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Who Wins In the Veepstakes?
By Graham Anson
Published: Aug 7, 2012
RALEIGH - The new HBO comedy “Veep,” starring Julia Dreyfus of “Seinfeld” fame, takes an interesting, albeit commonly held perspective on the office of the vice president. That viewpoint is that the VP doesn’t really do anything of importance—Dreyfus and staff spend most of the show waiting for the unnamed, unseen president to call, which he never does.
And while “Veep” doesn’t quite rival the work of Aaron Sorkin, television has often portrayed vice presidents as somewhat incompetent, or in the case of Sorkin’s award-winning “The West Wing,” as having a massive inferiority complex.
Funny thing is, these television portrayals probably aren’t far from the truth. “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci met with Vice President Joe Biden and staff before filming to make certain, among other things, that his portrayal of the VP's day-to-day was relatively accurate. And while it’s unlikely that Biden’s life truly resembles a cheeky political satire, the humor all comes from the same angle—no one really cares about the vice president.
Well, that is until election season.
With presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running-mate decision fast approaching, the media has made sure that the general public understands the earth-shattering importance of a vice presidential choice. But after the 2008 election, who can blame them?
The media spent an inordinate amount of time covering John McCain’s running-mate selection of Sarah Palin, a curveball that eventually turned out to be a home run—for the Obama campaign. Meanwhile the Obama camp chose Joe Biden, who could make rhetorical blunders, but was one of the longest tenured senators in U.S. history, and served as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees. Palin was controversial and under-groomed, allowing the gaffe-prone Biden to get the best of her in the VP debates.
So this year, the Romney campaign is trying its best to win the “Veepstakes,” but it’s still unclear what angle they’re shooting for. They could choose someone safe, like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is seen as appealing by many, and boring by others. They could choose a rising-star, like staunch conservative Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Romney could choose someone experienced, like former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who would bring instant foreign policy experience to the ticket, but may be too closely associated with the George W. Bush presidency. Or they could choose a fiery attack-dog like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who would sharply contrast Romney with his improvisational style, but could be passed over for fear of his going off script.
But do any of these media narratives surrounding potential VP choices really matter? While Palin was controversial and closely covered by the media, there is a prevailing notion that her addition to the ticket didn’t necessarily change the election at all, but rather coincided with the economic collapse that pushed polling in favor of Obama.
This idea is addressed in Stacy G. Ulbig’s article in the American Politics Research Journal titled “The Appeal of Second Bananas: The Impact of Vice Presidential Candidates on Presidential Vote Choice, Yesterday and Today.” Ulbig found that in every election year from 1972-2008, more favorable ratings for a presidential candidate correspond to a larger vote share for that party’s ticket. On the other hand, she found that feelings about a vice presidential candidate affecting voter choice are comparatively small.
However, Ulbig did find that compared to past vice presidential choices, Palin “exhibited one of the largest impacts on vote choice of any Republican vice presidential candidate since 1972,” while Biden’s impact was very typical of Democratic vice presidential candidates, due in large part to Palin’s polarizing effect.
This generates one obvious conclusion: the feelings toward a presidential candidate clearly affect vote choice greatly, but feelings toward a vice presidential candidate affect vote choice in varying degrees, depending on the year, depending on the candidate and depending on partisanship (vice presidential choice had a much greater impact on independents than partisans).
Even more intriguing was delving into the different types of candidates on tickets where vote choice was more greatly affected by VP nominees. For example, breaking from the norm seems to have a more obvious effect on vote choice—Palin in 2008, Walter Mondale’s choice of a female VP nominee in Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and Al Gore’s selection of Jewish-American Joe Lieberman in 2000. It also appears that in years where the VP choice by one party was riskier, the opposing running mate was consistently safer and had less of an effect on vote choice—Biden in 2008, Bush’s selection of Dick Cheney in 2000, and Reagan’s sitting VP George H.W. Bush in 1984.
So with all that said, if Romney chooses someone safe, it would indicate that he’s fairly confident in his ability to bring in votes by himself. Republican elites and Romney strategists may also shy away from a more controversial candidate after witnessing the intense media scrutiny surrounding the Palin pick. In any case, following trends from the last 40 years, if Romney wants his vice presidential choice to have any sort of impact, be it positive or negative, he’d be better off choosing someone interesting who will garner more media coverage.
So when the Romney campaign ends the “Veepstakes” before the Republican National Convention, be prepared to hear Rice or Christie’s names called rather than someone like Pawlenty or Portman. Then once November comes and goes, we can all go back to forgetting the vice president exists again, regardless of whether it’s President Obama or President Romney in the Oval Office.