When John Nance Garner, an American vice president in the 1930’s, described that office as “not worth a bucket of warm spit,” he had little idea of just how important the job would be today. From a policy perspective, the vice presidency is undoubtedly significant. Writing for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics blog, Joel K. Goldstein argued that “the modern vice presidency has grown into a robust political office. It has its unique frustrations, but…those who have served in the second office have had extraordinary opportunities to contribute to the making and implementation of public policy on a national and international level.”
In addition to the influence that vice presidents have on policy in America, the aspect more commonly associated with the office isn’t even the office itself; it is the role of candidates for the office. Many times, the choice of a vice presidential running mate has helped a nominee for the Oval Office secure electoral victory, as an article by NPR‘s Ken Rudin demonstrates. And the vice presidency, even the nomination for the office, often serves as a political stepping stone to the top job. Since 1976, four vice presidential candidates have gone on to become nominees for the presidency. So, from both a policy perspective and an electoral perspective, the office of vice president is quite significant.
Yet, despite the importance of the job, the American people have far less say in how vice presidential candidates are nominated by both major political parties than in the nomination of presidential candidates. Until 2012, New Hampshire primary voters could cast ballots for the vice presidential nomination, in addition to that of the president; a state law abolished the practice in 2009. And in recent history, parties’ presidential nominees have had near-total control when it comes to the selection of a running mate. The Democratic convention of 1964 demonstrated this argument; in 1966, Gerald Pomper wrote that “by the time the Democratic convention met, the delegates had accepted, almost as self-evident truth, the proposition that ‘the Presidential candidates selects his own running mate.'”
What makes this practice, that of granting the nominee near-exclusive power to assign the second slot on the ticket to a person of his or her choice, so unwise is the selfish tendency of the nominees to pick running mates based primarily on their electability. Brian J.Brox of Tulane University and Madison L.Cassels from Pennsylvania State University examined John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate in 2008, and concluded, based on an extensive study of campaign memos and interviews with campaign staffers, that the decision was largely based on McCain’s need to restore his “maverick credentials,” attract women voters, distance himself from George W. Bush, and rally the Republican base. McCain isn’t the only nominee to treat the vice presidential slot in this manner, but his choice is representative of the dangers of allowing a party’s nominee to have so much authority with regard to the selection of a running mate. Pomper, mentioned earlier, wrote that “no democratic system can easily accept the proposition that the vital choice of future leadership is the prerogative of any single individual.”
Often, nominees themselves suffer politically due to the insufficient vetting of running mates; the most notable example of this is George McGovern’s disastrous selection of Thomas Eagleton in 1972. Perhaps if there was a vice presidential primary during the presidential primary season, vice presidential nominees would be better vetted and more prepared for the rigors of general election campaigning. Now, this argument has its deficiencies. In April 2012, Joel K. Goldstein wrote for the History News Service that “the 13 running mates since 1976 brought an average of 14.5 years experience in high governmental positions, generally with distinction.” Even so, there is still a strong case to be made for political parties having vice presidential primaries. The most experienced politicians can still make poor decisions and tone-deaf comments on the campaign trail. Nominees who have had to undergo a rigorous primary process are more battle-tested, and they have been trained to avoid amateur errors. Why not provide this kind of training for a party’s vice presidential nominee?
Additionally, the creation of a vice presidential primary would make the primary season more competitive, and primary voters would have another means by which they could influence the direction of their own respective parties. And, perhaps consequently, there would be a renewed interest in the primary season itself, and in the national conventions. According to the Census Bureau, over 131 millions people cast votes in the presidential election in 2008, but according to Nielson, barely 25 million people watched the Republican convention on television, and less than 22.5 million did the same for the Democratic convention. Competitive primaries lead to enhanced voter interest. In 1972, when the incumbent Richard Nixon was renominated by his party, only 14.4 million people watched the GOP convention. Yet, four years later, when Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford battled for the Republican nomination, 21.9 million people watched the convention on TV, an increase of over 50%. In 2004, Charles Peters wrote the following in Washington Monthly:
“The last closely contested Republican convention was between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan in 1976. The Democrats have to look back another 20 years to find their last real nailbiter. That was when Estes Kefauver barely defeated John Kennedy for the vice presidential nomination in 1956.” [Emphasis added.]
Contrast these exciting conventions from the past with those of today. Dan Schnur wrote in the Washington Post that “except for the most fervent supporters of both parties, the country has pretty much stopped paying attention.” Making the selection of a vice presidential nominee the responsibility of primary voters, rather than just the presidential nominee, could serve as a partial antidote to this problem.
In the end, there are strong arguments both for and against letting nominees choose their own running mates. On the one hand, primary voters could put two ideologically or stylistically incompatible people on the same ticket, not an improbable prospect. But on the other hand, nominees risk treating the second slot like a political token and insufficiently vetting their options. Ultimately, it is important to be reminded of Pomper’s argument: “No democratic system can easily accept the proposition that the vital choice of future leadership is the prerogative of any single individual.” Therefore, while a vice presidential primary may seem frivolous, or even risky, perhaps our democratic values require that we at least give the idea our consideration.
For more articles on the vice presidency, or on the parties’ national conventions, read the following:
“The Contemporary Effects of Vice-Presidential Nominees: Sarah Palin and the 2008 Presidential Campaign,” by Brain J. Brox and Madison L. Cassels for the Journal of Political Marketing.
“Have Political Conventions Outlived Their Usefulness?” An article for the Washington Post, with multiple contributors.