Romney’s Running Mate Could Make Difference (But Probably Won’t)

Rob Portman, Bob McDonnell, and Brian Sandoval yield the biggest Electoral College advantage.

Nate Silver does some rather exhaustive analysis on the impact that several potential Romney vice presidential choices might have in November. Rob Portman, Bob McDonnell, and Brian Sandoval all give him a very slight edge–with an emphasis on slight.

The key fact about running mates leading in to the analysis: “Historically, they have gained their ticket a net of two percentage points, give or take, in their home states.” Given that the election could indeed come down to who wins one key state, that might actually be enough to decide the election.

From that premise, Silver calculates the home-state favorables for 14 plausible candidates:

Silver’s analysis:

Five candidates stood out as having especially strong positive ratings with their home-state voters. These were Mr. McDonnell of Virginia, along with Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, and Senator John Thune of South Dakota. The ratings for Mr. Christie and Mr. Rubio were also fairly strong.

Another of Mr. Romney’s potential choices, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, drew more mixed reactions. Although Mr. Ryan should win his home district, pollsters who tested his numbers throughout Wisconsin found more tenuous results, with 38 percent of voters giving him a positive rating and 33 percent a negative one.

Some candidates are relatively anonymous, even in their home states. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio did all right with voters who expressed an opinion about him, with 33 percent giving him a positive rating and 25 percent a negative one. But a plurality of voters in Ohio, 42 percent, either did not know Mr. Portman’s name or felt so indifferently about him that they did not express an opinion.

Finally, there were two potential running mates who actually had net-negative ratings in their home states. These were Mr. Santorum, along with former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who ended his second term in 2010 being somewhat unpopular in his home state. Whatever other virtues these candidates have, helping Mr. Romney to carry their home states is unlikely to be one of them.

From this, Silver guestimates the impact each of those candidates would have in their home state:

That Santorum doesn’t help Romney carry Pennsylvania and might actually hurt there is unsurprising. That Pawlenty is a net drain in Minnesota, however, is.

Regardless, Silver then ran 50,000 simulations through his model to see how many Electoral College votes each candidate would yield on average–again, just based on the additional likelihood of winning their home state.

So, perhaps not shockingly, popular guys from swing states with large numbers of Electors yield the greatest advantage:  Marco Rubio and  Jeb Bush of Florida and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell.

Next, though, he looked at the chances that a candidate’s swinging his home state would swing the election to Romney. It turns out, there’s almost zero percent chance of that happening. Only four candidates yielded at least a 1 percent gain; three essentially tied at just under a 2 percent gain.

Silver’s analysis here is intriguing:

Even though Mr. Portman is not all that well-known and not all that popular with voters back at home — we assume that he’d improve Mr. Romney’s position in Ohio by about 1 percentage point — that single point could matter since Ohio is such a disproportionately important state. That extra point in Ohio changed the outcome of the Electoral College in 965 of the 50,000 simulations, or just less than 2 percent of the time.

Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Sandoval had a similar impact. They also improved Mr. Romney’s chances of winning the Electoral College by about 2 percent in the program.

It’s easy to see why Mr. McDonnell is so influential. Virginia is not quite as important as Ohio, but it’s still very critical to the election and Mr. McDonnell is quite popular there.

Mr. Sandoval’s potential impact is a bit less obvious. He’s very popular too, but Nevada contains only 6 electoral votes.

The reason is that the vice-presidential effect is slightly asymmetrical. Since the running mate should have a positive impact on Mr. Romney’s standing in the nominee’s home state, what Mr. Romney would ideally want is a candidate from a state that was otherwise just a wee bit Democratic-leaning. In that case, the running made would have the fullest effect, potentially flipping a blue state to a red one.

This describes Nevada to a T. It’s become a bit Democratic leaning, based on the polls there so far this year and its recent voting, but not by much. Mr. Sandoval could turn the state from slightly Democratic-leaning to slightly Republican-leaning, which is the optimal case for Mr. Romney.

There would not be quite that sort of impact in Florida. Mr. Romney actually trails there — very slightly — according to the current polls. Nevertheless, Florida is normally a bit Republican-leaning relative to the country as a whole, and Mr. Romney trails by larger margins in a number of other important states. If Mr. Romney can’t win Florida on his own — without Mr. Rubio’s help — things are probably fairly hopeless for him no matter what.

