Do Vice-Presidential Picks Really Matter That Much?

There's little evidence that Vice-Presidential picks have as big an impact on elections as pundits seem to think.

Working off the same polls that James Joyner writes about in his earlier post, which seem to show at best a lukewarm initial reception for the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate, Ezra Klein argues that Ryan’s selection may not end up having much of an impact on the race after all:

The conventional wisdom inside the Beltway is that Paul Ryan’s presence on the Republican ticket is either going to work big for Mitt Romney or backfire completely. But there’s another possibility that is perhaps even likelier: that it doesn’t much matter at all. That’s usually what happens with vice presidential picks. And it could be what happens with Ryan.

(…)

Given those numbers, it’s difficult to imagine that the post-Ryan bump will be radically different from what Romney would have received from any credible VP pick, and it might even be weaker.

The question, then, is what happens next  to break this race wide open in one direction or the other. And the answer might be…nothing. The Romney campaign isn’t positioning Ryan as a Medicare-slashing radical. They’re distancing themselves from the specifics of his budget, attacking President Obama’s Medicare cuts and generally relying on Ryan’s skills as a politician rather than on his ideas. That’s an incremental strategy rather than a disruptive one, and we should expect it to register as such at the polls.

The Obama campaign is attacking Ryan as a Medicare-slashing radical. But they were going to attack Romney as that, as well. It’s not clear that Ryan’s presence on the ticket will make that attack radically more effective among the sort of low-information voters who aren’t yet convinced by either side and don’t really know who Ryan is.

Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that Ryan being on the ticket makes it more difficult to convince voters that the Ryan Plan would eliminate Medicare, or that Romney supports doing so. Why? Because there’s nobody who knows the Ryan Plan better than Paul Ryan and he now has a vested interested in defending the plan from the exaggerated attacks against it likely to come from groups such as Priorities USA. Indeed, Klein goes on to point out that many of his fellow progressives may be mistaking their inside the beltway disdain for Ryan for a phenomenon that exists nationwide:

The base case with any vice presidential pick is that, if they do a good job, they don’t do any harm. Ryan is so controversial in D.C. that many expect he’ll have a significantly larger impact on the race. But he’s not actually that controversial outside D.C., and his presence isn’t leading either campaign to radically alter their strategy. So while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he won’t have a significant impact on the campaign — there’s a reason the Obama camp has spent the last year trying to run against the Ryan budget — there’s a good chance that Ryan’s impact proves much more muted than many political insiders are expecting. My hunch is the analysis right now is overly colored by the role Ryan plays in Washington, which is different than the role he’s going to play in this race.

Klein makes a good point, but I think there’s a much more important point here that all of the attention on the Veepstakes for the past months, and now on the horse race impact of the selection of Paul Ryan has obscured. The simply fact is that there’s very little evidence, historical or otherwise, that Vice-Presidential selections have a significant impact on the electoral prospects of a Presidential candidate. With the possible exception of Lyndon Johnson in 1960, has there really been a Vice-Presidential candidate who can be said to have positively influenced the electoral chances of the ticket they were on? I honestly can’t think of a single one. Even on the other side of the equation, while it goes without saying that Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin were bad candidates, I’m not sure you can say that either one of them had a negative influence on the outcome of the election. The Bush/Quayle ticket won what was arguably the last real landslide in recent American history, and it seems pretty clear now that John McCain was destined to lose in 2008 regardless of who his running mate was. Perhaps the only “bad pick” that did have an impact was George McGovern’s selection of Thomas Eagleton, which only lasted 18 days before Eagleton stepped aside, but even in that case McGovern never really had a realistic chance of beating Nixon in 1972 anyway.

More broadly, though, I have never understood why someone would base their decision on who to vote for in a Presidential race based on who the nominee chooses as his running mate. If you were someone who had a problem with Mitt Romney prior to Saturday that was serious enough for you to conclude you weren’t going to vote for him, why would his selection of Paul Ryan change that opinion? After all, Mitt Romney is the one who’s going to be President, not Paul Ryan, and he’s still the same guy you didn’t like on Friday. I’ve asked this question of Republicans who claimed that they were on the fence about McCain in 2008 until he selected Sarah Palin, and I’ve never gotten a satisfactory response. I can see how a Vice-Presidential pick might make a McCain or Romney support more enthusiastic about the campaign, and there’s evidence that this is exactly what Ryan’s selection is doing among Republicans, but that’s different from saying that the selection itself was reason for you to change your mind on who you would vote for. I realize that voters often make decisions for seemingly irrational or trivial reasons, but this one seems especially irrational to me.

