When it comes to vice presidential nominations, the scholars, journalists, and politicians who know and care the most about the subject know that people vote for president and not vice president. This knowledge is inconvenient. If it doesn’t really matter who the nominees for vice president are, then how can we justify all the time we’re about to spend obsessing over who Mitt Romney will choose as his running mate?
I’m here to enable you in your guilty pleasure. For at least five good reasons, it really does matter who the candidates for vice president are.
First, there is a very good chance that the next vice president will become president. Historically, nine vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency and another five have been elected. On average, about one in three vice presidents is a future president. And that’s not counting those who, like Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, and Al Gore in 2000, came very close.
Second, between now and election day, the vice presidential candidate is likely to dominate the media’s coverage of the campaign for at least two weeks: the week that he or she is chosen and the week of the debate with the presumptive Democratic nominee, incumbent vice president Joseph Biden. If one (or both) of the vice presidential candidates is perceived as exceptionally weak — think Spiro T. Agnew in 1968, Thomas Eagleton in 1972, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Dan Quayle in 1988, and Sarah Palin in 2008 — their time in the national spotlight will be even longer.
Third, even if 98-99 percent of the voters ignore the vice presidential candidates when they cast their ballot, the remaining 1-2 percent constitute more than one or two million people — enough to tip most close elections. How many elections are close? During the last half century, the elections of 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, and 2004 have been — that’s 5 out of 13, or more than a third.
Fourth, it’s a cliché and it’s true: choosing the running mate is the first presidential decision that a candidate for president makes and Romney, like Barack Obama and John McCain four years ago, can be fairly evaluated on that basis. One thing I always look at: Is the wannabe president secure enough in his own self-confidence to choose someone who is at least as impressive as he is?
Finally, the days when the vice presidency wasn’t “worth a pitcher of warm spit” (the G-rated version of FDR vice president John Nance Garner’s famous aphorism) are long gone. For well over a generation, the vice presidency has been an office of real prominence and influence.
Michael Nelson is the Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College and Senior Fellow in the Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program.