Now that Donald Trump has selected his running-mate, the big media interest will be on whom Hillary Clinton will pick to run with her. So much is made of these decisions, but do they really matter? It’s certainly easy to say that they should. The vice-president, after all, is both the understudy for the president (a role that has been called on far too many times in the nation’s history) and, often, the heir apparent to the presidential nominee, which should (but often does not) matter in the grand scheme of things.
But in truth, as history clearly confirms, more often than not, the VP nod doesn’t make much difference in the election, and, as is nearly irrefutable, rarely makes much difference in the administration that follows the election (most vice-presidents doing little more than attend state funerals once they take office). The exceptions have been notable, to be sure, but they have also been rare.
In relatively recent history, one VP selection stands out as having been exceedingly helpful to the ticket and that was Ronald Reagan’s selection of George Bush as his running mate in 1980. At the time, Mr. Reagan was viewed askance by many independents as being too far to the right and too inflexible to be trusted. But in picking Mr. Bush, who was his principal opponent for the nomination earlier that year, he offered assurances to the mainstream voters that he could be flexible and was not to be feared.
And, of course, Mr. Bush went on to become president himself when he ran successfully after Reagan had completed his two terms. He may not have been a great president, and is often dismissed by historians for being less transformative than Mr. Reagan, but Bush did oversee the collapse of the Soviet Union and contain the first Gulf War, rather than expanding it into a more serious conflict. (He left that misbegotten task for his son.)
It is pure conjecture to assume that Reagan would have won with a different running mate. He chose wisely, albeit contrary to his own ideological preference (Bush was a “moderate” Republican, back in the days when such versions existed), and the voters, feeling at ease with him and tired of Jimmy Carter’s malaise, gave the ticket a landslide victory.
Other recent VP selections have been far less helpful and noteworthy. Geraldine Ferraro did nothing for Walter Mondale’s chances in 1984, when, truth be told, Reagan was a beatable candidate. Ferraro was heralded for being the first female VP nominee, but she was a weak candidate, with limited credentials (other than her gender) and far less of an attack dog persona to be helpful on the stump. More recently, Joe Lieberman was unhelpful in the 2000 election despite his supposed appeal to the extensive Jewish community in Florida. Lieberman failed to deliver the state and otherwise looked weak in his sole debate against Dick Cheney. And, of course, Sarah Palin was a disaster as a running mate to John McCain in 2008, when the Democrats were running a young guy from Illinois who had limited experience and was the first black candidate for president. She electrified the base of her party and then showed herself to be completely uninformed on just about every issue of importance.
Most of the rest have been unremarkable both when they were selected and on later reflection. Some have been embarrassments. Spiro Agnew, for example, was deemed a “safe, but insignificant” choice for Richard Nixon in 1968. He then preceded Nixon in leaving office (charged with political corruption) a year before Nixon’s Watergate-dictated resignation. Dan Quayle was viewed as a lightweight when Bush the father selected him in 1988. Nothing he did as VP changed that perception, and he was all but ignored when he considered a run for the nomination in 1996.
Of course, there are those times when being the presidential understudy becomes the main concern. In the last century three such men were called on to assume the role, and in each instance, their selection as the VP nominee had been problematic. The first was Teddy Roosevelt, whom William McKinley selected as his running mate when TR was governor of New York. The thought was to bury Roosevelt in the vice-presidency, thereby forestalling his trust-busting, anti-business, progressive agenda. Roosevelt ended up being a great asset to McKinley in the 1900 election and then became a powerful president who was subsequently elected to a full term, after filling the remainder of McKinley’s, following the president’s assassination in 1901. Corporate monopolies have been at risk ever since.
Harry Truman was the alternative to Henry Wallace (deemed too liberal by the Democratic hierarchy and by Franklin D. Roosevelt himself) when FDR selected him to be his running mate in 1944. Roosevelt essentially ignored Truman once he won re-election, so much so, in fact, that Truman was completely unaware of the work on the atomic bomb when Roosevelt died later that year. Truman went on to serve a full term of his own after completing the bulk of FDR’s. He is now regarded highly by historians, although less so in recent years as his use of the bomb to end WWII is now more critically viewed.
And Lyndon Johnson was John F. Kennedy’s VP pick solely because he was expected to help win Texas in the election of 1960. He did, as Kennedy beat Nixon by a razor’s edge. But JFK had no regard for Johnson, and the elected vice-president became the butt of jokes during Kennedy’s presidency. Only when he assumed the top office, when Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963, did Johnson establish his legacy (both positive—the Great Society, and negative—the Vietnam War). History is still conflicted about Johnson, but there can be no denying that his nomination ended up being momentous, despite the thinking that led to it.
The current presidential race is likely to be far more normal with respect to the effect the VP candidates will have. In the end, the country will be focused on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, not their running mates.