The VP Pick: Fool Me Once….

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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 .
2012 Mitt Romney ????????? ?

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.)

2 Responses to The VP Pick: Fool Me Once….

  1. Mary Sue says:

    Harry Enten wrote about the strategic reasons Mitt might want to announce the VP early:

    Mitt Romney currently trails in the polling average by about 2 percentage points. If Romney got even half of what Kerry received or about the median vice-presidential declaration effect, then he would move into the lead in the polls. It would mark the first time all year that Romney will have lead in a majority of polls. Romney would almost certainly garner good press and perhaps some extra fundraising. It would also stop the Romneys’ financials news cycle.

    The issue with naming a vice-president early is pretty simple. John Kerry received less of a convention bounce when he named his vice-president early. Romney has only a certain amount of positive news that he can control. If he chooses to use it now, it just means he will have less of it to use later. Still, if the cycle is so bad for Romney it probably is a good bet to utilize his vice-presidential pick now.

    Since the Bain attacks have thus far unable to knock Romney back in the polls, and probably won’t as you have argued, the only reason to pick early would be to gain a psychological boost by opening a lead in the race. Undoubtedly Kerry gained something if only from the short-term perception he was on track to dislodge Bush from the cushy digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Nevertheless, we know this ultimately failed to change the fundamentals of the race. I agree with Harry and you it seems, Mitt is unlikely to play this card early.

    Though I can see benefits in choosing Condi Rice, I really doubt she will be the one chosen. There are some politicians who play coy and suggest they won’t accept if asked, but Condi is not a politician. She really doesn’t want the job. Supposedly she gave a gangbuster speech at the little retreat a few weeks back inspiring some big donors to see stars. I haven’t watched it yet but it must have been great to inspire this much buzz. I do, however, think she was being honest when she said she did not want the job.

    My preference is for Romney to choose Paul Ryan but I think I am going to be disappointed. I think Mitch Daniels recent appointment to Purdue rules him out as well. Jindal is a possibility and is rumored to be in the final four. We’ll probably have quite a few wild goose chases between now and the convention so Jindal is likely to make an appearance in one of them.

  2. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Mary Sue:

    Re: Condi – see: http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2011/PPP_Release_MIPA_72512.pdf. If PPP is to be believed, Condi on the ticket makes both Michigan and Pennsylvania competitive. I’m skeptical, of course, but it is fun to speculate. As you note, however, Condi has shown no interest in running!

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