The Real Stakes in the Veepstakes

The Real Stakes in the Veepstakes

Here’s what the Democratic nominee—and all of us—should consider in thinking about the vice presidency.

April 28, 2016

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazineSubscribe here

Sometime in July—assuming nothing derails her nomination—Hillary Clinton will announce to the country the man or woman she has selected to be her running mate. There will then ensue a flurry of biographical news stories about this newly famous politician, a passel of polls taken to gauge the public’s first impressions, and a virtual tsunami of chin-stroking and speculation about how the choice will affect the race. The more contrarian commentators will repeat some version of the disputed quote from John Nance Garner, the 32nd vice president, comparing the office to “a bucket of warm piss” (or in the more polite version, “warm spit”).

We seem to swing wildly back and forth between two extremes when talking about the vice presidency: We become briefly fascinated with the running mates when they’re named and act as though they might transform the race; then we quickly go back to treating the office as though it’s all but meaningless. Both of those perspectives are misguided. The truth is that the choice of a running mate matters very little for the final tally on Election Day, but can be critical to the administration’s success.

Garner’s was hardly the first insult tossed at the vice presidency. John Adams, America’s first vice president, complained in a letter to his wife Abigail, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Nearly half a century later, Daniel Webster would turn down the office by saying, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead.” To a great degree, however, the image of the vice presidency is stuck in the earlier ages those men occupied. Their evaluations may have been true at the time, but the vice presidency is different today in ways that make Clinton’s choice extraordinarily important.

In true Washington style, the modern vice presidency was born in a memo. Addressed from Walter Mondale to Jimmy Carter on December 9, 1976 (and actually written by Mondale’s chief of staff, Richard Moe), the memo laid out for the president-elect what his vice president demanded from the job. Mondale dismissed the only official duty of the vice president, serving as president of the Senate, as peripheral (“I assume this responsibility will take a minimum amount of time”) and laid out an ample list of requirements. He wanted full access to intelligence briefings; staff resources; attendance in key meetings of the cabinet and the National Security Agency, and with congressional leaders; and most critically, direct access to the president at a weekly meeting of the two men.

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Republican presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz  joined by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, waves during a rally in Indianapolis, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, when Cruz announced he has chosen Fiorina to serve as his running mate. 

Carter accepted, and according to historians, Mondale became probably the most influential vice president up to that point in American history. He was smart enough to demand what he did from his boss, and with 12 years experience in the Senate, knowledgeable enough about Washington’s ways to help guide the former Georgia governor who had been elected precisely because he was an alien to the nation’s capital. Carter’s presidency may not have been a success, but Mondale changed the assumption that the vice president would exert little or no influence over the administration’s course.

As of this writing, the Democratic primary campaign is still under way, though Hillary Clinton has taken a commanding lead in delegates. By the time you read this, she will likely be the nominee in all but name. In order to consider not just whom Clinton might choose to join her on the ticket but how she ought to think about the selection, a brief look at recent history is in order.


IT IS SOMETIMES SAID that the choice of a running mate is the first important decision a president makes, but all too often we barely consider what that decision will mean for the presidency. During the campaign, we almost act as though the running mate will blink out of existence the moment the polls close. Vice presidential nominees are judged not on their potential relationship with the president or even their experience and skill in governing, but almost entirely on the politics of the campaign itself: how they’ll perform on the stump, what constituencies they might energize, how they’ll do in their one debate with their counterpart from the other party, and whether, in the end, they help the ticket or hurt it.

“All presidential nominees say the same thing, that they’re going to pick the one most qualified to be president,” says Jules Witcover, longtime Washington journalist and author of The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power. “But how often do they do it? Not that often.” The idea that the running mate could ascend to the presidency is often a throwaway line (“a heartbeat away”) but seldom explored in too much depth. “There have been too many cases where irresponsible choices have been made,” Witcover says. He finds it particularly appalling that George H.W. Bush, who had nearly ascended to the presidency when Ronald Reagan was shot less than three months after taking office, picked a running mate in Dan Quayle who seemed so unready to lead the nation. “To me, [it] was astonishing” that the possibility of his running mate becoming president wouldn’t weigh heavily in making his choice.

