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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

March 15: Do Voters Care About Veeps?

Decided to explore a hardy perennial topic in a period of intense speculation about various candidates for Vice President, and wrote it up at New York:

In political circles, it’s high season for veep speculation. Democrats worried about Joe Biden’s age and their ticket’s electability fret about whether incumbent Vice-President Kamala Harris is the best bet to serve as the presidential understudy in 2024 as Republicans yell and point at her as an alleged radical leftist. Republicans worried about their party’s post-Trump direction fret about the erratic former president’s choice of a running mate to replace his 2016–20 toady, the since-discarded Mike Pence. Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is doing his own veep reveal on March 26; it has drawn interest partly because it could indicate which major party’s success might be spoiled by his bid and partly because ultracelebrity NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers could be in the mix. And the nonpartisan organization No Labels will soon be unveiling its own potential 2024 plans, which are likely to deploy a Democratic vice-presidential candidate to balance a Republican at the top of its “unity ticket.”

Do veep candidates really matter in determining the outcome of presidential elections?

To be clear, this is a very different question than the real-world relevance of vice-presidents. Fifteen veeps have gone on to become president, eight of them suddenly on the death of the boss and another when the boss was forced to resign. It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Abraham Lincoln choosing Andrew Johnson as his 1864 running mate (making congressional Reconstruction necessary), or FDR replacing Henry Wallace with Harry Truman in 1944 (removing a Soviet sympathizer from the line of succession). The political insiders who often influence the choice of vice-presidential candidates understand why they matter, which is why they definitely care about them even in the absence of evidence that voters care at all.

And to be honest, there has never been much evidence that most voters care at all. Political scientists are generally in agreement that the identity of the second person on a presidential ticket matters mostly on the margins. Even St. Louis University’s Joel Goldstein, who is to vice-presidents what Andy Cohen is to Real Housewives, concedes that their identity is usually an electoral cipher. He has said, “Vice-presidential choice is unlikely to make much of a difference where potential swing voters have a strong preference for one presidential candidate over the other.” He points to very close elections with lots of swing voters, notably in 1960 when LBJ might have helped swing Texas into JFK’s column, as exceptions to a general rule.

On the other hand, there’s quite a bit of recent evidence that the selection of a particular running mate may play a role in preventing defections of voters from a presidential candidate with a shaky electoral base.

Most obviously, in 2016 Donald Trump was facing a potential revolt among movement-conservative and Evangelical voters, which he addressed by choosing the movement-conservative Evangelical politician Pence (who had the added reassuring value of a long résumé of elected offices). We can’t prove Trump would have lost without Pence onboard, but his victory was narrow enough that a Pence-less loss is a plausible counterfactual scenario. Similarly, in 2020 Biden’s choice of Harris made sense after a grueling nomination contest in which old white guy Biden prevailed over multiple women and people of color (not to mention two Jews), reversing the diversity trend established by his predecessors Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Biden himself, of course, was chosen by the first Black presidential nominee, who was also a freshman senator, in no small part because he was an old white guy with a Washington résumé as long as his arm.

What Trump must decide is whether he needs to worry about potential Republican defections in choosing a running mate or is instead more motivated by a determination to avoid the “disloyalty” Pence eventually displayed on January 6, 2021. And Democrats contemplating either a replacement of their entire 2024 ticket as a likely loser or just the selection of a new VP less likely to cause worries about a possible presidential disability or death need to assess the potential backlash to making Harris the first sitting vice-president in three-quarters of a century (since Henry Wallace) to get the heave-ho. (Yes, technically speaking, Gerald Ford booted Nelson Rockefeller from the 1976 ticket to placate conservatives, but it was theoretically a voluntary retirement and neither of these men was elected by voters in the first place.)

For non-major-party campaigns, like RFK Jr.’s or the putative No Labels effort, the veep selection could be more significant simply by giving a clearer definition to a fuzzy presidential candidacy.

In general, though, there’s a reason presidential candidates tend to play it safe with their running-mate selections: It usually doesn’t matter much unless it draws more attention than people aiming to become the “leader of the free world” typically want. John McCain’s “high risk, high reward” choice of an obscure first-term Alaska governor named Sarah Palin in 2008 is an eternal warning to would-be presidents that you don’t want a veep voters notice because she’s being regularly lampooned on Saturday Night Live.

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