Sabato's Crystal Ball

How the Ryan Pick Fits in With Vice Presidential History

Joel K. Goldstein, Guest Columnist August 23rd, 2012

Veepstakes 2012 is over. Mitt Romney has chosen, and pundits will now search their crystal balls on other subjects, at least until sometime in 2015 or 2016 when vice-presidential speculation will begin anew, this time regarding Veepstakes 2016. But before putting this year’s version totally behind us, it’s worth thinking about what we’ve learned.

Every vice-presidential selection is different. The selector and his inner circle always differs, as does the pool of possible candidates and the context in which the choice is made. Nonetheless, Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) illustrates that the process involves recurring patterns as well as variation, predictability as well as innovation. Here are 10 lessons Veepstakes 2012 reaffirms:

1) Choose presidential: Whether the electorate will ultimately view Ryan as presidential remains to be seen, but the Romney camp seems to have accepted the notion that a presidential candidate facing what appears to be a close election has to choose someone who appears to be a plausible president. The timing of the selection makes it inevitable that political considerations will dictate the choice. Presidential candidates make the selection with the fall campaign in mind. Absent polls predicting a likely blowout, presidential candidates choose a running mate to help them succeed in their aspirations to achieve office, not to govern once in office. But in modern times, political and governance considerations have converged. Choosing someone who does not appear to be presidential is likely to be bad politics, probably in August but certainly by October.

Romney presumably grasped this lesson. His short list apparently included Ryan, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN). Each had between eight (Pawlenty) and 16 (Portman) years of experience in traditional feeder positions (Senate, Cabinet, governor, House). Pawlenty had been runner-up to Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) four years earlier and had been a presidential candidate. Ryan had been mentioned as a presidential candidate. Portman was perhaps the most presidential of the group. Romney apparently did not consider as strongly relative newcomers like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) or Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) or Govs. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) or Chris Christie (R-NJ). Although some had other baggage, it is reasonable to believe that their relative lack of experience in major positions was seen as a detriment. Most recent vice-presidential candidates have been among the political stars of their generation, a group that would certainly include Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, and perhaps some of the others. Romney is betting that Ryan belongs on that list. Time will tell.

2) Message matters: Vice-presidential selection is in large part about sending messages about the presidential candidate and his or her values and decision-making process. One message most presidential candidates want to send is that they choose well, which means they choose presidential. John McCain ignored that rule, in part because he thought he needed to reshuffle the deck to have a chance to win. He paid a price, in 2008 and in history’s judgment of him and his campaign, for making a decision based entirely on political expediency without regard for presidential qualification. In addition to choosing someone with governmental experience, Romney wanted to send two additional messages via his choice of Ryan: That he is a true conservative, and that he is capable of bold decisions.

3) The home state myth: Running mates are not chosen based on the number of electoral votes their home state offers. Recent history has shown that vice-presidential candidates are rarely chosen to carry a large (or even small) home swing state. Romney’s process provided yet another data point to support that conclusion. Romney passed over Rubio (Florida, 29), Portman (Ohio, 18), Christie (New Jersey, 14), and McDonnell (Virginia, 13) to choose Ryan (Wisconsin, 10). Inasmuch as Ryan has never run statewide, his prospects of carrying his home state might appear less certain on at least this one measure than those of these other alternatives. (The novelty of a Wisconsin national candidate might cut the other way.) Romney may hope that Ryan can help in Wisconsin, but that’s not a sure bet and one that might bring fewer home state votes than other options. Some future presidential candidate may choose a running mate from Florida, Michigan, Ohio or Pennsylvania, or some other state with a large Electoral College dowry. If they do so, however, it will only be after first assuring themselves that he or she seems presidential and after weighing that factor along with other considerations.

4) The electoral map counts: Although home state does not drive selection, the electoral map  remains relevant. Political geography matters. Romney’s three apparent short-listers — Pawlenty, Portman, and Ryan – are all from the Midwest, the location of toss-up or leaning states including Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Although other factors might have dictated the inclusion of some or all of these candidates rather than experienced officials like Sen. John Thune (R-SD) or Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), the presence of three Midwesterners among those most seriously considered suggests that political geography may have been a factor this year as it often has been in the past.

5) The all-powerful GOP right: The Republican right exerts enormous influence over Republican vice-presidential choice. Since 1952, every Republican vice-presidential candidate except Henry Cabot Lodge (1960) and George H.W. Bush (1980) has been a right wing favorite or was at least preferred by the right wing among the options presented. The position of Richard Nixon (1960) and Ronald Reagan (1980) respectively with the right gave them leeway to do what they wanted in those years. Since then, the pendulum has swung further to the right in the GOP. Those presidential nominees perceived as Republican moderates invariably choose a right wing stalwart. Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Nixon, Bush chose Dan Quayle, Dole chose Kemp, McCain chose Palin, and Romney chose Ryan. Even those with solid conservative credentials often either choose a conservative loyalist (e.g. Barry M. Goldwater-William E. Miller, George W. Bush-Dick Cheney) or give the right essentially a veto on their choice. Nixon chose Spiro T. Agnew after determining that Sen. Strom Thurmond and southern conservatives preferred him to Gov. John Volpe (R-MA). Gerald R. Ford chose Dole in part because Reaganites preferred him to some other options. Romney’s decision to select Ryan instead of Portman or Pawlenty responded to a perception that he needed to do so in order to placate and energize the conservative base of his party.

