other than that, the home-state benefit is straight-up tugging at ghosts: "No matter the empirical method," they write, "we consistently find that the vice- presidential home state advantage is, statistically speaking, zero."

What about the idea that diversity on the ticket might bring a greater share of some demographic subgroup's favor on Election Day? There, the science is incomplete, as there are no real-world examples of a major party selecting a Latino (or an African-American, or an Asian-American) as their vice-presidential candidate. But in analyzing "the performance of some other would-be breakthrough candidates" -- such as Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, and Joe Lieberman -- the relevant political science indicates that these choices result in some positive feelings toward these picks from voters who share their demographic identity.

But that's as far as it goes. Per Devine and Kopko:

But again, more positive feelings toward the running mate do not necessarily translate into more votes. Controlling for a range of relevant covariates (such as age, income, party identification), gender is not a statistically significant predictor of vote choice in 1984 or 2008. Nor is Catholic identification in 1972, 1984, 2008 or 2012. The one exception is in 2000, when Jewish voters were significantly more likely to vote for the Gore/Lieberman ticket. But in a subsequent pooled analysis of presidential vote choice, Jewish respondents to the ANES proved to be significantly more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate in each presidential election since 1960. Further analysis shows that Jews didn’t feel more warmly toward Lieberman than toward the average Democratic running mate. So it’s not clear that Lieberman’s candidacy actually brought more Jewish votes to the 2000 Democratic ticket.

So, that's a dead end as well.

Recently, the U.S. News and World Report's Susan Milligan reported on the work of a "bipartisan team of veteran campaign managers and political historians," who took up the task of evaluating how to pick the perfect vice president for the Bipartisan Policy Center. The way Milligan distills these experts' ideal process into a series of steps basically boils down to this:

  1. Take a deep breath, and come up with some names.

  2. Vet their public records.

  3. Narrow the choices and vet them again, this time taking an "'intrusive' look at the contenders' personal lives, including medical and financial matters that could be embarrassing to the ticket."

  4. Tell your prospects to their faces what you found out and browbeat them into revealing if there's anything that was not "unearthed but which could come out in the media."

  5. Make a choice and then pray you did your due diligence and that you didn't pick a liar.

Based upon Milligan's reporting, the impaneled experts didn't have anything to say about whether it's necessary to find the right guy to help you swing Wisconsin, or the pick that's got the magic touch to bringing out, say, more Asian-Pacific islanders to the polls. The process of picking a vice president is nothing more than a brutal, medieval endoscopy into the personal and political lives of people with whom you might spend the most important years of your political career. Hopefully, you find someone who survives that process, after which, you can simply just be hopeful that you, too, survive.

Still, this idea that the right vice-presidential pick might confer some sort of hidden electoral advantage -- like they're some walking political cheat-code -- is a compelling story. And it's understandable why a campaign would like to indulge in this sort of stagecraft. After all, what the selection is really all about is finding someone to fill a rather macabre political role who doesn't load down the ticket with a bunch of dreadful liabilities. At the end of that process, you don't want to have to talk about the intensity or the intrusiveness of the vetting process. So, hey, instead, come up with a fun story about how your running mate is someone who has hidden, ineffable strengths. 

Maybe such spin is silly. Still, like I said from the outset, this system has worked beautifully: All of our vice presidents have successfully performed the task of remaining a living, breathing vessel of human consciousness, and none have revealed themselves to be the Zodiac Killer, not even Spiro Agnew, although it was pretty touch-and-go there for a while.

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Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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