If history is a reliable guide, the media’s self-flagellation for chasing after the vice presidential rumor proffered by Matt Drudge is richly deserved – but probably not for the reason media sources cite. As you may recall on July 12 Drudge flashed the headline on his Drudge Report site trumpeting “ROMNEY NARROWS VP CHOICES; CONDI EMERGES AS FRONTRUNNER”. The Daily Beast’s Lauren Ashburn recounts what happened next: “[I]in typical fashion, the media—knowing the claim had little basis in reality—went along for the ride. The Today show, Good Morning America, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, even The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, along with plenty of others, took the bait and devoted countless minutes and column inches to the tale.
The speculation spread like wildfire across the web, with The Daily Beast and Politico taking the “scoop” and running with it, spicing up the summer’s otherwise ennui-inducing campaign with titillating, but meaningless catnip journalism.”
In the end, most journalists concluded that Drudge’s “scoop” was unfounded, with some suggesting it may have been a plant by the Romney campaign to divert attention from the ongoing debate regarding when Romney actually left Bain Capital as CEO. That triggered the round of media self-reproach and recriminations, as the “respectable” members of the fourth estate analyzed why Drudge was able, once again, to lead them on a merry chase to pin down false information. As more than one journalist pointed out, there was almost no chance Rice would get the nomination; her pro-choice views and foreign policy role during the Bush presidency made her politically unpalatable to Romney and many voters.
I think the media was right, but for the wrong reasons. In fact, Rice is a viable, albeit probably a riskier, vice presidential choice for several reasons. First, I don’t think her pro-choice views are nearly as debilitating, now that Mitt has clinched the nomination, as critics suggest. Heck, Mitt was pro-choice at one point, so he certainly can sympathize with that perspective. And excuse me if I don’t think Mitt’s “promise” not to select a pro-choice vice president candidate is ironclad. In fact, Condi’s views are closer to most independents on this issue than are Mitt’s. More importantly, however, abortion is simply not a very important issue for most voters in this election cycle.
Second, while most of the media focus on the geographical and coalitional impact of the VP choice, there is another dimension to that selection that is often underplayed: how well the VP compensates for the presidential candidate’s perceived weaknesses. Dick Cheney wasn’t tapped by George Bush to swing Wyoming, and its three Electoral College votes, into the Republican column. He was chosen for his foreign policy credentials as a way of balancing Bush’s lack of expertise in this area. Condi could serve a similar role for Romney – she brings both foreign policy expertise and a wealth of inside connections in the foreign policy establishment to the table. These are assets Romney could utilize once in the Oval Office, much as Obama has benefitted from Joe Biden’s knowledge of Senate personalities and procedures. And, of course, there is the obvious benefit of placing an African-American woman on the ticket.
This is not to say selecting Rice is without risk. Rob Portman or Mitch Daniels or even (yawn) Tim Pawlenty, are safer picks. But if Mitt wants to think big, Rice should be in the running.
So was the Drudge rumor viable? No, but because the timing for announcing a VP selection was wrong. It is one thing to tease a vice presidential pick some six weeks before the party’s nominating convention, but it would be unprecedented to announce it! Peter Cahill dug up the dates on which presidents in the modern post-McGovern Fraser selection era, going back to Jimmy Carter in 1976, announced their vice presidential choices. The dates are shown in the following table.
|Year||Candidate||VP Pick||Date||Before Convention|
|1976||Jimmy Carter||Walter Mondale||7/15/1976||0|
|1976||Gerald Ford||Bob Dole||8/19/1976||0|
|1980||Ronald Reagan||George H.W. Bush||7/17/1980||0|
|1980||Jimmy Carter||Walter Mondale||Incumbent||.|
|1984||Ronald Reagan||George H. W. Bush||Incumbent||.|
|1984||Walter Mondale||Geraldine Ferraro||7/12/1984||4|
|1988||George H. W. Bush||Dan Quayle||8/17/1988||0|
|1988||Michael Dukakis||Lloyd Bentsen||7/12/1988||6|
|1992||Bill Clinton||Al Gore||7/9/1992||4|
|1992||George H.W. Bush||Dan Quayle||Incumbent||.|
|1996||Bill Clinton||Al Gore||Incumbent||.|
|1996||Bob Dole||Jack Kemp||8/10/1996||2|
|2000||George W. Bush||Dick Cheney||7/25/2000||6|
|2000||Al Gore||Joe Lieberman||8/8/2000||6|
|2004||George W. Bush||Dick Cheney||Incumbent||.|
|2004||John Kerry||John Edwards||7/6/2004||20|
|2008||Barack Obama||Joe Biden||8/23/2008||2|
|2008||John McCain||Sarah Palin||8/29/2008||2|
|2012||Barack Obama||Joe Biden||Incumbent||.|
As you can see, with the exception of John Kerry in 2004, who announced John Edwards as his pick some 20 days before the Democratic convention, every other candidate has waited almost until his party’s nominating convention to formally announce his pick. The reason, of course, is that by unveiling the vice president nominee during or shortly before the convention, the candidate is trying maximize the suspense and heighten the audience for the convention itself, which is now viewed as the kickoff for the general election campaign. Some of you may recall the absolutely electrifying speech Sarah Palin gave at her unveiling as McCain’s running mate in 2008. Not coincidentally, her speech triggered the only post-Labor Day period in which McCain led Obama in the aggregate polling data.
Given this purpose, it didn’t make much sense for Kerry to waste the one-shot and limited impact of the VP announcement by pulling the trigger in mid-July, six weeks before the Republican convention in Tampa. This doesn’t preclude teasing the announcement, and even describing it as imminent. But to actually announce the choice? Bain controversy notwithstanding, it almost certainly wasn’t going to happen, despite Drudge’s rumormongering. Indeed, my best guess is that Romney won’t announce his pick until late August. This will also give his team more time to vet the prospective nominee and, if necessary, float some trial balloons as a way of gauging public reaction. Who knows? It might even be Condi!
(My apologies for the initial formatting problems with the table – Excel was misbehaving. I think the errors are all fixed.)