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Q&A: Political experts chime in on vice-presidential contenders

May 22, 2012|By DAVID BROCK | dbrock@amnews.com

With a Democrat incumbent and a Republican field winnowed down to one real contender, today’s presidential primary will be largely a formality for many area voters. The real intrigue is who Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, will choose as his running mate and participant in the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate at Centre College.

Over the last week, The Advocate-Messenger spoke with several political watchers to see what they think about how the Romney camp will make the decision. Larry Sabato is director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and runs the online political blog Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is the author of multiple books, including “Pendulum Swing,” about the 2010 midterm elections.

It is difficult to think of a cable news show where his analysis has not been featured.

Stephen Voss is a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky and a specialist on elections and voting behavior. His work has appeared in the American Journal of Political Science and Journal of Politics, among other journals, and he has collaborated with David Lublin at American University on the Federal Election Project.

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Benjamin Knoll is a professor of government at Centre College who studies American political behavior and institutions. Knoll’s research on public opinion and voter behavior has included analysis of voter opinions during local elections, as well as the actions of the Danville City Commission.

Here’s a Q&A with the three experts:

Q: For a time, the vice-presidential nominee was thought of as a way to “balance the ticket” with regard to geography and other factors. Did Clinton-Gore (youngish, white, southern, relatively centrist x 2) change that? Is there at least a loose template that still exists for choosing a running mate?

Sabato: Clinton’s choice of Gore was a conscious rejection of the old formula and a successful attempt to project a turning of the page, generational ticket, kind of “the torch has been passed” effect. Clinton was a JFK devotee, after all.

 But each nominee has to decide what makes sense for him. Picking anybody but a well-qualified person who can be seen instantly as a potential president, if called upon to take charge, is nothing but trouble for a nominee. See Palin, Sarah. Once that hurdle is cleared, then the presidential candidate can consider Electoral College math — a key state or region, or a major demographic group such as women or Hispanics.

Knoll: While Clinton’s choice in 1992 did violate the “balance the ticket” trend, this was more the exception than the rule. We’ve seen ticket-balancing as the primary strategy for picking VP candidates over the past three elections. George W. Bushpicked Dick Cheney to balance Bush’s perceived lack of experience. John Kerry picked John Edwards to help appeal to southern, working-class voters. McCain picked Palin to help shore up support with Evangelicals. “Balancing the ticket” is still widely seen as the best strategy.

Q: What do you think Romney is looking for in his running mate? What areas — issues, temperament, track record as governor — do you think Romney might be looking for help on.

 Sabato: In the wake of the Sarah Palin selection from 2008, Romney may very well be looking for someone a little less controversial who will be seen as ready and able to take over should Romney win but not finish out his term. That seems to point to a less flashy candidate, such as insider favorite Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio or Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana.  

Voss: Presidential candidates seek running mates who can help their electoral fortunes in some way, but how they approach the choice will depend on which weaknesses they need to overcome and which options they see as viable.  

Romney will be juggling a lot of different priorities: shoring up support from Republican conservatives, strengthening his standing in swing states, undercutting the gender gap and his party’s difficulties attracting Hispanics, compensating for his wooden demeanor, and so on.  

Usually a campaign will need to make tradeoffs.  There’s no simple answer for how to make tradeoffs among the potential VP choices, and the dynamics are too complicated for opinion polls to provide the solution, so eventually it comes down to a gut-level decision.

Knoll: Romney is looking for someone that will help balance for all of his perceived short-comings among the conservative Republican base. They see him as a moderate “establishment” candidate, and they don’t like that. Romney, therefore, is very likely looking for someone who religious conservatives and Tea Party voters will approve of. He’s also going to try to pick someone with a working-class background to balance the perception that, because of his privileged upbringing, he can’t relate to middle class voters.

Q: Do vice-presidential candidates make any significant difference as far as swaying voters?

Voss: The direct impact of the vice-presidential choice is not large.  There may or may not be a small friends-and-neighbors bump in support in the VP candidate’s home state.  The indirect effect of the choice, while hard to measure, likely is much more important.  We learn important things about the presidential nominee by the kind of person selected as a running mate, and that person will continue to serve as an important voice of and symbol for the campaign.  I cannot believe that anyone who watched the 2008 campaign would doubt that Sarah Palin both attracted and energized some voters (and volunteers and donors) while repelling others.