Missing here, of course, is an analysis of how the various candidates would impact other swing states. For example, while McDonnell is quite popular, indeed, in Virginia and might well excite the Republican base, thus increasing their likelihood of turning out, he’s a very extreme social conservative. So, he might push away voters in places like Nevada and Ohio. Then again, he might help carry Florida.

Portman and Sandoval are virtual unknowns nationally. Even as a political junkie, I don’t really know much about them. They’d likely double down on Romney’s Boring White Guy perception. I don’t know that they’d excite anyone. But there’s no obvious downside, either.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    The main problem is that anyone who could boost Mitt’s numbers as VP would, pretty much by definition, be better still simply replacing Mitt altogether at the top of the ticket. But as we saw in the primaries, with the flop-sweating desperation of GOP kingmakers as each newly-christened “front-runner” self-destructed, Mitt really is the best candidate the GOP has. Think about that.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    I’ve seen some commentary to the effect that Obama’s team plan to run against the Ryan plan. They supposedly have focus group data that shows a problem. They say that candidate X says he will: and list a bullet point version of the Ryan Plan. Then they ask if this would make them less likely to vote for X. No. Why not? He wouldn’t really do that.

    In this view, the point to demonizing Romney/Bain has been to paint Romney, correctly, as someone who would do that. The second hurdle is to tie Romney to the Ryan Plan tightly enough he can’t Etch-a-Sketch out of it. So Mitt, please, please, pretty please – pick Ryan.

    Demonizing Romney as a liar also, to some extent, immunizes Obama from the flood of lying negative ads we can expect to see against him.

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Romney’s Running Mate Could Make Difference (But Probably Won’t)

    To my way of thinking that’s akin to saying before the 1st inning that a shutdown closer could but probably won’t make a difference in a given baseball game. It depends upon what happens in the game. If you get to the ninth inning and you’re either up or down by four or more runs then it’s extraordinarily unlikely the closer will matter. But if it’s a one run game all of a sudden that closer becomes of paramount importance.

    If for example Romney were to lose the election by the single state of Ohio and if the margin there were extremely close and if Portman was not on the ticket then it would be pretty f’n obvious that the veep selection went a long way towards flipping the ultimate outcome. The same logic would apply to Rubio in Florida, McDonnell in Virginia and Sandoval (it’s Brian, BTW, not Tim) in Nevada.

  4. jan says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    But if it’s a one run game all of a sudden that closer becomes of paramount importance.

    Yes, that’s true. However, if you’re relying on that kind of instinct then you have to decide which state is the most borderline in it’s polling and inclinations. The consensus might be that it is Ohio, as so many seem to project that the way Ohio goes, so goes the election. If that were the case then Rob Portman would probably be the ideal choice. Currently, though, according to the most recent scuttlebutt, Paul Ryan seems to be in major contention.

    However, one thing that Romney has no lack of is a string of well-qualified men and women to choose from. Whatever happens, or whoever wins in the 2012 election, it is the republican party who seems to be growing and diversifying over an aging, stagnating democratic party.

  5. anjin-san says:

    But if it’s a one run game

    Based on today’s electoral math, nothing short of a calamity of some sort leads to a “one run game.” And based on Romney’s public performances so far, the GOP convention promises to have all the excitement of a tour of a cardboard factory, so its hard to see them coming out of it with much momentum.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Paul Ryan

    Seniors… say goodbye to Medicare.

    Nice campaign slogan.

  7. mattb says:


    Whatever happens, or whoever wins in the 2012 election, it is the republican party who seems to be growing and diversifying over an aging, stagnating democratic party.

    Just keep telling yourself that (and ignore figures like Andrew Cuomo, Corey Booker, the Castro Brothers, and a number of others who are just stepping into the spotlight).

  8. David M says:


    Whatever happens, or whoever wins in the 2012 election, it is the republican party who seems to be growing and diversifying over an aging, stagnating democratic party

    Now that is high comedy there, as there certainly isn’t any evidence that the GOP is growing ever more dependent on older voters.

  9. Rob in CT says:

    it is the republican party who seems to be growing and diversifying over an aging, stagnating democratic party

    Maybe in the Red Universe (fans of Fringe will get the dual meaning).

