It is easy to mock, as much of social media did, Ted Cruz’s decision last week to announce that Carly Fiorina will be his vice presidential running mate. For critics (myself included), it appeared to be nothing more than a last-moment Hail Mary pass designed to blunt Donald Trump’s momentum coming out of The Donald’s impressive victories during the “Acela” primaries. But despite the whiff of desperation associated with the announcement, there is also an underlying logic at work in Cruz’ decision, at least in theory. For starters, he captured the news cycle for a good 72 hours, helping steal some of the media coverage from The Donald’s post-primaries foreign policy speech. It also might boost Cruz’ standing among some core groups, including social conservatives and women, in the crucial state of Indiana which holds its primary next Tuesday. Cruz is probably hoping that Fiorina’s selection, in the aftermath of Trump’s inflammatory suggestion that Hillary Clinton owes much of her support to her gender, may galvanize enough women to come out for him to take the state. Indiana probably represents’ Cruz last, best hope of blocking Trump’s road to the nomination. If you will recall from the debates, Fiorina was an early critic of Trump’s, one who seemed unfazed by his attacks. And, looking ahead to the California primary, one might argue that Fiorina helps Cruz in a state that she calls her home, although frankly she’s never showed that she has much support there.
Of course, it is also possible that Fiorina will boost Cruz’ general election chances, in the unlikely event that he wins the Republican nomination. Indeed, one of Fiorina’s standard talking points in her stump speech was that, as a woman, she was ideally suited to take on Clinton. But do vice presidential selections really matter in the general election? Conventional wisdom says they do. As political scientist Carl Tubessing noted back in the 1970’s, vice presidential selections are historically understood as serving some combination of the following purposes: ideological balancing, regional balancing, healing the wounds of a bitter nomination fight or as a means of securing delegates to secure the nomination at the convention. Testing these intuitions, however, has proved rather difficult for political scientists. At the risk of overgeneralizing, most political science research of which I am aware suggests that when controlling for the usual factors that influence the general election vote, the choice of a vice presidential candidate seems not to matter very much.
But perhaps this is asking too much for a vice presidential choice? It may be that even if the pick doesn’t influence the overall popular vote, the vice presidential pick can help the president win the vice president’s home state. That was the logic, presumably, that drove John Kennedy to pick Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson as his running mate in 1960, and which has prompted current observers to argue that Ohio Governor John Kasich might be Trump’s ideal candidate. Here, however, the research is more mixed. Devine and Kopko suggest the choice has an electoral impact “only … when s/he comes from a relatively less-populous state and has served that state for many years as an elected official. Think Joe Biden.” Of course, smaller states will have less of an impact on the Electoral College. Using slightly different methodology, however, Heersink and Peterson look at presidential elections in the period 1884-2012 and find that the vice presidential choice boosts the presidential ticket, on average, by 2.7% in the vice president’s home state, and by 2.2% in crucial swing states. While not a huge effect, it is large enough, they argue, to justify choosing a vice presidential candidate from an important and preferably large swing state.
In my view, however, the vice presidential pick ought not to be judged solely or even primarily in terms of its electoral impact. Instead, its importance lies in how well it helps presidents govern. No less an expert than Donald Trump understands this. When asked by the New York Times if he was bothered by the seeming reluctance of noteworthy Republicans to run as his vice president, Trump replied: “I don’t care. Whether people support or endorse me or not, it makes zero influence on the voters. Historically, people don’t vote based on who is vice president. I want someone who can help me govern.”
Trump’s approach is, in my view, exactly right. The evidence suggests George W. Bush didn’t select Richard Cheney because Cheney would bring Wyoming into the fold – he did so because he needed Cheney’s defense and foreign policy expertise. As Robert Draper recounts in his insightful book Dead Certain , Bush told Cheney, who was leading Bush’s V.P search, that “I don’t know what’s going to come onto my desk, but I’m going to need someone who’s seen things before, who can give me advice to make good decisions.” (Bush also liked that Cheney did not have ambitions to run for higher office.) While I disagree with my colleagues who suggest Cheney served as Bush’s “co-president”, by all accounts he was one of Bush’s most influential advisers, particularly early in Bush’s presidency. Similarly, President Obama selected Joe Biden as his running mate not to win over Delaware, but to provide advice and influence in Congress, particularly the Senate, where Biden had served several terms. Indeed, at least since Jimmy Carter moved Walter Mondale into the West Wing and scheduled regular weekly meetings with him, vice presidents have played increasingly important advisory roles. It’s hard to argue that the vice presidency today is, as John Nance Garner allegedly once proclaimed, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”
Trump clearly understands why the vice presidential choice today is worth considerably more, and it has less to do with electoral considerations than it does with helping him govern. Of course, the ideal choice would provide Trump both electoral benefits, presumably by boosting Trump’s chances in a large, swing state, and would also provide him with governing expertise, most importantly in working with Congress. At first glance Kasich seems to fit both criteria, but he has been out of Congress for a number of years. Former House Speaker John Boehner knows the current House as well as anyone, but he left office with dismal approval ratings even in his home state of Ohio, although this may reflect voters’ attitudes toward Congress more generally. Florida Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio potentially attract voters in that crucial swing state, but Scott lacks Washington experience and it’s hard to see “Little” Marco signing up on Trump’s team.
Of course, there’s a risk for Trump in choosing an establishment candidate as vice president, given his desire to portray himself as an outsider. In interviews, however, he has suggested that he would lean toward choosing someone with political experience. Given his recent comments regarding Clinton and gender, however, he might be tempted to choose a woman, such as New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte. But this risks losing a Republican Senate seat. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst also comes to mind but she has similar liabilities.
Speculating about what Trump will do in any endeavor is always a risky business. But it appears that in looking for someone who can help him govern, Trump has the right criteria in mind when deciding who to choose as his running mate. In the end, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump throws conventional wisdom out the window, and decides instead to go with a winner. And who wins more than this guy? Come on, Donald – Let’s really make American great again!