Sabato's Crystal Ball

Presidential Pool-Itics:Swimming in the Veep End

Veep update...Veep update...Veep update...Veep update...

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics February 18th, 2004

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Your Crystal Ball started off the New Year by looking at possible Democratic vice presidential candidates. It’s time for an update because much has changed, not least the fact that we have a better idea of the likely identity of the presidential nominee. Who can best help John Kerry, and why? Which vice-presidential candidates have so far played their cards right, and which have played them wrong? Who is on the way up, who’s headed down? The Crystal Ball has some answers.

But First… Will Bush-Cheney Become Bush- ______?

History has a sense of humor, and it may be playing another trick. Reportedly in 1992, a concerned presidential son (George W. Bush) approached his father (President George H.W. Bush) and strongly suggested that the electoral albatross that Bush Sr. had chosen in 1988 for vice president (Dan Quayle) be dropped from the reelection ticket in favor of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell. Bush Sr. refused, fearing the reaction among conservatives if he sent their favorite officeholder back to Indiana. (Having misread conservative lips by raising taxes, Bush Sr. was already in the doghouse with the right.) However, Bush Jr. may well have been correct. The nomination of the first African-American to a major-party national ticket might have scrambled the 1992 election. While President Bush would have lost some conservative votes, he likely would have gained many in the middle who were–and still are–mightily impressed with Powell. And it’s easy to imagine that Bush’s 11 percent in the black community from 1988 would at least have doubled with Powell on the ticket. The ’92 election would have been closer; whether Powell would have added enough net votes is unknowable–yet Bush Sr. would at least have been back in the game, with a real chance for reelection.

Now come we to 2004. Dick Cheney‘s selection made some sense in 2000. While he added no electoral votes to Bush’s column–and Bush needed every one he could get–Cheney did provide a sense of reassurance, experience, and maturity to the untested GOP presidential nominee. But in 2004, Bush has not only been president for a term, he has faced some of the greatest crises encountered by any modern president. Bush doesn’t need Cheney for the same reasons–or, to the Crystal Ball’s way of thinking, for any reasons at all. Bush most needs electoral votes; the president is struggling in the polls and he has made little real progress in expanding the Red States from his minimal victory of 2000. Now, President Bush potentially faces a Democratic nominee who, with a smart pick for vice president, can take away a key Red State (Georgia? Indiana? Louisiana? Arizona?), and who, by pounding away at the Bush term’s job losses, can capture another Red State or two (Ohio and West Virginia come immediately to mind). Where, oh where, is Bush going to make up for his lost electoral votes? The 2000 Census added only seven to his column–278 if he carries all his 2000 states, a mere eight more than the minimum for victory.

It is immediately clear that, once again, Dick Cheney adds not a single electoral vote. (Wyoming would vote GOP for a comatose nominee.) In addition (or is that subtraction?), Cheney has become a serious liability. Fair or unfair, his Halliburton connection is a major and unwelcome distraction for Bush. Cheney is seen by most Americans as a secretive corporate executive with no common touch – someone unlikely to help convince the voters that Bush cares about them and deserves a second term. Cheney’s adamant pre-war insistence about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and his possible pressure on CIA analysts to support this unproven belief, has helped to open up a yawning credibility gap for the Bush administration. His surprisingly liberal views on gay marriage/civil unions, owing to his lesbian daughter, complicate Bush’s plans to make Kerry pay for the sharply leftist direction of gay rights in the Bay State. His prime Cabinet selection, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, has deeply embarrassed Bush and raised legitimate questions about Cheney’s advice on personnel selection. And then, there is the vice president’s health. Four heart attacks in a V.P. may not have seemed relevant in the misleadingly quiet America of 2000, but a strenuous campaign awaits the Bush ticket, and the need for a vigorous, steely, shock-absorbing second-in-command in this dangerous age of terrorism should be obvious to all.

Will Bush now heed the advice he once gave to his father? Powerful candidates from electoral-rich states are available: ex-Gov. and current Cabinet Secretary Tom Ridge from Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes) and Bob Taft from Ohio (20 votes) are the most prominent, and both these large states are still winnable for Bush. Only in a landslide would Bush carry New York or Michigan, so it’s doubtful that Gov. George Pataki or ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Wolverine State Gov. John Engler could help Bush all that much. A wild-card candidate might be Wisconsin’s former Gov. and current Secretary of Health and Human Resources Tommy Thompson (10 votes); another would be Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota (10 votes), not least because Coleman has cut quite a national figure over the past year and Minnesota is now a swing state. Or maybe Bush can finally take his own advice and put Secretary of State Colin Powell on the ticket, or if the conservatives raise too much of a ruckus about the moderate Powell, he can pick right-wing favorite National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice. (WARNING: Rice has never truly been vetted by the press.)