Auguest 15, 2012


A presidential nominee's vice presidential pick, in and of itself, cannot rescue a floundering campaign, but it can affect the race's context, alter perceptions and energize various constituencies.

There have been 45 elected U.S. vice presidents and two appointees, of whom 14 -- roughly 30 percent -- have succeeded to the presidency. Five incumbents or recently departed incumbents failed to win the presidency: John Breckinridge in 1860, Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000. Only one defeated vice presidential candidate -- Franklin Roosevelt in 1920 -- went on to win the presidency (in 1932).

A myriad of factors impact a VP pick: geographical, generational or ideological balance, as well as, imagery, party unity, the need to carry a particular state or region, inoffensiveness, barter, surgical removal, place filler, attack dog, showcasing, trail blazer, partner and gravitas. Rarely does a presidential nominee pick a veep with the thought that he is choosing his successor.

The choice is short-term and immediate: What can my vice presidential choice do or not do to help me win?

Some classic examples:

In 1900 President William McKinley had New York Governor Teddy Roosevelt foisted upon him because the state's Republican bosses wanted to get rid of the rambunctious Rough Rider, who was posturing as a reformer. They thought the vice presidency was an ideal burial ground. Roosevelt became president on McKinley's assassination in 1901.

In 1920 President Woodrow Wilson was hugely unpopular despite America's World War I victory. Inflation was rampant, and Wilson's League of Nations was rejected by Congress. A Republican landslide was imminent. The Democrats nominated Ohio Governor James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. assistant secretary of the Navy and a distant cousin of Teddy. This was an instance of showcasing: the Democrats knew that they were going to lose, but Roosevelt got visibility. He contracted polio in the 1920s, but he rebounded to be elected New York's governor in 1928 and president in 1932.

That year, with victory imminent, the Republican vice presidential nomination was deemed inconsequential, and the place filler was Calvin Coolidge.

In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was struggling to get two-thirds of the Democratic convention vote, which was required for nomination. So he bartered the vice presidency, trading it to U.S. House Speaker John Garner in exchange for Texas' votes. After being elected, Garner was famously quoted as saying that the vice president's job "is not worth a bucket of warm spit."

In 1944 Roosevelt, ailing and aging, had not groomed a successor. He dumped Garner in 1940, and Vice President Henry Wallace's socialist, pro-Soviet Union views disturbed a lot of Democrats, especially organized labor. They feared that he might succeed to the presidency. So Roosevelt gave a green light to the convention, and Harry Truman, an obscure and inoffensive Missouri senator, was the choice. Roosevelt died in 1945.

In 1952, when the Republicans were lambasting the Truman Administration for "corruption, Korea and communism," their grandfatherly nominee was retired U.S. Army general and World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower. He was not going to descend into the muck, so the Republicans picked Nixon, a 39-year-old California senator, as his attack-dog veep nominee. His job was to hurl invective and give red meat to the Republican base.

In 1960 Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy was up against Nixon. He realized that his liberalism and Catholicism would have minimal appeal in the South, that Nixon would carry his home state of California, and that Texas, with 22 electoral votes, was the key to the election. So he offered the vice presidency to Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, the Senate majority leader, in the calculated expectation that only a Kennedy-Johnson ticket could carry Texas. Kennedy was right: He won Texas by 46,233 votes, with 50.5 percent of the total cast.

Kennedy got 303 electoral votes, to 219 for Nixon. Had Nixon won Texas, the 25 electoral votes of Illinois, which he lost by 8,858 votes, and the 10 of Missouri, which he lost by 9,980 votes, he would have triumphed.

In 1964 Johnson, having succeeded to the presidency on Kennedy's assassination, was adamantly resistant to entreaties to put Attorney General Robert Kennedy on his ticket. Johnson knew that would be akin to creating a Frankenstein -- a vice president who would spend all his waking moments undermining Johnson and running for president in 1968 or 1972. Johnson deftly eliminated Kennedy by stating that no cabinet member would be chosen. He picked Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, an outspoken liberal. He telegraphed Kennedy a clear message: I'm the president, and Humphrey, not you, will be my successor. Kennedy was elected New York senator, ran for president in 1968, and was assassinated. Humphrey lost to Nixon that year.

