07/19/2012 03:02 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

VP Choice Matters. Why Romney Must Get It Right

It always surprises me when commentators claim that whom a presidential candidate chooses for Vice President does not figure into voters' decision calculus. Common sense, and a new poll, suggests otherwise.

First, the poll. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll released Wednesday, 26% of registered voters say the choice of VP "matters a lot to their vote," while an additional 48% say it "matters somewhat."

Now, the common sense. 2008 GOP Presidential candidate John McCain picked Sarah Palin for VP because he believed (or was persuaded) that she would carry women voters in crucial swing states. The opposite happened. Independent women voters, like most men with a brain, were appalled by Wasilla Sarah's staggering ignorance of foreign affairs, not to mention U.S. history. Rather than a "Game Change," McCain's pick of the un-vetted Alaska Guv showed that the long-time Arizona Senator -- rightfully lauded for his principled and moderate stands on a range of issues, not to mention his heroic service as a Vietnam POW -- did not possess the measured, granularly thorough chops for the highest office on planet earth.

Often the only way to judge a presidential candidate is by his or her choice of a running mate. If the choice is egregious, it tells a voter all he or she knows about the candidate's decision-making apparatus. If the choice is solid, if not necessarily inspirational, it can pave the path to victory.

Take the case of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton back in 1992. One would have intuitively thought that the scandal-plagued Arkansas Governor would pick a safe VP from a northern or midwestern state. Instead, Clinton wisely chose a brainy, if bulky, policy wonk named Al Gore, a senator from the neighboring state of Tennessee. Clinton doubled down on the New South theme, and, as a result, remains the last Democrat to carry both Arkansas and Tennessee.

Picking the professionally solid, if more liberal, Gore put Clinton's decision-making in stark contrast to that of George H.W. Bush, whose incumbent VP, James Danforth Quayle, was a ham-fisted deer in the headlights. And I know about critters in headlights, having recently annihilated a coyote en route to St. John's Summer Classics in Santa Fe. To think that Quayle was remotely qualified for the highest office in the land, should Bush, Sr. have been unable to perform his fishing, er, Presidential duties, stretches the far reaches of credulity.

When the Quayle-inflected incompetent child of privilege theme reared its head again in the goofy persona of failed oilman, George W. Bush, one would naturally expect another Republican defeat. But, to Lil' Bush's credit, he instinctively felt the stirrings of his own incompetence, and wisely picked a savvy, tough Washington insider named Dick Cheney as his running mate. Whatever you may think of Darth Cheney (and there is much to dislike about the caustic man and his duplicitous methods), my fellow Cornhusker unequivocally conveyed "gravitas" to the key swing voters that controversially pushed Bush to victory. As the Cheney pick proved, voters were willing to take a flyer on the born-again Texas governor as long as there was a Machiavellian adult minding the store.

Given the strong economy and balanced budget at Gore's back, the 2000 presidential election should never have come down to dimpled chads in the infamous Florida recount. The reason it was close is because Mr. Gore proved to be a wooden, arrogant and, thus, viscerally unappealing presidential candidate (the 2000 campaign proved that he had reached his level of incompetence as VP). Gore's petulant antics during the debates with Bush underscored not only what centrist and swing voters disliked about the "inventor of the Internet," but about the dismissive, we-know-what's-best-for-you attitude of the Democratic Party's left wing.

Historically, it's nearly impossible for Democrats to win when they actively try to appease the more ardent members of their base. Welfare expansion, amnesty for illegal aliens, class warfare, demonizing of job creators under the guise of tax "fairness" are themes that play poorly with hard-working, self-sufficient swing and independent voters. Obama was the exception to this rule, not only because of the historical significance of his mixed-race narrative (which captured the hearts of millions of otherwise stalwart Republican voters), but also because, unlike McCain, he didn't pick a complete doofus as his VP.

One could argue that the congressional tenure of Vice President Joe Biden represented one long "clown act." But, despite Joe's occasional bombast and rhetorical blunders (outing the President's "evolving" position on gay marriage was classic Biden), no one disputed back in 2008 that the Delaware Senator knew a thing or two about foreign affairs. Compared to the woefully incurious Palin, Biden came across like Joseph Nye. Result: Obama coasted to victory.

Had McCain picked Lieberman, Romney, or the superlative and hilarious attack dog, Rudy Giuliani, the final tally would have been closer. However, given McCain's decidedly geriatric performance during the Presidential debates against the silky smooth, if inexperienced, junior Senator from Illinois, combined with the profound historical winds at Obama's back, a better VP pick would still not been enough to propel McCain to victory.

In other words, the VP pick cannot fully save a blundering campaign (and McCain's 2008 effort was a painful exercise in political incompetence). However, if a campaign is professionally run, and the presidential candidate is at least mildly appealing (as in the case of Willard Mitt Romney), the VP pick can make a sizable difference in swaying voters' minds.

This is why Romney's vice-presidential choice has taken on such importance. If he tries to hit a home run, (e.g., picking the inexperienced Marco Rubio, the junior Senator from Florida), it will shatter the average voter's view of Romney as a cautious, data-driven steward of business and public policy. Moreover, picking the inexperienced Rubio would undercut Romney's chief rhetorical trope: that Obama the Community Organizer lacked sufficient business and governing experience to steer the country through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In addition, swing voters would see a Rubio pick as politically opportunistic (a lame stretch to capture the wavering Hispanic vote), rather than empirically sound.

If the pick is too safe (read: Ohio Senator Rob Portman or former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty), Romney runs the risk of putting swing voters to sleep. But, if the pick is just right (providing a dash of sizzle, without risking claims of incompetence), then the pick could be all that Romney needs to defeat Obama in key battleground states.

The VP choice matters. And Romney needs to get it absolutely right. Now, if only portly New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would share some of his largesse with razor thin Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Romney might have his man.