As I’ve said before, I think there’s really only one thing that a Vice-Presidential pick is about, and it has little to do with the electoral benefit or harm that the individual picked does to the electoral prospects of the ticket. When a Presidential candidate picks a running mate, they are saying that this is the person who would be ready from day one to take over the Presidency if something unfortunate happened. It’s the first “Presidential” decision that a candidate makes, and it says much about the judgment that they would exercise if elected. John McCain failed that test in 2008, and then he demonstrated just three weeks later how bad his judgment was in his bizarre response to the financial crisis and the efforts to get TARP through Congress. In this case, I tend to agree with those who have said that, regardless of what one things of the merits of Ryan’s ideas, there’s no doubt that he passes the “qualified” test in a way that Palin did not. Beyond that, though, I just don’t think that Ryan himself is going to be the deciding factor in this election. Mitt Romney may yet end up losing this election, but it’s not going to be because of Paul Ryan.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    In most cases the only test the VP selection has to pass is the “what if the president dies” test. With Palin, that was in doubt from the beginning.

    The selection of Cheney mattered because Cheney turned out to be (arguably) the most powerful Vice President in our history.

    in this case it matters because Paul Ryan’s Plan is considered to be the de facto GOP/Tea Party budget policy plan for America. Also, Romney has said (take that for what it’s worth) that he supports the plan (predictably, he’s weaseling away from that now too.

  2. legion says:

    while it goes without saying that Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin were bad candidates, I’m not sure you can say that either one of them had a negative influence on the outcome of the election.

    I disagree wholeheartedly. I was too young to pay that much attention during the Quayle era, but Palin absolutely hurt McCain in the election. Because of McCain’s age, it was very easy for people to imagine a scenario in the ensuing 4-8 years when Palin would have to step in and become POTUS. As many people saw during the campaign (and even more have realized since), that would have been a disaster beyond comprehension.

  3. @legion:

    Perhaps, but as I said, McCain was clearly going to lose anyway

  4. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that Ryan being on the ticket makes it more difficult to convince voters that the Ryan Plan would eliminate Medicare, or that Romney supports doing so. Why? Because there’s nobody who knows the Ryan Plan better than Paul Ryan and he now has a vested interested in defending the plan from the exaggerated attacks against it likely to come from groups such as Priorities USA.

    I think your old argument is that a voucher is still Medicare because Ryan still calls it medicare.

    Is there any limit to that? Would a $200/mo limit still be Medicare?

    Because if you say no, it will be tied to honest protection of the senior’s health, then you’ve broken with Ryan. Ryan is about a fixed dollar cap, and not a fixed services cap.

  5. george says:

    I suspect over half the voting population couldn’t even tell you who is on the ticket as VP in any case. Nor would they have reason to in most cases.

    I doubt either Biden nor Ryan is significant, except possibly as deterents to Presidential assasination.

  6. Note that Ryan’s solution to increased food stamp costs is similarly “cost only” and makes no guarantee of service. He would just roll SNAP back funding levels. Are there more hungry people now than then? It just does not matter. The plan has nothing to do with services or need.

    While Chairman Ryan has outlined some key features of his proposal as it affects SNAP — in particular, converting SNAP to a block grant beginning in 2016 — he has provided little information on how the cuts would be achieved or their timing over the ten-year period.[2] And the total cuts under the Ryan plan could turn out to be somewhat larger than $133.5 billion.[3]

  7. Cycloptichorn says:

    @john personna:

    Ryan is about a fixed dollar cap, and not a fixed services cap.

    Yup – without that fixed cap, his plan doesn’t save any money at all! The whole plan relies upon the idea of starving the medical system of funding, making individual seniors the front-end man in the effort.

  8. Liberty60 says:

    I remember vidily how much Quayle hurt Bush The Elder.
    When your running mate is a grey eminence that no one really pays attention to, he is an asset;
    When he is the butt of endless lat night jokes, he is hurting you.

    When he is the sole reason the base has for supporting you he is REALLY hurting you, by reminding everyone of your impotence.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    It could have mattered a couple of points one way or the other. It could have mattered by one state, say. But I doubt it matters now more than 1% one way or the other. One important effect it has is in closing Mr. Romney’s narrative down and shifting to Mr. Obama’s narrative.

    There will be time lost while the Romney campaign figures out how to proceed. Meanwhile Obama will race to define Mr. Ryan and tar Mr. Romney with the results.

