Sabato's Crystal Ball

Rebutting Early Overanalysis of Potential Democratic Vice Presidential Field

Joel K. Goldstein, Guest Columnist June 5th, 2014

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If history is a guide, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential candidate won’t be designated for almost 27 months. That reality didn’t prevent vice presidential speculation from breaking out in a big way in response to President Obama’s recent nomination of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Some immediately interpreted the announcement as an effort to enhance Castro’s credentials for the second spot on the 2016 ticket, a theory soon rebutted by the argument that Cabinet positions are lousy feeder positions for VP nominations.

The downgrading of Castro’s prospects coincided with the warning that the Democrats may be facing a scarcity of good vice presidential candidates, the premise being that it is risky to choose a running mate who hasn’t been vetted in a presidential campaign, and the Democrats in 2016 seem likely to have few unsuccessful presidential candidates who will make themselves available to be VP.

It’s unlikely that Castro will wind up on the 2016 ticket, but not because Cabinet positions are lousy launching pads. And the Democrats appear likely to have at least as many attractive vice presidential possibilities as either party has had in recent years, in part because a past presidential candidacy is a helpful, but by no means necessary, predictor of who will be a good vice presidential candidate.

It’s true that the Cabinet has not been the most recent public position for many vice presidents. But the Cabinet or sub-Cabinet is not as bad a launching pad for a vice presidential candidacy as recently suggested. For eight of the 51 major-party vice presidential nominees over the last 100 years (16%), the Cabinet or another appointed position in the executive branch was the most recent governmental position. Although that makes appointed executive branch positions a less likely launching pad than the Senate (20 of 51 VP candidates since 1916, and 15 of 26 Democratic choices) or the vice presidency (12 of 51 and five of 26 Democratic candidates), it’s been a more likely source than governorships (six of 51, one Democratic VP nominee since 1916), the House of Representatives (four of 51, two of 26), or mayor (none). If we focus simply on situations where the vice presidency was essentially open since there was no incumbent seeking renomination, thereby excluding 11 of the 12 sitting or past VPs from the denominator, executive branch appointees make up 20% (eight of 40) of VP nominees since 1916, compared to 50% senators (20 of 40), 15% governors (six of 40), 10% members of the House (four of 40), one former VP and one with no government experience. The sample size gets smaller but the odds don’t change much if we look at candidates since turning points such as 1952, when Richard M. Nixon was nominated as VP, or 1976 when Walter F. Mondale was. Some 15% of the VP nominees since 1952 and  15% since 1976 have most recently been executive branch appointed officials, less than senators (45%, 40%) or vice presidents (24%, 30%) but more than governors (6%, 5%) or representatives (9%, 10%).

Castro’s VP challenge isn’t that the Cabinet is a bad launching pad but that by 2016 he’ll still have relatively little experience in a traditional VP feeder position. A newcomer can show his or her stuff through presidential primaries, as Barack Obama did in 2008 and John Edwards did to a lesser extent in 2004. But absent such a demonstration, it’s risky to select a neophyte who hasn’t somehow demonstrated credibility on a major national stage for some period of time. Think Sarah Palin.

To that extent, Jonathan Bernstein of Bloomberg View, who wrote that the Democrats have a weak vice presidential bench, is right when he suggests that a past presidential run is a useful test for vice presidential selection but he overstates the case in arguing that “it’s safe to pick someone who has been vetted by running a national campaign, and it’s risky to pick anyone else.” Many of those he considers to have been bad choices were selected before thorough vetting became common in 1976. A careful vet, which includes whether someone can handle Katie Couric’s questions, will weed out many who don’t belong on a national ticket. And past campaigns aren’t perfect measures either. Spiro Agnew and John Edwards survived national or nominating campaigns without the behavior surfacing that brought them down. Presidential campaigns can provide false positives, too. Al Gore and Joe Biden might have seemed risky picks based on their presidential runs, but both proved very able vice presidential candidates.

And some of the most effective vice presidential candidates in recent times had never run for president. Edmund S. Muskie had not sought the presidency before Hubert H. Humphrey chose him as his running mate in 1968, yet Muskie’s vice presidential campaign was a classic. Muskie emerged as the most attractive candidate on any ticket that year, and his acclaimed performance was among the factors that catapulted him to frontrunner status four years later, until it became clear that he was much better at running for vice president in the general than for president in the primaries.

Walter Mondale and Dick Cheney had each explored running for president prior to 1976 and 1996, respectively, but had each pulled out long, long before Iowa. Yet Mondale’s stellar campaign helped Carter carry states crucial to his electoral vote margin, and Cheney added needed gravitas to George W. Bush’s 2000 ticket. Lloyd Bentsen did run for president in 1976, in a limited and pretty disastrous way. That run provided little, if any, assurance that he would star on the national stage. Yet he did 12 years later as a VP candidate. Those and other experiences show that a prior presidential run is not the only way to measure prospective running mates.

Past VP shortlists are a conventional place to begin a search for prospective running mates, which suggests that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (IA), who John Kerry vetted in 2004, and Sen. Tim Kaine (VA) and former Sen. Evan Bayh (IN), both of whom were on Obama’s shortlist, are among those who may be considered. But the Democrats have a long list of other able current or past officeholders including in the Senate, the place where Democratic running mates are often found.  Who is an appropriate running mate will depend not on who has ever made it to Iowa but on whether they are presidential, whether they can survive modern vetting, whether they can handle themselves on a national stage and how their characteristics mesh with the needs of the presidential candidate as they appear in late summer 2016, not in spring 2014.

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.