May 02, 2012
Lauren Brucker

Five Questions with Joel Goldstein, J.D.

Joel Goldstein
Joel Goldstein, J.D., has appeared on multiple national media outlets already this election season, offering his expertise on the GOP vice-presidential selection process. File photo

With the 2012 presidential election heating up and the nominating conventions fast approaching, Joel Goldstein, J.D., the School of Law Vincent C. Immel Professor and author of numerous works on the vice presidency, offers his expert insight into the vice-presidential selection process.

Q. How has the selection of a vice presidential candidate changed over the last few elections?

A. The vice-presidential selection process has changed so much in modern times that historical analogies, though often drawn, are of little value. The first significant change began in 1940 when the presidential candidate began to control the choice which previously had been made by party leaders. That development made the presidential candidate responsible for the choice of his running mate and increased the likelihood that the two would be politically and personally compatible.

The second major change occurred in 1976 when the modern process was created. The move to presidential primaries and caucuses in both parties meant that the presidential nomination was, with few exceptions, decided much earlier. Rather than the vice-presidential process beginning on the third night of the convention and ending a few hours later the following day, the new calendar stretched it over a period of several months. That focused attention on the choice, allowed for extensive vetting under favorable conditions and increased the stakes for the presidential candidate in the choice. It's one thing to make a bad choice when you're rushed but if you bungle it after having three or four months, that's more unsettling.

Since 1976, presidential candidates have refined the process. Some, mostly Democrats, interview prospective running mates, whereas Republicans tend not to do so. Additional vetting questions are added based on issues which arise in prior years. And since 1984 on the Democratic side and 1988 on the Republican side, the selection is announced before the presidential balloting and increasingly, before the convention begins.

Q. How can a presidential candidate's choice of running mate swing an election, either positively or negatively?

A. One of the myths of presidential politics is that the vice-presidential selection does not affect the outcome. To the extent that oft-stated view is true, it is because generally presidential candidates choose running mates who would be plausible running mates. Although most people vote based on their assessments of the competing presidential candidates, the vice-presidential choice provides important information about the presidential candidate-how he makes decisions and what he values. Thus, Ronald Reagan's choice of George H.W. Bush suggested that he was open to the more moderate wing of the Republican Party. Bill Clinton's choice of Al Gore, a fellow southern Democratic centrist from the baby boomer generation, reinforced some of the characteristics Clinton sought to emphasize. George W. Bush's selection of Dick Cheney suggested he would choose experienced people with national security credibility.

And in a close election, the vice-presidential choice may swing voters who are relatively indifferent between the presidential candidates. Walter Mondale's presence on the Democratic ticket in 1976 was crucial to Jimmy Carter's victory. Conversely, Sarah Palin's presence hurt John McCain. Her selection may have helped him with the Republican base but it impeached his claim to "Put America First" and the overwhelming public perception that she was unprepared to be president hurt him with independent voters. The choice between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle heavily favored the Democrats in 1988 but didn't translate to a decisive electoral impact since voters had misgivings about Michael Dukakis as well as regarding Quayle.

"Many of the newer faces in the Republican Party will have an opportunity during the next few months to try to demonstrate that they are ready for a national campaign."

Joel Goldstein, J.D.
SLU law professor

Q. What is the most important quality in a successful vice presidential candidate?

A. In modern times, the most important quality is that the vice-presidential candidate be a plausible president. It is impossible to hide a vice-presidential candidate in a time when technology allows for the immediate dissemination of a candidate's comments and when every campaign but one since 1976 has included a vice-presidential debate.

The Republicans learned that lesson in 2008 when Palin embarrassed the ticket by her inability to handle basic questions that an informed high school student would have nailed. Most presidential nominees since 1976 have chosen highly qualified running mates. Surely Mondale, Bush, Lloyd Bentsen, Gore, Jack Kemp, Cheney, Joe Lieberman and Vice President Joe Biden are among the ablest political figures of their generations. And I believe people like Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle were much more substantial than has sometimes been recognized. In fact, the tendency to choose able running mates dates back at least a quarter century. Richard Nixon, Estes Kefauver, Lyndon Johnson, Henry Cabot Lodge, Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie were widely viewed as presidential figures when chosen. Tom Eagleton's brief time on George McGovern's ticket ended unhappily but Eagleton's career showed him, too, to have been an enormously talented and principled public figure.

Q. Does a vice presidential pick need to be more energizing to the party base or the undecided voters?

A. It depends on the needs of the presidential nominee and the context of the times. The Republican base loved Ronald Reagan but he needed to send a reassuring message to swing voters. Choosing Bush sent that message. By contrast, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976 both needed help with their respective bases.

Republican presidential candidates from the party's more moderate wing tend to choose running mates to appeal to the base. Witness Ford's choice of Bob Dole, Bush's choice of Quayle, Dole's choice of Kemp, McCain's of Palin. Democratic choices have been less standardized. A liberal like Michael Dukakis sought to appeal to swing voters by choosing Lloyd Bentsen whereas Mondale chose Ferraro. A more moderate figure like Clinton chose another moderate in Gore. What direction Mitt Romney will take will depend in part on his perception of his needs in August and his options.

Q. Who do you see as the top potential vice presidential candidates for the Republican ticket? Do you anticipate any changes on the Democratic side?

A. The Republican situation is very fluid. Romney has many needs (e.g. a running mate with D.C. and national security credibility, help with the Republican base, Hispanics and women) and virtually all of those mentioned prominently have major drawbacks. I think Sen. Rob Portman, Sen. John Thune and Gov. Bobby Jindal, might be among those seriously considered. Many of the newer faces in the Republican Party will have an opportunity during the next few months to try to demonstrate that they are ready for a national campaign. If one is able to do so, he or she might also emerge as someone Romney considers. It's still early. In May of the various prior years, few, if any, would have predicted Mondale, Dole, Bush, Ferraro, Bentsen, Quayle, Gore, Kemp, Lieberman, Cheney, Biden or Palin.

I've long been on record as regarding the "Dump Biden" speculation as mindless chatter. In August, 2010, I wrote that Biden would be President Barack Obama's running mate ("Sorry, Folks - Biden is Here to Stay," Washington Post). And in November 2011, I wrote that, "Not since ‘Paul is dead' has a rumor based on so little proved as enduring as the prediction that President Obama will dump Vice President Biden." ("Veep Speculation is Just That," Sabato's Crystal Ball). I stand by those predictions.

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