    But you know what I think matters most? The two-shot of Romney and his Mini Me. Rich, white, square, identical. That will make Republicans happy. In their minds that’s “normal” as opposed to the not-normal picture of Mr. Obama.

    But to large sections of the population it looks like: the two white bankers who took your home and sent your job to India.

    My own personal reaction is that the two-shot make me laugh. It’s so May-December Bromance somehow.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that Ryan being on the ticket makes it more difficult to convince voters that the Ryan Plan would eliminate Medicare, or that Romney supports doing so. Why? Because there’s nobody who knows the Ryan Plan better than Paul Ryan and he now has a vested interested in defending the plan from the exaggerated attacks against it

    Doug, when that is as far as I can get thru one of your posts, you have already lost the argument. I know, I know, you are invested in the Politico “4 Pinnochios” on the “Paul Ryan wants to end Medicare”….. Scare. But the fact of the matter is, his budget ends Medicare. Not as we know it, but ends it. Completely.Yeah, yeah, I know. He has something he “calls” Medicare, but it isn’t Medicare. He offers “vouchers” instead.

    Doug? What insurance company is going to offer health insurance to a bunch of 80 yr olds? 90 yr olds? 100 yr olds? At any price? Especially in a country where end of life care costs 13,098 times what it costs in any other country?

    Doug???? Reality knocking…. Anybody home????

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The attack ad is so easy.

    Cast a sweet granny, give her a paper insurance voucher, and have her try to hand it to an insurance agent. “I’d like to buy health insurance, please.” Cue agent laughing in her face. Repeat the scene three times. Cut to two-shot of the twin Romneys. Closing shot has granny using the voucher to line her bird cage.

  12. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The attack ad is so easy.
    Cast a sweet granny, give her a paper insurance voucher, and have her try to hand it to an insurance agent. “I’d like to buy health insurance, please.” Cue agent laughing in her face. Repeat the scene three times. Cut to two-shot of the twin Romneys. Closing shot has granny using the voucher to line her bird cage.

    Or, one that shows granny at the insurance agent’s office, she has a voucher for the equivalent of $600 per month, and the agent smiles and tells her that the policy costs only $1000 per month. Heck, you could even have the sign over the office door read “Death Panel Health Insurance”.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The attack ad is so easy.

    Cast a sweet granny,

    You know the sad part? I am the “sweet granny”. Except, I am anything BUT sweet.

    We are so fwcked.

  14. Clanton says:

    I only think about the vp’s qualifications and experience to lead if something happens to the president. Looking at the vps of last 60 years, I would have reservations only about Agnew . Most vice presidents are usually kept in the dark about most issues; the most famous was when Truman was informed of the existence of the atomic bomb; the secrecy was understandable. As it turned out, Truman was overall a great president and a man of high integrity, although I disagree with giving Europe to Stalin. Some of them would have been better leaders than the presidents they served under.

  15. David M says:

    I think it will hurt the ticket as far as foreign policy goes, now both can accurately be described as having basically no experience, as well as bad judgement (Iraq, etc).

  16. jan says:

    Historically VPs seem to have played low-keyed roles in effecting the outcome of presidential elections. They usually serve as either an attack dog surrogate of the candidate at the top of the ticket, or in some kind of emissary capacity in spreading a well-honed presidential message, filled with cohesive talking points.

    Having said this, I see the Paul Ryan pick as having a much broader role in this ticket than previously seen in other bids for POTUS. One thing that seems obvious is that his selection has being heralded as a defining moment in Romney’s campaign. This decision is being extolled as doing away with any flip-flop image that Romney may have carried with him to this 2012 election. It is said this decision was his, not aides or even Beth Myers, who merely presented him with background vetting information. Choosing Ryan reflects back onto Romney as to his values, the tenets he holds dear as well as, the direction and emphasis that is to be placed in his administration should he be elected. It has instantly clarified and purified what has been a muddied season of trivializing the great problems facing this country.

    The issues that Romney/Ryan want to debate are jobs, spending, the deficits and entitlement reform —sensitive, polarizing topics that heretofore have been circumvented by President Obama who seems only interested in getting reelected. Obama’s plan for medicare is to have no plan, simply letting it go broke (I guess) in 10-12 years. Ryan at least has an alternative to offer, which doesn’t alter medicare for current day seniors, but does have options and choices available for younger people, who are susceptible to having no medicare available by the time they are in their 60’s. This is saying it like it is, telling the truth instead of obfuscating and confusing the electorate with prefabricated untruths. Obama has also presented failed budget and jobs plans. Romney/Ryan, though, seem refreshingly eager to work on budget solutions.

