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Evans

The VP Choice

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jun 24, 2008

Now that Barack Obama has clinched the Democratic nomination, the media is beginning to focus on Obama and John McCain’s choice of running mates. This decision is the candidate’s first “presidential” decision and says much about the character, vision, and focus of their potential presidency. That is why presidential candidates today use their vice president choice to send a message, prepare for governing, and/or change the future direction of the party.

From a historical perspective, the two most common reasons for choosing a vice presidential nominee are geographical and ideological balance. These two factors were important when party organizations were essential to mobilizing voters. The parties balanced tickets to satisfy rival factions and to indicate that patronage (i.e., government jobs and contracts) would be shared because parties used jobs and money from kickbacks to mobilize party workers to get out the vote.

However, civil service reform and secret ballots undermined party organizations by eliminating most patronage positions and weakening ties between party bosses, party workers, and voters. This combined with technological advancements allowing candidates to speak directly to voters shifted power from party bosses to candidates.

Moreover, the rise of the middle class in the post World War II period created a large group of issue oriented voters that candidates must attract. Consequently, the US is now in an era of issue oriented and candidate centered campaigns.

These changes also contribute to another conclusion: people do not vote for candidates based on their vice presidential choice. Instead, presidential nominees must sell themselves directly to voters. So while working class, white voters may be leery of Obama and religious conservatives wary of McCain, neither Hillary Clinton nor Mike Huckabee can sell the candidate to those constituencies. Only Obama and McCain can win over those constituencies because everyone knows that presidents, not vice presidents, make the decisions.

Therefore, vice president choices serve three other purposes. First, vice president choices send a message. When Bill Clinton, the moderate governor of Arkansas, choose fellow moderate Al Gore of the neighboring state of Tennessee, he sent a strong message that this is not your grandparents’ Democratic Party. Gone are the days of liberals like George McGovern and candidates tied to special interests like Walter Mondale. This is a new Democratic Party committed to fiscal conservatism, social moderation, and a strong national defense.

Second, vice president choices can contribute to governing. When George Bush tapped Dick Cheney, he chose an experienced, respected, well qualified nominee who previously served as White House Chief of Staff, member of congress and the House Republican leadership, and Secretary of Defense. Bush’s choice clearly communicated his emphasis on getting things done in Washington.

Third, the choice influences the future direction of the party. A president’s legacy is determined, in part, by whether his party continues his policies and political strategies. Prospective candidates tend to copy strategies and policies of successful politicians hoping to replicate their success. The success of these candidates perpetuates the president’s influence because they continue his policies as they move up the political ladder from state to national to presidential politics. When the president leaves office then, other candidates naturally want to tie themselves to the successful president. The most obvious heir though is the vice president who worked side by side with the president.

Moreover, the vice president is the most likely frontrunner for the nomination because he spent time in office laying the foundation for his presidential run by raising money for candidates, building a national political organization, etc. Presidents allow vice presidents to nurture their ambitions because presidents see vice presidents as extensions of their presidency. The president knows the vice president must continue his policies or be seen as ineffective or disloyal. And they largely do pursue the president’s policies. This is why George H. W. Bush’s presidency is seen as Ronald Reagan’s third term and Reagan’s success is why most Republicans run as Reagan Republicans.

This is also one reason Bill Clinton strongly supported Al Gore and Hillary’s presidential campaigns. Their success is his success and their rejection, especially Hillary’s, is Bill Clinton’s rejection. Thus, Obama’s victory, in part, is a rejection of Clinton’s legacy of moderate policies and politics in favor of more progressive Democratic politics.

So, McCain and Obama’s choice of vice presidential nominees really is their first presidential decision. What will their choice say about them? Will they choose political expediency or governing competence? Short term electoral success or long term political and policy influence? Stay tuned to find out.

Originally published in The Jackson Sun on June 6