Knoll: Yes, but to a much smaller degree than people often think. Decades of political science research has shown that the ultimate outcome of presidential elections is overwhelmingly driven by only a few primary factors, including things like incumbent popularity, economic growth, and the presence of international conflict. 

A vice-presidential candidate will undoubtedly sway a few voters here and there, but by and large this isn’t the determining factor in which side ultimately wins a presidential election.

Q: What is the size of the actual field of Republican vice-presidential candidates as of now and how close do you think Romney actually is to deciding on a pick? When do you think he will announce his choice?

Sabato: Recent history tells us that presidential nominees typically wait until just a few days before the convention to announce their selection. Perhaps Romney, like John Kerry, will announce his pick a few weeks before, but even then we would be looking at an early August selection. An announcement before then would be ahistorical, and a real surprise. Romney has recently mentioned that he might well choose someone very early, however.

Voss: I cannot provide any insights about what might be going on behind the scenes. My comments derive from scientific evidence, not insider information. I could believe that he’s thinking any number of ways right now, and none of them would be obviously wrong based on the scientific evidence:

  • Romney seems to have a special difficulty appealing to a diverse electorate because he comes across so much like the stereotype of the stiff white businessman, so he could both appeal to conservatives and give the ticket a multicultural feel by going with Rubio in Florida or Jindal in Louisiana.  They’ve both been mentioned frequently as possibilities.
  • Romney is struggling with women, and it’s so far past time for a female president (let alone vice president), that he’s got to be weighing the possibility of looking for gender balance.
  • The number of swing states is large, and they all have energetic conservatives who could shore up the conservative base while giving the campaign some energy that could excite independent voters.
  • Evangelicals form a key part of the Republican base, and Romney had some trouble with those voters, and he might want to go with a leader who has experience appealing to that part of the electorate.

None of these political considerations likely will trump the simple question of whether he can trust and work with a potential running mate, though. No matter how good someone looks on paper, if they’re a bad fit with the presidential nominee, things can fall apart very quickly.

Knoll: Sources say that there’s roughly two dozen candidates on the long-short list right now. They’re currently going through the vetting process to make sure there’s no major embarrassing factors that might come out during the fall campaign. Traditionally vice-presidential candidates are announced in the summer, a few weeks before the conventions in August and September. I imagine the announcement won’t be until July at the earliest.

Q: The assumption was that Biden was brought on to for his legislative experience and his ability to appeal to white working class voters. What role was he expected to play in the last election and what will he be expected to deliver this time?

Sabato: Joe Biden was brought on to provide the less experienced Obama with a well-known Washington figure, particularly on foreign policy matters. Biden likely will be used in an attack dog role this time, and his working-class image makes him a good messenger for what will be a populist campaign against “venture capitalist” Mitt Romney — that is, if Biden can actually stay on message, which is always a challenge for him.

Voss: Obama lacked experience, and he did not appeal to the lunch-pail crowd that flocked to Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden covered both weaknesses, because he combined a working-class past with many years of Washington experience. This time around, Biden may need to take on more of the traditional role of a ticket mate and become the attack dog for the campaign. Obama needs to look presidential now and let his proxies fling most of the mud. In particular, Joe Biden seems better positioned than Obama for attacking Romney’s affluent background and making it stick, because people see Obama as more elitist and Biden as more a man of the people.

Knoll: Yes, that’s an accurate assessment. Throughout the 2008 primary campaign, it became apparent that Obama had difficulty appealing to white, working-class voters in the industrial, Appalachian areas. In the primaries, Hillary Clinton won states like Pennsylvania and Ohio by 10-point margins. Joe Biden, himself from an industrial, working-class background in eastern Pennsylvania, was brought on to be able to appeal directly to Democratic voters in swing states where enthusiasm for Obama was low. He’s doing the same thing this year. Just this week, he has been dispatched to visit factories and blue-collar areas of Ohio.

Here are who Sabato and Knoll believe have the inside track to the vice-presidential nomination:

Sabato (from Sabato’s Crystal Ball at www.centreforpolitics.org): Top Tier: Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and Paul Ryan. Second Tier: Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Tim Pawlenty, Bob McDonnell, Mitch Daniels and Mike Huckabee.

Knoll: Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels.

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