    Basically Ryan has become part of a ‘team,’ instead of a figurehead appendage. The two men have chemistry together, respect each other, and represent generational concerns. In listening to interviews and reading comments on the web, Ryan is being called a ‘New Age Reagan,’ by some, and the two of them being described as ‘The Golden Ticket’ by Joe Kernan’s daughter. I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve heard saying, “I was only so-so about Romney before, but now I am excited! Even the Morning Joe guy has become enthused about this choice, saying it’s the first time in 10 years he has felt good about the GOP.

    So, I think Paul Ryan will be a positive addition to the ticket — especially when more people get to know him and hear his rap about the country’s ills, and what he and Romney want to do about it.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    So, I think Paul Ryan will be a positive addition to the ticket — especially when more people get to know him and hear his rap about the country’s ills, and what he and Romney want to do about it.

    Anyone who really believes this is in for a rude awakening in November…

  18. michael reynolds says:

    @jan:
    Jan:

    Look! It’s an entire website devoted to people like you!

    http://literallyunbelievable.org/

  19. jukeboxgrad says:

    michael:

    It’s so May-December Bromance somehow.

    As usual, I think you are really onto something here. Age difference between McCain and Palin: 27 years. Age difference between Gecko and Galt (credit to Krugman): almost 23 years. I also see a parallel in adoring gazes (link). And there is the whole “shirtless” thing.

    So what we have, again, is the GOP trying to jazz up a dull ticket with a veep who is young and sexy. But I also see things getting a little, um, awkward if there are too many stories like this:

    An Easy and Instant Chemistry on the Trail … It was Day 2 of the most closely watched bromance in American politics, and Mitt Romney was already missing his new running mate. … The most intriguing dimension of the Romney-Ryan partnership is the unmistakable sense that the two men thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. During the first 48 hours as the Republican ticket, they often seemed like a pair of long-lost, hyper-earnest, spreadsheet-loving cousins. They rarely left each other’s sight, exchanging hugs, backslaps and knowing smiles … advisers to Mr. Romney, who seemed as struck by the candidates’ chemistry as anyone, said they were lobbying for the two to spend as much time together as possible over the next few weeks.

  20. jukeboxgrad says:

    (Starting a new comment because otherwise multiple links will trigger the spam filter.)

    I love this part:

    The Tearful Duo … Public displays of tearful emotion are exceedingly rare in presidential politics. Rarer still: tears from both members of a presidential ticket. At the same time. So it was striking on Saturday when, during a rally in Wisconsin, Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney both cried, openly, on stage. When he took the stage in his home state, Mr. Ryan immediately began wiping away tears and was so overcome that he cupped his eyes with both hands. When he spoke, his voice cracked repeatedly. Then it was Mr. Romney’s turn. Moved by the thunderous welcome for Mr. Ryan, Mr. Romney began to tear up, as did his wife, Ann. For a moment, the entire Republican presidential ticket was weeping. “Tears filled my eyes,” Mr. Romney said. “I looked at Ann, tears were in her eyes.”

    The writers at SNL et al are sharpening lots of pencils right now. In that scene, the next shot should be Rafalca crying. Then I want to see a shot where seven guys in suits are fondling cash (link) and suddenly burst into tears. Maybe we should also see Seamus and John Lauber crying, in heaven.

  21. Ron Beasley says:

    I can’t think of an example of the VP making a difference with the possible exception of Kennedy/Johnson. That was a close race and Johnson gave Kennedy Texas and some other southern states.

  22. raoul says:

    Dukakis getting 46 constitutes a landslide for his opponent-but McCain getting 47 does not- that’s quite the percentage-let’s put it this way-Bush won by 7 mill, Clinton 2 by 7.5 mill and Obama by 10 mill- I do agree with the major point that VPs hardly have any impact

  23. David M says:

    @jan:

    Obama’s plan for medicare is to have no plan, simply letting it go broke (I guess) in 10-12 years. Ryan at least has an alternative to offer

    Do you remember your earlier posts where you mentioned disliking how Obama had cut Medicare spending? Seems to me that controlling future Medicare spending definitely constitutes a plan. You may not like the plan, but you can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist. (And Ryan does not have a plan to control health care costs, while Obama does.) I’ll also go over a little history here, as you seem overly enamored (and ill-informed) about Mr Ryan.