Then there’s Sarah Palin, whose selection reflected more poorly on John McCain than anything else he did in 2008. It wasn’t merely the fact that Palin turned out to be a spectacular nincompoop; McCain might be forgiven for not having realized that in advance. What really shocks is the minimal thought he put into the selection. A man approaching his 72nd birthday might have considered seriously the idea that his vice president would have a good chance of being thrust into command of the federal government. Yet he selected a 44-year-old with zero experience in Washington who had been governor of Alaska for barely a year and a half.

Not only that, McCain made the selection with what appeared to be little or no deliberation. Up until the few days before the selection, when a phone call and meeting were hastily arranged, his contact with Palin had consisted of one 15-minute conversation at a meeting of the National Governors Association. “By the time he announced her as his choice,” Jane Mayer reported later in The New Yorker, “he had spent less than three hours in her company.” By all indications, Palin was selected because the campaign was facing the prospect of defeat and she seemed like a dynamic, unusual figure who could shake up the race—which she certainly did, at least for a while. How she might help McCain govern was an afterthought, if that. Just a month before McCain plucked her from her frozen tundra of obscurity, she had told an interviewer: “I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me. What is it exactly that the V.P. does every day?

It’s to Barack Obama’s credit that when he chose Joe Biden as his running mate, the selection was unlikely to affect his prospects for victory much at all. Biden had waged two failed presidential runs, and on the stump was more likely to make a string of head-shaking gaffes than bring in some large number of votes. He hailed from Delaware, both tiny and reliably Democratic, so that wouldn’t make a difference. But Biden turned out to be an unusually good choice. Not only have the two men developed a strong personal relationship, but Biden has effectively performed many tasks that have gone largely unnoticed by the public.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro speaks at the 2016 Legislative Conference of North America's Building Trades Unions in Washington, Tuesday, April 19, 2016. 

For example, one of the great unsung accomplishments of Obama’s tenure is the 2009 Recovery Act, in which the administration not only stopped the economy’s bleeding, but also successfully distributed $787 billion in a relatively short time with barely any of that famous “waste, fraud, and abuse” everyone talks about in Washington—not to mention no major corruption scandals. Biden oversaw and coordinated that implementation. As Michael Grunwald writes in his book about the law, The New New Deal, in the two years after it was passed, Biden “would convene twenty-two cabinet meetings on the Recovery Act, more than the president would convene on all topics, and visit fifty-six stimulus projects. He’d host fifty-seven conference calls with governors and mayors, and spend countless hours checking in, buttering up and banging heads to keep the cash flowing. He’d speak about the stimulus with every governor except Sarah Palin, who abruptly resigned to pursue a career in punditry and reality TV before he had a chance. He’d also block 260 Recovery Act projects that didn’t pass his smell test.”

But how many Americans know it was the vice president who undertook this enormous project and completed it with unusual energy and skill? Barely any. But inside the government, people know, and even more important, they understand the close relationship Obama and Biden have. That makes it possible for the vice president to move with authority throughout the government, which means he can better accomplish the goals the president sets for him. “As long as people think that he has access to the president, they’re going to take it seriously” when the vice president calls or tells them to do something, says Joel Goldstein, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law and the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency. Witcover agrees, and says that the relationship between the two is even more important than the skill in working government’s levers that the vice president brings to the job. “If the relationship is strong and close, the vice presidency itself rises in esteem,” he says.

So ideally, Clinton (or any other party nominee) would pick a running mate who 1) is ready to become president if the need arises; 2) knows the federal government well enough to navigate its complexity to accomplish difficult tasks; 3) has the political skills that are required both internally and externally, so as to act as an effective spokesperson for the administration; 4) is smart and thoughtful enough to give good advice; and 5) has a strong personal relationship with the president.

That’s a tall order, and as Goldstein says, “Most people who are elected president don’t really have a sense of how things are going to run until they start putting together their administration.” By then, they’ve already made their choice. Hillary Clinton probably has a better idea than most candidates of how her administration will run, but there’s no question that the political considerations of the campaign will figure strongly in her decision on a running mate.


