23 September 2008

Do VPs matter?

Amongst all the Palin-inspired hoopla, a question is beginning to surface across the blogosphere: when it comes to who wins the election, do VP picks actually matter?

The briefest perusal of recent political history lead to a couple of conclusions:

Bad VP picks can be a drag on a campaign but are rarely fatal.

Good picks can help in a close race but won’t save a struggling campaign.

As dubious picks go, the unholy trinity of Richard Nixon (1952), Spiro Agnew (1968) and Danforth Quayle (1988) (un)ably demonstrate that a running mate with ethical, experience or competence issues can be part of a winning ticket. Geraldine Ferraro proved a controversial choice for Walter Mondale’s disastrous 1984 campaign, but it would take wildy optimistic imagination to suggest that any other choice could have saved the Democrat from a trouncing by Ronald Reagan. Perhaps the worst pick ever was the (short-lived) 1972 selection of Thomas Eagleton; a choice that did little to inspire confidence in George McGovern’s decision-making, but hardly decisive in a race against an incumbent president with approval ratings in the high 50s.

If there is little evidence of a modern VP pick scuppering a campaign, is it possible to find running mates who pushed the candidate into power? The obvious example is Lyndon Johnson in 1960 who, in one of the closest races, undoubtedly helped JFK hold large parts of the south that were on the verge of going Republican. The addition of Walter Mondale to the 1976 Democrat ticket is often quoted as another sage selection, adding gravitas to Jimmy Carter’s outsider appeal, but the evidence for the choice being anything like a crucial electoral decider is far less convincing.

The best illustration of the limited effect of VP picks is the 1968 campaign. Hubert Humphrey’s choice of Edmund Muskie was widely feted, whereas Nixon’s selection of Agnew was hardly popular, even within sections of his own party. The contrast between the two VP nominations was so clear that, in the final days of the campaign, Humphrey suggested that if a voter couldn’t choose between him and Nixon, they should base their decision on the running mates. A cartoon at the time depicted the campaign as a running race with Nixon on the track carrying Agnew in his arms; in the drawing it was Muskie who was carrying Humphrey and we know who became president.

But that was then, what about now? With 2008 promising to be as close as 2004, it is dangerous to discard any factor as unimportant. Palin may well energise the cultural conservative base who were so suspicious of McCain, or she might compare badly to Biden and look like a risky choice in a time of economic and international insecurity. Whatever, history shows us that, once the razzmatazz fades, the choices of running mate will not be crucial. It will be the top of the ticket that decides the race.

By Ross English

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