    Medicare faced financial difficulties because of Ryan and the GOP, so no one should take them seriously when they talk about reforming it. They are the ones who created Medicare Advantage and the Part D / Prescription Drug coverage without adding a way to pay for it, both of which negatively impacted the financial outlook for Medicare.

    Obama and the Democrats reduced the excess Medicare Advantage costs, and added some minor tax increases as part of Obamacare, improving the financial outlook for Medicare, while at the same time increasing other Medicare benefits.

    The main challenge facing Medicare has been the fact that health care costs have been rising faster than inflation. Democrats want to solve this by reducing the rate at which health care costs are growing, while the Republicans want to solve this by passing the increased costs directly to seniors. The GOP approach may reduce the goverment’s costs, but we’ll all be worse off as our own costs will increase.

    So in short, the GOP and Ryan made the financial problems worse for Medicare while the Democrats are being responsible and doing the hard work to reform health care. There’s absolutely no reason to think Rmoney/Ryan want to do anything but destroy Medicare.

  24. superdestroyer says:

    Since Romney has so little chance to win, does his VP choice matter? I guess is gives wonk wannabes something to write about instead of acknowledging that this race is no more competitive than 2008, 1996, or 1992. This will be the fourth time since 1992 that the Republican nominee has no chance of winning. Yet, 1998 was the last time that the Democratic Party nominee has no real chance to win.

  25. Stan says:

    The reason we spend so much more on health care than western Europe is that prices are higher here. We don’t get more treatment and we don’t spend more time in the hospital. It’s the prices. For similar procedures – MRI’s, vaginal deliveries, you name it – we pay more here. If you wan’t documentation, Google
    “It’s the prices, stupid”, and you’ll be referred to numerous studies in academic journals making this point.

    Not all prices in the US are sky high. If you’re treated through Medicare the cost of procedure x, whatever it is, will be higher than in western Europe but comparatively low by American standards. If you get the same treatment at the same hospital under some private health insurance plan, the price will be higher, a lot higher. If you get the same treatment and pay out of pocket, it will be higher still. Google “It’s the prices, stupid” or Uwe Reinhardt to get documentation. Having insurance companies or individuals pay for medical care will increase medical inflation, not decrease it. And of course it will decrease the amount of medical care for senior citizens. So we’ll get less care at a higher cost.

    From this point of view, Ryan’s plan for Medicare is monumentally bad. It would be the domestic equivalent of our occupation of Iraq, or, going back to 1941, to Hitler’s decision to take on the Russians, the Americans, and the Brits at the same time. It’s stupid beyond belief, and it boggles my mind to see that there are apparently sane people who support it.

  26. jukeboxgrad says:

    david:

    Ryan does not have a plan to control health care costs, while Obama does.

    Yes, and that Ezra Klein article you cited does a good job of explaining Obama’s plan. Yesterday Klein posted another article on this topic:

    The Republican ticket’s big Medicare myth … This brings us to the big myth of this campaign, or at least of this particular conversation: That Republicans, but not Democrats, have a plan to cut Medicare costs. As Ryan pointedly put it in his first speech as Romney’s vice-presidential pick, “We won’t duck the tough issues. We will lead!” Obama’s Medicare reform plan isn’t that hard to find. It’s largely in Title III of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The basic strategy has three components … Obama’s plan is, without doubt, far more detailed than anything Romney has put forward, and Republicans are well aware of its existence

    This subject can be complicated. Klein is one of the few people who understands the details and can explain them. I also think your explanations are excellent. This statement of yours gets right to the heart of the matter:

    The main challenge facing Medicare has been the fact that health care costs have been rising faster than inflation. Democrats want to solve this by reducing the rate at which health care costs are growing, while the Republicans want to solve this by passing the increased costs directly to seniors.

  27. Jeremy R says:

    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0812/79697.html?hp=t1_3

    In more than three dozen interviews with Republican strategists and campaign operatives — old hands and rising next-generation conservatives alike — the most common reactions to Ryan ranged from gnawing apprehension to hair-on-fire anger that Romney has practically ceded the election.

  28. mike says:

    Not a bad way to groom the GOP’s 2016 nominee.

  29. jukeboxgrad says:

    On the contrary. If he wants to run in 2016, he would be better off on the sidelines right now. History shows that losing veep candidates don’t have a good record of showing up later as POTUS.

  30. bill says:

    considering who’s in there now- no. he’s like a drunken pit bull at a party- can’t blame him for what happens as “it;s his nature’. yes, the man in line to the the presidency if something happens to obama…..i feel good about this.