THAT'S CERTAINLY THE CASE with the one name that has been mentioned more often as a potential vice presidential candidate than any other, that of Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who now serves as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. If you’ve read anything about Castro, it was probably an article asking whether he might one day be vice president. “Julián Castro could be VP next year—or out of a job. He’s ready either way,” read a recent headline in The Washington Post. “Julián Castro stumps for Clinton in Iowa, fueling VP chatter,” said the Dallas Morning News. “Hillary Clinton-Julián Castro 2016: An already inevitable Democratic ticket?” asked The Christian Science Monitor.

While other potential candidates are occasionally mentioned, only Castro has been discussed in this way, and for so long. It began in earnest when he was selected to give the keynote address at the Democratic convention in 2012, an honor that eight years before had been bestowed on another rising star, that one a state senator from Illinois. Though Castro was still mayor of San Antonio at the time, he was immediately seen as a future leader of the party: young, Latino, telegenic, and ambitious.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Senator Tim Kaine questions State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon Jr., as he testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 5, 2016, on recent Iranian actions and implementation of the nuclear deal. 

There’s no doubt that Castro looks like a candidate with a future. He and his identical twin brother Joaquín (who is now a congressman) were raised by a single mother and went on to attend Stanford and Harvard Law. After being the youngest person ever elected to the San Antonio City Council, Julián became mayor of San Antonio when he was just 34; five years later, President Obama tapped him to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The problem is that Castro’s resume is fine for someone who is up-and-coming, but not so much for someone who’s already arrived. He’ll be only 42 on Election Day. While San Antonio is America’s seventh-largest city with a population approaching 1.5 million, the mayor’s job is part-time; a city manager is the one really running things. And HUD is not exactly a glamorous outpost from which to become a national figure. Castro didn’t come to the job as a housing expert (unlike his predecessor Shaun Donovan, now the White House budget chief), and while he seems well liked, he hasn’t brought about any stunning transformation in American housing policy.

There’s also a tautological aspect to all the discussion about Castro being on the Democratic ticket: People say he might be a future vice president for the simple reason that so many people say he might be a future vice president. Once a few articles speculating about the possibility appeared, they seemed to generate their own momentum; now Castro can’t be interviewed without the subject coming up. In a January appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Colbert gave Castro a series of flash cards with Spanish words on them to translate, since Castro did not grow up speaking Spanish at home and is less than fluent. The last card read, “Yo soy el vicepresidente.”

But Castro’s central role in the VP speculation actually highlights a dearth of Latinos at the highest levels of Democratic politics. If Clinton wants to pick a Latino as her running mate, she has a limited number of choices. Right now, there are no Latino Democrats serving as state governors, and the only Latino Democrat in the Senate is New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, whose corruption troubles make him radioactive. There are over two dozen Latino Democrats in the House, but none of them are nationally known, and House members don’t have a very good record as running mates.

So perhaps it isn’t surprising that the national Hispanic Chamber of Commerce formally endorsed Castro for vice president in January, even though it hadn’t yet endorsed anyone for president. Without any other obvious choices, it looks like if there will be a Latino on the ticket, it’s going to be Castro—unless Clinton considers the other Latino in Obama’s cabinet, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is widely respected among liberals for his work both at Labor and as head of the civil-rights division at the Justice Department.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Senator Cory Booker speaks during a commemoration ceremony for the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which abolished slavery in the United States, Wednesday, December 9, 2015, in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

But how much would either one matter to the election? Latinos are obviously a critical voting bloc, and Republicans’ inability to appeal to them is making it somewhere between difficult and impossible for them to win the White House. “Republicans need to hit at least 40 percent of the Latino vote” in order to win a popular majority, says Sylvia Manzano, a political scientist who is a principal at the polling firm Latino Decisions. Mitt Romney got 27 percent. But Manzano cautions that large numbers of voters won’t change their votes just because they see someone of their ethnicity on a ticket; they have to find agreement on policy issues as well. “Co-ethnic candidates can increase turnout and increase vote share when you have a case where it’s a co-ethnic candidate who also shares the issue priorities and the interests of the voter,” she says. But turnout could be affected, she notes, imagining that some voters might say, “I’m probably a Clinton supporter anyway, but I’m a little bit more excited to go out and vote because I also have the chance to elect a Hispanic vice president.”

