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Should Voter Preferences Matter in Veep Selection?

Mitt Romney speaking to supporters at a rally in Tempe, Arizona.

Mitt Romney speaking to supporters at a rally in Tempe, Arizona, April 20, 2012. Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA.

One of the factors presidential nominees consider or are faced with is a call from factions within their own parties for a particular vice presidential running mate. While the presidential nominee ultimately decides, along the way countless pundits, party leaders and other members of the political class weigh in with suggestions on who might excite the party base, who might help unite party factions behind the presidential ticket or who might carry the party to victory in the general election. But where do voter preferences fit in this process? Do they matter in veep selection? Evidence from this election and a previous one suggest they don’t.

Although most voters don’t pay attention to vice presidential candidates when they cast their ballot, enough people do that it can tip most close elections. Thus, in this close election year, who Mitt Romney selects might matter more for voters than in other years. A CBS/New York Times poll last week found that vice presidential selection will matter “a lot” to about one quarter of voters and somewhat to additional 50 percent of voters for their decision in November. Meanwhile, a recent Fox News poll asked voters who they would prefer to see on the Republican ticket if given a choice. Of the entire sample population, 30 percent preferred Condoleezza Rice, 12 percent preferred Marco Rubio, 8 percent preferred Chris Christie, and 6 percent preferred Paul Ryan (24 percent didn’t know). When the findings were narrowed to which veep candidate Republican voters would like to see, 30 percent of Republicans supported Rice as top choice, while Marco Rubio was the second most popular at 19 percent (16 percent said they didn't know). Yet, Reuters reported last week that Mitt Romney’s likely final three top choices are Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and Ohio Senator Rob Portman. According to the Fox News poll, only 5 percent of Republicans prefer Jindal, 2 percent Pawlenty and 3 percent Portman. 

Of course, Romney’s actual choice will be revealed soon and perhaps voter preferences will have mattered. Perhaps, but not likely.  Evidence from Lyndon B. Johnson’s selection process also shows that voter preferences matter little for veep candidate selection. Indeed, leading up to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Johnson sought to maintain maximum flexibility in his choice of running mate. As evidenced from the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program demonstrates, he engaged in a concerted effort to counter widespread calls from Democratic voters to choose Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

In a call on July 23, 1964, Johnson spoke with Texas Governor John Connally, one of his political allies about the mounting pressure to choose Bobby Kennedy. Connally told the president:

Well, of course, again, I think your great appeal is, and your great strength in this country now is, that you're doing what you think is right. And, of course, I feel very strongly about it, as you know, and I think if you have to take Bobby [Kennedy] on in a goddamn fight, let's take him on. And that's one thing that could get me out of this goddamn capital and come up there and help you, I'll tell you that. If it comes to that, why, I don't know what I can do, but I can carry wood or water. But if he wants to put up a fight, why, let's have one.

But I think you can whip him in a standstill. It won't even be close. I don't think he'll make the fight. And I damn sure agree that you ought not to give him running room between now and August. I agree with Clark Clifford and them. I just think you ought to just tell him now, and if he wants to do something about it, why, sure he's got 30 days. But, by damn, you've got 30 days, too. And I'd just go on and tell him. I'd get it over with, because I'd hell of a lot rather fight with him, as I told you, I'd rather fight with him between now and August than I would the next four years.

And I don't think there's any question but what he'll try to . . . he would be delighted to see you defeated. Ain't no question about that in my mind. He's an arrogant, he's an egotistical, a selfish person that feels like he's almost anointed. And he is so power-mad that it's unbelievable. And that's the very reason you can't take him on this ticket: because most people know it.

One week later, President Johnson enlisted Robert F. Wagner, Jr., the mayor of New York, to leak to the press that the party leaders supported the President's right to choose his running mate and that a divided party is something to be avoided. President Johnson suggested that Wagner tell the press:

They don't want the president to be required to sleep with anybody he doesn't want to sleep with. And he ought to have a man with vice president that he trusts and likes and can work with him. We oughtn't to have a divided ticket to start, and therefore, you expect to support the man the President selects . . .  I just don't think it can do us a bit of good to have a divided thing there, a divided party.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt set the precedent in 1940, presidential nominees have selected their own running mates. We know from empirical research that a number of factors weigh into the presidential nominee’s decision, that some factors are more important in particular elections than others and that the criteria for selection has evolved over the years. Among the most important criterion is a vice presidential candidate’s ability to demonstrate presidential leadership and to be ready to assume the number one position on day one. So if the vice president is supposed to be prepared to represent the whole people, should voter preferences matter in the selection process?

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