Rumor has it that Governor Romney has settled on – and will soon announce – his vice presidential candidate. The conventional wisdom is that the list is down to Ohio Senator Rob Portman, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and – maybe – Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice were floated either as trial balloons or to demonstrate the alleged breadth of their selection process before they pick the white guy (no, Jindal is not a “white guy” but read below why he won’t be picked according to the logic of vice presidential picking).
What a yawn fest. Any group in which Tim Pawlenty is judged to be the most dynamic and energetic member has a serious personality deficit.
In truth, though, vice presidential nominees tend to be on the uninspiring side of the ledger and are usually picked for one or more of the following reasons:
- Safe (i.e. no skeletons, no surprises)
- Bland (doesn’t overshadown the top of the ticket)
- Balance (geography, experience, political spectrum, age, religion)
- Key attribute (ethnicity, swing state residency)
Let’s review the list of some of the most recent vice-presidential nominees and see where they fit:
- 2008: Biden – balance (age, experience), safe; Palin – (see below)
- 2004: Edwards – key attribute (swing state), balance (geography, religion)
- 2000: Lieberman – balance (political spectrum); Cheney – balance (experience, geography, age), safe
- 1996: Kemp – balance (political spectrum, geography), safe
- 1992: Gore – safe, bland, balance (experience)
- 1988: Quayle – bland, balance (age, political spectrum); Bentsen – balance (experience, political spectrum, geography), safe
- 1984: Ferraro – (see below)
- 1980: Bush – balance (age, political spectrum, experience, geography)
Thirty-two years of electoral politics is enough to make the point, but the pattern is discernible in every election. The most common reason for picking a vice president is “balance” in terms of geography, experience, etc. Only rarely does picking a vice presidential candidate deliver that person’s home state – Lyndon Johnson being the only example that comes to mind. Other attributes come into play when there are particular flaws at the top of the ticket. George W. Bush, for example, had to pick a Cheney-esque figure to counter the perception that he was too much of a lightweight to be president. By contrast, George H.W. Bush picked Quayle in part because he was so lightweight that there was no possibility that he would overshadow his boss.
Which brings us to the last reason why vice-presidential candidates are chosen: as “game changers.” There are only two people in this category in the last eight presidential elections – Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sara Palin in 2008. Both were picked by campaigns desperate enough to throw Hail Mary passes in the hope of an end zone miracle. Both failed: Ferraro’s selection couldn’t possibly hold back the landslide that re-elected Reagan in ’84 and Palin made the ’08 loss a little worse (though a “safe” pick from one of the traditional categories wouldn’t have made a difference).
Mitt Romney is NOT John McCain and even without the immediate example of Sara Palin as a warning there is no chance of him picking a game changer. First, he has an actuary’s dislike of risk and has never as far as I can tell taken a high-risk step in either his personal or professional life. Second, he’s in no way desperate; the election is still a jump ball and he has $1 billion or more on his side to help him jump higher than the other guys.
So…applying the logic of vice-presidential candidates to the current crop, Jindal is out. Portman is tempting, but I think in the end our own Tim Pawlenty will be the guy bounding onto a stage somewhere in a swing state sometime soon to tell us how proud he is to have been asked to join Mitt Romney in reclaiming America.