There’s a broader context, which is that the Democratic ticket might already have secured a huge majority of Latino votes simply because of what the Republicans have been up to lately, in a primary campaign that featured candidates competing to see who could be harshest on undocumented immigrants, and a front-runner who said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,” and who promises to build a wall on our southern border.

Nor was that much of a surprise for Latinos, Manzano says. “Frankly, for Latino voters this is more of the same. Before [Trump], there was Representative [Steve] King. Before him, there was Joe Arpaio. Before him, there was Tom Tancredo. We have heard this before. We got it. We understand. You don’t say those things because you want to win Latino voters.” Selecting Castro might reinforce those impressions, but it probably wouldn’t be necessary to keep Latinos in the Democratic fold.


BUT IF JULIAN CASTRO OR Tom Perez might only affect Clinton’s electoral fortunes at the margins, that would make them no different from any other potential vice president. That’s because for all the momentary attention we pay to the choice, the running mate has only the tiniest effect on the election’s outcome. For some time, political scientists have tried to determine how much difference running mates make to election outcomes, and the general conclusion is: not much. Even in 1992 with Dan Quayle and 2008 with Sarah Palin, the most derided running mates in recent years, most studies find the typical effect of a running mate on the ticket’s eventual vote to be tiny, on the order of less than 1 percent. One study did estimate that Palin cost McCain 1.6 percent of the vote, which could have been significant in a different year—but not in 2008, when Obama beat McCain by seven points.

And critically, the largest of those small effects are negative ones, meaning a running mate could hurt you, but probably won’t help you. It’s hard to imagine that Hillary Clinton will pick a running mate who has as profound an effect as Palin did, barring some kind of shocking scandal that emerges too late to find a replacement. “You might get an initial bump” in the polls when the VP choice is announced, says Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, “but generally it doesn’t make that much of a difference overall.” So all that time candidates spend trying to find the perfect balance of age and geography and ideology is probably wasted.

Nor do voters have much of a conception of what the vice president might actually do in office. “They see it as a largely ceremonial position,” says Greenberg, and they don’t even spend too much time thinking about the possibility of the vice president taking over for the president “unless there’s some reason to worry”—as in the case of a candidate like John McCain, who was perceived as elderly.

And in case Hillary Clinton is worried about seeming too old—she’ll be 69 in January 2017, older than any president except Ronald Reagan—voters don’t appear all that concerned. “I haven’t heard a focus group where anyone talks about her age,” Greenberg says. “People think she’s strong and energetic, she looks good—I don’t think anyone’s looking at her and thinking she doesn’t have the stamina to be president.” So a potential running mate’s youth shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

But more important, Hillary Clinton has been such a vivid public figure for so long that her choice of running mate may matter even less to the final election result than it would for other candidates. And if the vice president won’t make a difference in the polls that lasts more than a few news cycles, it could be liberating. Clinton could choose a young politician or an elder statesman, someone boring or someone exciting, someone from a red, blue, or purple state, and the outcome of the election will likely be the same. Which frees her up to think carefully about what kind of relationship she’d have with her vice president, and how effective that person would be at the tasks she sets out for them.


AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Committee member Senator Elizabeth Warren questions witnesses during a Senate Specials Committee on Aging hearing on drastic price hikes by Valeant and a handful of other drugmakers that have stoked outrage from patients, physicians and politicians nationwide, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 27, 2016. 

