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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Parties pick Vice Presidents, and they're not bad at it

Updated: May 20, 2020

Source: Obama Presidential Library

A number of political reformers have suggested that what presidential nominations need is a stronger hand for the party. I'd like to suggest that we already have such a system operating for vice presidential nominations, and it actually works pretty well. Party insiders, that is, may be better than voters at picking nominees.

There are, to be sure, a number of different proposals floating around to change and improve presidential nominations in the United States. In particular, arguments by Ray La Raja and Jonathan Rauch, Elaine Kamarck, fellow Mischief Hans Noel, and others suggest that party insiders should play a greater role. This could mean a number of different things, from requiring some sort of "peer review" of candidates by party leaders or encouraging deliberation among convention delegates or even just going back to the pre-1972 system of letting party conventions, rather than primary voters and caucus goers, pick nominees.

The main argument for moving to such an elite-dominated system for picking nominees is that party insiders are actually better at this job than voters are. They have a better sense of what kind of candidates can balance competing factions within a party, win an election, and govern effectively once in office than voters possibly could. These insiders produced leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy (okay, and James Buchanan and Warren Harding and some other gems, but let's skip that for now).

I suppose the cleanest possible version of such a nomination system is that party insiders would weigh various interested candidates and would be free to make a decision between them based on whatever criteria they find most useful. Yes, even in such a party-dominant system, voters would have input, and party leaders could consider public opinion and even be constrained by it. But ultimately, the choice would be the party leaders' to make.

What I'd like to suggest is that this system already exists for the vice presidency.

Party insiders (obviously and prominently including the presumed presidential nominee) have very broad discretion when picking a vice presidential nominee. There's very little formal process involved -- the decision is officially ratified at the national convention but almost never involves any controversy at that point.

There's a significant chance that those who pick the Democratic vice presidential nominee this year are naming the 47th President of the United States

As William Adler and fellow Mischief Julia Azari wrote in a paper, party leaders often play an active role in vice presidential selection, and one of the factors they strongly consider is an ideological balancing of the ticket. If the presidential nominee is seen as being to the party's left, they may end up picking a somewhat more conservative running mate, and vice versa.

We should generally be thinking about such decisions as coalition maintenance. In any presidential nomination decision, there's usually an effort to build a coalition behind the nominee, but some groups within the party will lose more than others from that decision. Joe Biden is a good example of a coalition candidate; he received support from a wide range of groups within the party, but obviously some were disappointed by the nominee not being a woman or a person of color or a progressive. Biden's pledge to name a woman as his running mate is an attempt to mend some fences within the party. There’s a decent chance she will be a person of color. And given that Biden was one of the more moderate candidates seeking the presidency, he's pretty likely to have a running mate to his left.

And this is a particularly consequential vice presidential selection this year. Biden would turn 80 in his first term as president. There are reasons to think he wouldn't desire or be able to serve a second term even if there weren't a virus floating around that was targeting people in his age group. There's a significant chance that those who pick the Democratic vice presidential nominee this year are naming the 47th President of the United States.

This raises a key question: who does a better job picking? Does the party pick vice presidential candidates better or worse than the party-plus-voters pick presidential candidates in our primaries/caucuses/convention presidential system? That's really hard to say. How do we decide whether a vice presidential candidate is good? Their role is very poorly defined. As candidates, their job is basically to not screw up the election. As officeholders, their job is basically to sit around and wait for someone to die. To be sure, some are better at this than others. But simply not being an embarrassment is generally considered a win.

That said, we can think about how vice presidential nominees behave as coalition maintainers. Mike Pence arguably helped deliver evangelical Christians for Donald Trump and is part of why they remain among Trump's most loyal supporters. Biden, as a moderate and experienced white man, helped reassure a party uncertain about nominating a relatively inexperienced young African American candidate in 2008. Paul Ryan gave anti-tax Republicans some confidence in Mitt Romney, who had a history of moderation. Tim Kaine -- well, it's hard to say he helped the Clinton ticket much in 2016, but he probably didn't hurt it, either. John Edwards probably would have been a liability as Vice President over the long run, but he was likely a modest net benefit when he ran as John Kerry's running mate in 2004.

Dick Cheney is a difficult case. He was arguably a problematic Vice President, exerting power to a striking degree and pushing some wartime actions that were most likely illegal and unconstitutional. As a vice presidential nominee, however, his job was largely to reassure voters by being an "adult" -- a steady, experienced Washington counselor to a younger and less experienced man with no background in foreign affairs. He was a competent debater and supported Bush's positions even when there was the basis for conflict, such as Bush's stance on a constitutional amendment to prohibit same sex marriage. Evaluated as a vice presidential nominee, he probably didn't hurt Bush much and may have helped him a good deal. The tricky part is that Cheney himself was one of the major party insiders who pushed him for the vice presidency, making it difficult to evaluate this as a party decision.

Yet in general, it's hard to name many modern vice presidential nominees who have actually been harmful to their ticket. Sarah Palin is probably one of them. Yes, there were good coalitional arguments for naming her, as she helped shore up cultural conservatives' support for McCain, who had a history of displeasing them, and there was some logic in naming a woman to exploit the dissatisfaction of Hillary Clinton supporters on the Democratic side. But her very weak campaign performances likely cost the Republican ticket votes, though not the election. Joe Lieberman was a largely inconsequential vice presidential nominee in 2000 until he undermined his running mate's legal claims during the Florida recount, so we could probably put him in the bad call category. Dan Quayle did his running mate few favors in 1988.

But my point is that from what limited evidence we have, and recognizing that the job of vice presidential nominee is a lot easier than that of presidential nominee, it's not clear that parties are doing any worse a job than parties-plus-voters are, and there's a good chance they're doing it better. In an area where the party truly does decide, it does a pretty good job.

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