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Why Vice Presidential Nominees Matter

Despite the Sarah Palin phenomenon, whatever it may ultimately yield, commentators continue to declare that vice presidential nominees rarely affect the outcome of presidential elections.  The truth of this axiom depends on the meaning of the word rarely.  Good choices, bad choices, and  missed choices--usually in combination--have influenced as many as five of the presidential elections since 1960.  And "rarely" might be changed to "frequently" if we recognize that only six or seven of those twelve elections were competitive.  The main names to keep in mind are Nelson Rockefeller (twice), Henry Cabot Lodge, Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Edmund Muskie, Robert Dole, Walter Mondale, and Joseph Lieberman--but let's not forget Curtis LeMay, A. B. (Happy) Chandler, and  Richard Gephardt.

The close 1960 election is most often acknowledged as an exception to the rule.  If Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon's first choice for vice president, had been interested, the Republicans probably would have won his home state of New York.  If Lyndon Johnson had refused the vice presidency, John Kennedy almost certainly would have lost Texas and one or two other southern states.  But the what ifs do not stop there.  Nixon's fall back choice, UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, was never going to carry  Massachusetts against Kennedy.  Furthermore, while Johnson barn-stormed the country in full Johnson style, Lodge set the modern record for campaign lethargy by a major party nominee.  Even a now forgotten midwestern governor--William Stratton of Illinois, for example--would have improved Nixon's chances.

The what ifs for 1968 are more complicated.  Hubert Humphrey’s running mate, Senator Edmund Muskie, was widely praised as Lincolnesque. Governor Spiro Agnew, Nixon's worse choice the second time around, made gaffe after gaffe.  Agnew slipped into ethnic slurs (which he thought innocent banter) and called Humphrey "squishy soft" on Communism (then half apologized).  American Independent party candidate George Wallace was the wild card.  Governor Wallace hoped to win enough electoral votes to deny Nixon or Humphrey a majority in the electoral college.  Then he planed to bargain with the major parties about desegregation and Supreme Court appointments.  In early October this result seemed possible.  Or Wallace might have drawn enough backlash votes from Nixon to elect Humphrey.  To attract northern support, Wallace muted his overt racism and initially promised the vice presidential nomination to former Kentucky Governor Happy Chandler.  Chandler proved to be too moderate for Wallace's base.  After all, as commissioner of baseball he had accepted Jackie Robinson into the major leagues.

So at the last minute Wallace substituted retired Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay.  General LeMay not only demanded expensive  accommodations on the campaign trail, but also kept musing in public about winning a nuclear war.  Wallace himself lamented that LeMay was "either spending  all our money or dropping atomic bombs."  The choice of LeMay was one factor in the dramatic decline in Wallace’s northern support. The Republican ticket picked up most of these voters.  Humphrey lost Missouri, Ohio, and New Jersey—and the election--by a total might-have-been margin of 172,000 votes.

Looking back in his memoirs, President Gerald Ford came close to saying outright that his friend and running mate, Senator Robert Dole, cost him the 1976 election.  A rejected alternative was William Ruckelshaus, who as deputy attorney general had resigned instead of obeying President Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.   Ruckelshaus would have deflected attention from Ford’s pardon of Nixon and as a midwestern Catholic would have attracted swing voters.  Ford nonetheless chose Dole, a “slashing” partisan (Ford’s term) who primarily attracted fellow partisans.

Dole’s personal virtues include his (occasionally open) disrespect for the absurdities of the political game. Ironically, this trait reinforced his slashing partisanship because on some level he did not expect to be taken literally.  Dole’s debate with Jimmy Carter’s running mate, Senator Walter Mondale, was a case in point.  Watergate had no more relevance to the 1976 election, Dole said, than the twentieth-century “Democrat wars” that had cost 1.6 million American lives.  Playing the political game with greater self-awareness, Mondale responded that Dole had “richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man.”  A protégé of Hubert Humphrey, Mondale also reassured northern liberals concerned about Carter’s fiscal conservatism and "born again” Baptist religion.

A Ford-Ruckelshaus ticket would have run better in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, all lost by a total might-have-been margin of 199,000 votes; defeat in any two of those states would have cost Carter the election.  But the Ruckelshaus rumination is not the only "what if" in Ford’s memoirs.  In addition, Ford regretted his own “cowardice” in failing to stick with his appointed vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, an anathema to conservative Republicans.  Maybe this retreat was a political mistake too.  Ford lost New York state by a mere 289,000 votes.     

Vice presidential nominees affected the atmospherics rather than the outcome of the elections from 1980 to 1996.  After Democrat Michael Dukakis picked Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, perhaps the only competitive election of the five, skeptics joked that Dukakis could not carry the South with Robert E. Lee on his ticket.  Yet Dukakis could not have beaten George H. W. Bush with Franklin D. Roosevelt on his ticket.

Although these five elections bolstered the axiom of running mate irrelevance, the latest two presidential races offer reasons to reconsider.   In 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman helped Al Gore more-or-less to carry Florida; Senator Lieberman plus several thousand trained and feisty poll watchers, the kind routinely deployed during an earlier era of low tech politics, would have made Gore president.  In 2004 John Kerry ignored the continuing validity of the Bentsen rule by running with North Carolina Senator John Edwards.  The Democratic ticket carried no southern state.  Representative Richard Gephardt came close to being selected for vice president.  Kerry was defeated in Iowa and Ohio, places where Gephardt was popular, by a total might-have-been margin of 129,000 votes.  And Gephardt’s home state of Missouri, lost to President George W. Bush by 187,000 votes, might have been within reach.

Might-have-been arguments by their very nature must be considered along with countervailing perhapses, maybes, and what ifs.  Spiro Agnew may have helped Nixon more with potential Wallace voters than he hurt with independents and moderate Republicans.  In the final analysis Jimmy Carter may have won the 1976 election because Democratic lawyers removed independent candidate Eugene McCarthy from the New York state ballot. Even with these caveats, the axiom of running mate irrelevance should be discarded..