This raises a thorny question: Is there any Democratic politician whom Clinton might name as a running mate whom she’d see as, if not an equal, at least as having some breadth or depth of knowledge and perspective she lacks, so as to make them a truly trusted adviser? Obama could benefit from Biden’s 35 years in Washington and deeper relationships with Congress; Bush could call on Cheney’s understanding of the executive branch. But Clinton has an unusual combination of experience: eight years in the White House as an unusually involved first lady; eight years in the Senate; four years as Secretary of State; and more broadly, more than four decades in politics and public life, dating back to Bill Clinton’s first run for office in 1974. It’s a little hard to imagine Hillary Clinton feeling like there’s a decision she can’t make until she hears what Julián Castro has to say about it.


IF NOT CASTRO, WHO ELSE is Clinton likely to choose? Clinton might wait until the Republican candidate makes his pick, since the GOP is holding its convention first and the entire Republican ticket may not be known until the convention. Something about that ticket may call out for a particular kind of Democratic combination as a contrast.

Presidential nominees have also used the choice of a running mate to placate a party faction that the nominee does not represent, so it’s conceivable that Clinton could try to find someone who would bring Bernie Sanders’s supporters out to vote. Short of picking Sanders himself (which is somewhere between unlikely and impossible), the logical choice for a gesture in that direction would be Elizabeth Warren, who is worshipped by many of the party’s liberals. Besides exciting those base voters, Warren has built her career on advocacy for struggling Americans, and is closely identified with the issues of economic inequality and financial regulation, which could do at least a little to defuse some of the suspicions around Clinton being too close to Wall Street.

Apart from a few articles here and there (The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote one in early March titled “Clinton must make Elizabeth Warren her vice president”), the idea of Warren as the running mate hasn’t gotten as much discussion as one might have expected given her popularity in the Democratic Party. That may be because the idea of two women on the ticket seems radical to many people or risky in the face of a testosterone-laden Donald Trump candidacy. There are other potential female vice presidents, including senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (the Constitution doesn’t actually forbid the president and vice president coming from the same state, though it would require some tricky maneuvering with the Electoral College). But Clinton, cautious as always, may decide that an all-female ticket would focus too much attention on gender and alienate some male voters she needs.

Among the men, the class of potential vice presidents is already beginning to take shape. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine may be the one mentioned most often after Castro; a former governor and mayor of Richmond who speaks fluent Spanish from his time as a Catholic missionary in Honduras, Kaine has a deep résumé and well-tested political skills, even if he isn’t anybody’s idea of an exploding volcano of charisma. He was vetted by the Obama campaign as a possible running mate in 2008 but passed over in favor of Biden, and now has eight years more experience, particularly on national security issues (he sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees).

Naturally, other senators make up most of those likely to be considered. New Jersey’s Cory Booker is a more dynamic personality and could help keep African Americans motivated to maintain the high turnout they achieved in Barack Obama’s two elections. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is widely admired among progressives, so picking him could be another move (even if unnecessary) to bring Sanders voters into the fold. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general, is the kind of solid, uncontroversial pick one might want in an unusually volatile election year.

Although other senators will be mentioned, one must keep in mind that control of the Senate will be in the balance on Election Day—the Republicans currently hold a majority of 54 seats but this year are defending many more seats than Democrats are. Which means that Clinton would be unlikely to pick a vice president from any state that has a Republican governor who would appoint a temporary successor when the running mate has to give up his or her seat. That would scratch Booker and Brown off the list.

What about a pick from outside Washington? There aren’t many obvious candidates, particularly after former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick took a job at Mitt Romney’s old haunt, Bain Capital, which may have made picking him awkward. Clinton could select another governor (current or former), but if she thinks carefully about the job, she’ll want someone with a deep understanding of the federal government. Before Sarah Palin, the only running mate from either party in the last half-century without Washington experience was Spiro Agnew, and we saw how both of them worked out.

The truth is that for all that we deride the office of the vice presidency, doing the job well requires an unusual combination of talents and experience, something very few people possess. And it requires someone whom the president will respect and trust enough to build and maintain a close working relationship. Clinton could make a purely political selection, then shunt the vice president off to do nothing more than attend funerals and ribbon-cuttings. But if she did, her success as a president would suffer for it. So Democrats should hope she makes her first presidential decision with the care it demands.

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