In 1968 Nixon was perceived as damaged goods -- a two-time loser, but Michigan Governor George Romney's campaign imploded after he said that his earlier support for the Vietnam War was a result of "brainwashing" by government officials, and neither conservative California Governor Ronald Reagan nor liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller entered the fray. Nixon was the default nominee, largely because the success of his "Southern Strategy" of locking up the South's delegations.

The deal was this: South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and his allies had veto power over the vice president pick and future U.S. Supreme Court nominees. That meant that liberals such as Illinois Senator Chuck Percy and New York Mayor John Lindsay were scotched. Reagan didn't want it, so the winnowing process came down to two obscure, undistinguished governors: Spiro Agnew of Maryland and John Volpe of Massachusetts. Nixon picked Agnew, who became his attack dog and an object of ridicule by the news media.

In 1972 Humphrey's 1968 running mate, Ed Muskie of Maine, was thought to be the likely Democratic nominee, and that made Nixon very nervous -- precipitating the Watergate break-in. But South Dakota Senator George McGovern surged to the nomination on an unabashedly liberal platform and picked Tom Eagleton, an obscure, somewhat conservative, Missouri senator, for veep. Then it was revealed that Eagleton had electro-shock therapy for depression in the 1960s. McGovern dumped him, and his campaign went from bad to worse. He lost to Nixon by an electoral vote of 520-17.

In 1976 "outsider" Jimmy Carter needed to balance his ticket with a Washington "insider," and he chose Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, a Humphrey protege. Mondale was of presidential caliber, and there was no doubt that if Carter was president through 1984, Mondale would be his successor.

For the Republicans, Gerald Ford, who was appointed vice president in 1973 after Agnew resigned and who succeeded to the presidency in 1974 after Nixon resigned, chose Bob Dole, an acerbic Kansas senator, as his attack-dog veep. The Ford-Dole ticket, despite the anti-Nixon environment, lost narrowly.

In 1980 Reagan vanquished a coterie of Republicans, including George Bush, for the nomination. As a unifying gesture, Reagan chose the presidential-stature Bush for vice president, thereby making Bush his likely successor.

In 1984 the Democrats' optimism about beating Reagan had evaporated. The economy rebounded, Reagan was hugely popular, and Mondale needed a game changer, so he chose Geraldine Ferraro, a Brooklyn congresswoman -- the first woman ever chosen for a national ticket. His goal was to energize the women's vote, but Ferraro's trail-blazing novelty soon subsided. Reagan swamped Mondale 525-13 in the electoral vote.

In 1988 Bush, apparently used to being second banana for most of his career, chose a third banana for vice president: Dan Quayle. It almost cost him the election. The Democratic nominee, Mike Dukakis of Massachusetts, picked veteran Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Many thought the ticket should have been reversed.

In 1992 Bill Clinton of Arkansas defied convention and picked Al Gore of Tennessee. No claptrap about generational or geographic "balance." Clinton's goal was imagery: two vigorous, 40-something guys who would invigorate Washington. It worked. They defeated Bush-Quayle 370-168, a stark contrast to Bush's 426-111 win in 1988.

In 1996 Bob Dole finally got his shot at the big prize at age 73. He needed some generational and ideological balance, so he picked Jack Kemp, a 57-year-old former congressman and a supply-side economics champion. It was a bust. Clinton-Gore won 379-159.

In 2000 Gore picked Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, expecting that he would lock in the Jewish vote. It almost worked. George W. Bush won Florida by just over 500 votes, and the presidency. In 1988 his father won Florida by 960,746 votes.

In both 2000 and 2008 gravitas -- meaning having an elder statesman with foreign policy experience -- was the goal of both the younger Bush and Barack Obama. Bush picked former defense secretary Dick Cheney, and Obama chose 36-year Senator Joe Biden.

Lastly there's 2008. John McCain knew he was losing, and he needed a game changer to jump-start his campaign. In Sarah Palin, he got a trail blazer and an attack dog -- and ultimately an embarrassment. No Republican could have won the presidency in 2008.

So where does that put Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate? He's more seasoned and intelligent than Quayle or Palin. At age 42 he provides generational balance to Romney (age 65). He has appeal to the conservative base. He is a game changer. Instead of a referendum on the Obama presidency, which Romney is losing, it's now a choice between the candidates' divergent philosophies, which Romney could win.

This much is certain: If Romney-Ryan loses in 2012, Ryan will be the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.