08/14/2012 10:44 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of the VP Pick

Quick, what do Richard Nixon and Walter Mondale have in common? The answer is: they are the last VP nominees to carry their home states for their party after their party lost those states in the previous presidential election. How long ago was that? In the case of Nixon it was more than a half-century ago, 56 years, in the election of 1956. Nixon had been a senator from California. It actually took him two attempts to bring his state's electoral votes to his party. He was also the VP nominee in 1952 when the Democrats carried California. By 1956, in Ike's reelection, nobody thought Richard Nixon was needed for victory even in California. Not counting Nixon's second chance that means no GOP VP choice has ever meant any new electoral votes for the party ticket. And for Walter Mondale, his contribution was 36 years ago, in the election of 1976. Mondale moved his home state of Minnesota from a GOP state in 1972 to the Democratic side in 1976.

Since 1956 the Republicans have made 13 VP nominations without duplicating Nixon's feat. After failures with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. from Massachusetts, William Miller of New York and the soon-to-be resigned Spiro Agnew of Maryland, beginning in 1972 the Republicans, taking no chances anymore, started an unbroken chain of 10 VP nominees who came from rock-solid GOP states. That's 36 years without asking a VP nominee to deliver his or her home state electoral votes because they were already a sure thing. Not until now, with the impending nomination of Paul Ryan, have the Republicans looked to their VP selection asking for something tangible in return. Can Ryan deliver Wisconsin to the Romney column? We'll see, but it's a safe bet that if he doesn't, in 2016 whomever the GOP top nominee may be, he (or she?) will look for another safe running mate, one in the long line of traditional picks like Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin. All came from states certain to vote Republican anyway, no matter who the nominees were.

The Democrats have little different history. After the Nixon 1972 landslide when he carried Minnesota, four years later Walter Mondale, as Jimmy Carter's VP pick in 1976, returned the Land of A Thousand Lakes to the Democrats. Some may point to Al Gore for bringing Tennessee back to the Democrats in 1992 but, statistically, had Ross Perot not been running then it seems clear that President George H. W. Bush would have won Tennessee again as he did in 1988. The Clinton/Gore ticket did win the state, but with only 47 perceent of the vote, a full 10 points off the previous Bush mark and hardly a credit to Al Gore.

So, in spite of whatever the TV pundits are gushing about or the Beltway columnists are writing about Paul Ryan's value to the Romney ticket, there is simply nothing to indicate his selection means any new electoral votes for the GOP. What, then, of his so-called "national appeal" as the acknowledged intellectual leader of the House Republicans? If Ryan can't deliver Wisconsin, where might he register a measureable electoral advantage? Once again, there is simply no evidence that this young Congressman from Wisconsin has any electoral appeal anywhere outside his district. Paul Ryan has never even run for statewide office in Wisconsin. We can't say for sure that Ryan could win by himself statewide in Wisconsin. Who's to say where his "national appeal" can actually be seen? New polls all show this: most Americans -- which is to say, most voters -- when asked about him have little or no idea who Paul Ryan is!

Republicans have in the past nominated VPs with supposed national gravitas, most notably men like Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. who did nothing to help Richard Nixon battle John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Jack Kemp who bears a remarkable résumé resemblance to Paul Ryan and who, like Lodge before him, couldn't get Bob Dole over the top against Bill Clinton. The current selection of Paul Ryan is more in keeping with the dominant theme in GOP VP picks, which is: nationally unknown, perhaps even obscure, former or sitting Congressmen (i.e. Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp and Dick Cheney). Besides political junkies and Washington analysts, only a small percentage of Americans were aware of Bush's tenure at CIA or Cheney and Kemp's administrative Executive branch history. As we see today with Rep. Ryan, many voters didn't know Bush or Kemp when these men were originally nominated for VP.

The Democrats have for the last 68 years since FDR's last reelection, excepting the Eagleton VP catastrophe of 1972 and the experiment with a female nominee in 1984, always nominated senators to be VP, men with some national following who had themselves once tried for the Presidential spot on the ticket (i.e. Biden, Edwards, Lieberman, Gore, Bentsen, Mondale, Muskie, Humphrey, Johnson, Kefauver, Sparkman, Barkley, Truman). Unlike the failed GOP VP nominees, all these Democratic senators carried their home states for their party -- including non-senators; the ill-fated and poorly chosen Shriver and Ferraro in 1972 and 1984 -- with the single exception of Sen. John Edwards who failed to bring North Carolina in for John Kerry in 2004. And, for both Democrats and Republicans, only LBJ in 1960 is credited with delivering a state which the Presidential candidate would otherwise have lost, thus making a crucial difference to the election result.

The lesson seems clear. Nominees for vice president have not been the key ingredients in a Presidential election. The choice is at the top of the ticket and sometimes even a weak VP nominee, one who may have been humiliated on national TV like Dan Quayle was by Lloyd Bentsen or one with the painful shortcomings of Sarah Palin, doesn't lose the election for the party. George H. W. Bush won, and John McCain lost, on their own. What's this mean for the coming candidacy of Paul Ryan to be our next vice president? Most likely it only demonstrates anew the unbearable lightness of the VP. The choice Americans will make in November will not be Biden or Ryan. It will be between Barack Obama and Willard "Mitt" Romney.