  10. jan says:


    Just keep telling yourself that …

    I genuinely can turn that statement around on you, Mattb, as the dems are the depleted party of political talent, at this point in time. Sure, you have a few, here and there, Cuomo for sure. Corey Booker is another one, who, IMO, may end up being another Artur Davis, as he seems to have less of a surly democratic attitude than the typical dem politician. A Castro brother is certainly being groomed as an Hispanic magnet, giving an Obama-like debut speech during the convention. Other than a handful of people, though, democrats are an aging population of somewhat sleazy politicians.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    To me it’s going to be a Romney/Bain ticket no matter what Romney wants. A selection like Portman ensures that there will be no discussion other than Romney/Bain.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    Is it still legal for a party to run a different candidate in different states? If so, problem solved.

  13. mattb says:

    @jan: So in other words, you didn’t manage to contradict my statement and then simply said “but other than those folks… who do you have?”

    Do me a favor an run down that “strong” republican bench again. How many of those people were not part of the 2012 Primary clown show (in particular Perry who imploded and wasn’t all that well liked in Texas when you actually look at the numbers, or Santorum, who couldn’t presently deliver his home state if picked as VP)?

    After that, you have the rapidly aging Young Guns, a few Governors who were either released onto the scene too soon (see Bobby Jindal) or have family ties that will cause problems (see Jeb Bush).

    After that you get to Nikki Haley. Who has potential, but note that the party is also choosing not to “Jindal” her.

    And as far as Chris Christy, he’s as popular with the conservative wing of the Republican party as Booker is with the Dems.

    So, no, pretending that the Republican bench is oh so much more deep than the Dem’s is you usual move towards preferencing your “gut” over any type of reality check.

  14. rudderpedals says:

    Romney/H&R Block. They send a person to talk about taxes.

  15. mattb says:

    Just as an addendum, I will say that at this moment, the Republicans have a higher profile female
    “bench” in that there’s both Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez.

    But beyond that, looking at the developing line up for the convention (, it’s not exactly a list that is setting the world on fire. Or more importantly are serious contenders to stand in 2016 should Romney fail this year.

    As with the Democrats there are a lot of retreads amoung the speakers and people whose stars are either (a) waning (see Santorum) or (b) are unlikely to develop a serious interest in running for the highest office in the land (see Huckabee and Rice).

  16. Stonetools says:

    It will be Rob Portman or Bob Mcdonell. They may deliver the marginal votes in the swing states and they are…… Safe looking.

  17. grumpy realist says:

    @Stonetools: Boring, white, and male, you mean?

    High chance that Romney’s going to pick out a Wonder Bread VP. Would be nice if he had the guts to go for Rubio or Jindal. (I’d love that just to see the birfers/racists flip out.)

    And–Jan, I wouldn’t worry so much about the “bench” of politicians available as I would about the percentage of the population that keeps voting for your side. Given how the Republican party seems to be turning itself into the Club of Aging White Southern Clueless Males, you might want to look at that.

  18. Anderson says:

    be better still simply replacing Mitt altogether at the top of the ticket

    Yeah, think how McCain was overshadowed by Palin. In my neck of the woods (Mississippi), people were driving around with the “McCain” part of their McCain-Palin bumper stickers cut off.

  19. sam says:


    Just as an addendum, I will say that at this moment, the Republicans have a higher profile female “bench” in that there’s both Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez.

    Martinez would be a suicidal pick given that she’s admitted her grandparents were illegal immigrants.

  20. jan says:

    Jim Geraghty discusses Julian Castro’s quiet record. — one of the glitzy political stars in the democratic party with a shallow record of accomplishments behind him. Another Obama on the rise!

  21. michael reynolds says:

    Portman! Portman! Portman! We want Portman!

    Hey, no one else was going to do it.

  22. Piper says:

    We like Santorum in Virginia we just couldn’t vote for him in the primary. I hope Romney picks Santorum for his vp.

  23. Piper says:

    Virginia’s attorney general Ken Cuccinelli would be a fine choice too. He’s well liked here.

  24. Piper says:

    @Stonetools: I wouldn’t vote for them, Santorum is is best choice.

  25. MarkedMan says:

    I wholeheartedly endorse Santorum as VP. The more people know him the more they actively dislike him.

  26. Piper says:

    @MarkedMan: The left my dislike him but he’d get the christian vote for sure.

  27. MarkedMan says:

    @Piper: If by “Christian” you mean people who are anything but christian but for some strange reason call themselves by his name then, yeah, those people would vote for someone as damaged as they are, such as Santorum.