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Do Running Mates Matter?

Every four years, the news media follows the VP selection frenzy with rapt attention. The choice is described as the nominee’s first truly “Presidential” decision. The pundits debate where and how the VP choice will help the ticket — or if will help at all.

After all that debate, the conventional wisdom is that running mates typically don’t matter very much. However, nobody knows for sure, because there isn’t an alternative universe where the same election is run with different VP candidates, to see if it turns out differently.

In my lifetime, most of the Presidential elections have been electoral college landslides. When that happens, it’s hard to argue that any conceivable VP candidate could have affected the outcome. In 1988, Michael Dukakis made a sound choice in southerner Lloyd Bentsen, but he still lost 40 out of 50 states. Just about everyone agrees that Dan Quayle was a slight drag on George H. W. Bush that year, but Dukakis ran one of the most inept campaigns in living memory. When that happens, you could have Thomas Jefferson as your running mate, and you are still going to lose.

I suppose common sense dictates that comparatively few voters make up their minds because of who’s running for Vice President. But in a very close election, “comparatively few” votes might be the difference between victory and defeat. In 2000, Al Gore barely lost in a handful states. Since all he needed was just one more state, it is emminently possible that the right running mate would have pushed him over the top — not because running mates make a huge difference, but because a slight difference was all Al Gore needed.

I’d say Joseph Lieberman turned out to be a poor, and perhaps fatal choice, for Al Gore. Lieberman’s two clear constituencies, Connecticut voters and Jewish voters, figured to vote for Gore in large numbers anyway. Gore chose Lieberman, in part, because Lieberman had been so publicly critical of Bill Clinton’s moral shortcomings. If that trait mattered, surely there are others who could have supplied it. Choosing a running mate from a swing state would have been better advice, and had Gore heeded it, he’d most likely be President today.

Most polls show the current Presidential race a statistical tie. If the race remains that close, every little factor, however slight, could figure in the eventual outcome. My bet is that John Edwards is a net positive for Kerry, and no other available choice would have been a better one. It will be a while before we know whether the race is close enough for it to matter.

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