6) Expect the unexpected: Republican choices are only surprising if they are not surprising. Most thought Romney would choose Portman or Pawlenty. The Ryan choice thus follows in a long, almost unbroken line of Republican vice-presidential choices that defy consensus predictions. Few expected, for somewhat different reasons, the selections of Agnew, Dole, Quayle, Kemp, Cheney, Palin and Ryan. Ronald Reagan made a more conventional choice of George H.W. Bush, but only after first pursuing former President Gerald R. Ford, which would have been one of the most surprising acceptances in history. And four years earlier, Reagan had identified Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-PA), one of the most liberal Republicans, as his running mate should he receive the nomination, a decision that shocked the political world. (Ford, of course, narrowly defeated Reagan in 1976). Some of these vice-presidential selections were good choices; others not. But based on past selections, one should expect surprise in the Republican vice-presidential choices.

7) Boring is not necessarily a virtue: Remember all of the pundits who insisted that a presidential candidate would or should choose a “boring” running mate? The analysis was based on a superficial reading of past behavior and ignored the realities of modern presidential campaigns. Romney apparently chose Ryan in part because he thought Ryan would bring some needed energy and excitement to a rather lackluster campaign. Yet Romney’s choice was not novel in this respect. Mondale, Geraldine Ferraro, Quayle, Al Gore, Kemp, John Edwards and Palin were chosen, in part, because of their ability to add energy and excitement among some segments of the electorate. In some cases, the vice-presidential candidate was chosen to add pizzazz to a presidential candidate who seemed to lack it. In other instances, the choice reinforced a generational message. Whether Romney will ultimately celebrate or regret his choice of Ryan remains to be seen. But boring is not a campaign virtue. Substance is. All else being equal, exciting, but substantial, is the preferred formula, although boring and substantial beats exciting and insubstantial.

8) You usually can’t get everything you want: Vice-presidential choice involves choice. Candidates often have multiple needs. A running mate generally helps in some respects, leaves other needs unaddressed, and may complicate some campaign missions. That’s true this time, too. Ryan pleased the Republican conservative base, added youth and energy to Romney’s ticket and brought a Midwesterner to the ticket. The choice ignored, however, Romney’s problems with Hispanic voters and may have complicated that effort given Ryan’s record on immigration issues. That could hurt in states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and perhaps elsewhere. It left unaddressed the gender gap Romney faces and left his ticket without anyone with any national security credentials, the first time in memory that has occurred. It may have introduced problems in Romney’s efforts to attract or hold the votes of senior citizens. And it may associate Romney with controversial aspects of the Ryan plan or with the unpopular House of Representatives. Romney had to make choices among available options. Presumably he concluded that the advantages of choosing Ryan outweighed those of alternative picks.

9) Outsiders choose insiders: Romney’s selection of a seven-term congressman is consistent with the pattern since 1952 that presidential nominees whose most recent governmental experience is as governor choose D.C. insiders as their running mates. Romney is the seventh straight governor/former governor to select someone with extensive Beltway experience as his running mate. Of course, there may have been other reasons Romney passed on Pawlenty, Christie, McDonnell, Jindal, Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) and others. Nonetheless, there are reasons, even in an anti-D.C. climate, to choose an experienced insider, and Romney’s pick followed that conventional course.

10) The pool defines the choice: Running mate selection is, of course, limited by the pool of available candidates. Veepstakes 2012 illustrates certain truths regarding the pool. A presidential candidate who appears to have a decent chance of winning is likely to have a wide range of options even though some attractive figures remove themselves from consideration (e.g. Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Condoleezza Rice). The vice-presidential nomination will prove appealing to many who, for various reasons, including lifestyle considerations, decide to forego presidential races (e.g. Ryan, Portman, Jindal, Christie, Rubio). Republican presidential nominees rarely select the runner-up for the presidential nomination, the Reagan-Bush 1980 selection being the sole recent GOP exception. More often, presidential nominees want little to do with their chief competitor. Also-rans, like Pawlenty, are rarely chosen. Finally, much as a Republican presidential candidate would like to choose a composite running mate (i.e. a woman, Hispanic statewide elected official from Ohio who had risen from a disadvantaged background before becoming a four-star general and who was beloved by the GOP base while appealing to independents), ultimately Romney — like other presidential nominees — had to choose among real-world options, people with both strengths and weaknesses.

Conclusion

To be sure, the Ryan choice was distinctive in several ways. No modern vice-presidential candidate has been so identified with a controversial position on a central campaign issue as is Ryan, no other recent ticket has lacked a candidate with a national security credential, and sitting members of the House of Representatives are not generally selected for tickets thought to be in competitive races. These unusual characteristics of the 2012 Republican ticket remind us that vice-presidential selection has its idiosyncratic features. Yet these variations should not obscure the recurring patterns in modern vice-presidential selection, some of which are outlined above.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton University Press, 1982) and numerous other works on the vice presidency, presidency and constitutional law.