Sabato's Crystal Ball

So Who’ll Be the Veep?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 5th, 2004

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We know, we know. The Democrats haven’t even selected their presidential nominee yet, and already the Crystal Ball is speculating wildly about THE VEEP PICK. But please consider two points in our defense. First, our presidential ratings haven’t changed very much from last month (Howard Dean still well in front – the probable though NOT certain Democratic nominee; and Republican George W. Bush the likely though NOT certain November winner). Second, political analysts are genetically hot-wired to focus on THE NEXT BIG THING. So it’s not our fault, see?

Whether those two arguments hold water or not, let’s proceed. With Dick Cheney the GOP’s No. 2 again, barring health problems, only the Democrats have a “contest” – conducted almost entirely in the presidential nominee’s mind. Therefore we must mind-read. Assuming the Democratic standard-bearer is Howard Dean (a big assumption), who will be on his short list?

Before we start mentioning specific individuals, the Crystal Ball wants to examine what Dean’s running-mate should look like as a biography, at least ideally:

OK, now to the hard part… the people who may pass these tests. Your Crystal Ball team has examined many dozens of possibilities, always applying the six-factor test listed above. In each category, the potential VP nominee is given a score between 0 and 3, with zero meaning no advantage, 1 equaling a plus, 2 a double-positive, and 3 a triple-play. The first four qualifications are mainly fact-based and thus simple to evaluate. The last two factors are unknown, for the most part – though we have consulted certain well-placed sources about the candidates, their hidden lives (if any), and Dean’s possible view of them.

Here are the results. Again, we are looking for the best DEAN running-mate. Another Democratic presidential nominee would have slightly or substantially different needs, and should one of the other candidates capture the prize, we will seize on the opportunity to produce another Veep list! (Will appear in new window)

Most incumbent Democratic governors and senators, as well as a sprinkling of prominent House members and Dean’s fellow presidential candidates, were included in this “first cut” review of the possibilities. The top 27 finishers for the Democratic VP candidate are listed in our chart. At least at first glance, Dean has many intriguing possibilities to fill out his ticket, if he is nominated. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Southwestern Hispanic who has served in Congress and as United Nations Ambassador and Energy Secretary under President Clinton, comes closest to the “ideal” VP nominee in our survey. He can almost certainly carry New Mexico for any Democrat, and he would have influence with Hispanics everywhere.

Close behind are two Midwestern Democrats, Indiana Sen. and former Gov. Evan Bayh and longtime Iowa Sen. and former presidential candidate Tom Harkin. Harkin could carry Iowa for Dean in all probability, and if anyone could ever steal Indiana from the GOP column it is Bayh. However, while Harkin’s views are very compatible with Dean’s, it is very doubtful that the moderate Bayh would move well to the left in order to take the second spot on Dean’s ticket. Bayh has a national race in him, but that will possibly come in 2008, and not for vice president.

Bunched just behind Richardson, Bayh, and Harkin are four U.S. senators in key states:

Bob Graham and Bill Nelson of Florida, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Levin and Rockefeller could put their states in the Democratic column, and in Rockefeller’s case that would be a loss for Bush from 2000. Graham and Nelson will have a hard time selling Dean in Florida, unless the economy and Iraq are “cooperating” with Democrats. Graham is the better-known quantity, but his failed presidential bid and uneven campaign performance might well tip the scales to Nelson should Dean be looking for a Floridian. Nelson has a touch of glamour, as a telegenic former congressional astronaut.

Two current presidential candidates show up in the next team of Veep possibles. Dick Gephardt has the foreign policy and D.C. experience Dean wants, and he is a tough, battle-tested strategist about whom it can truly be said, “There will be no surprises.” John Edwards has some Washington experience without having been there long enough to get tainted. While he would be derided by the GOP as a novice, Dean might see him as one of the attractive veterans of the Democratic presidential contest. The question, or problem, for both Gephardt and Edwards is simple. Can they carry their home states? Most analysts would bet not, at least today.

The rest of the Crystal Ball’s VP list consists mainly of longshots. Why in the world would Hillary Clinton or Dianne Feinstein or John Breaux accept the second spot on a Dean ticket? (Breaux was included mainly to give the retiring senator a good laugh.) Former Gen. Wesley Clark once might have been on Dean’s list of possibles, but one suspects their unpleasant campaign exchanges of late have changed that reality – if it ever was a reality. Perhaps the two most interesting names among the “remainder candidates” are Joe Biden and Janet Napolitano. Once the youngest U.S. senator, elected at age 29 in 1972, Biden fell from grace during a disastrous 1988 presidential campaign. But as the senior Senate Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has become one of his party’s foremost experts on subjects (such as Iraq) where Dean would like to add heft. Delaware doesn’t add much electorally, and would probably vote Democratic anyway, absent a GOP landslide – but it’s a choice worth considering. Arizona’s Gov. Napolitano has no foreign policy experience at all, but she’s the governor of an increasingly competitive Southwest state, and she’s a woman in a year when the gender gap may again be very important, and she’s popular among Hispanics in an election where the White House will be trying to woo a lot more of that crucial ethnic group. If Dean decides on a Southwest strategy, and Richardson says no, Napolitano just might be a dark-horse choice.

It’s your turn, dear readers of the Crystal Ball. Who did we leave out? Who are you betting will get the VP nod should Dean be the Democratic nominee? Send your choices and comments to The Crystal Ball Team (cbwebteam@virginia.edu), and we’ll post the best picks and arguments in early February!