Ten Miles Square


April 09, 2012 9:56 AM Veep Veep

By Andrew Gelman

During this lull in the campaign season, I’d like to repeat my recommendation to presidential candidates that the best way to choose a vice-presidential nominee is to forget about ticket-balancing, shock value, winning the news cycle, and all the rest, and instead go for quality.

As I wrote a couple years ago:

John Edwards, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, Aaron Burr, …
What does this gang of political punchlines have in common? They were all major-party nominees for Vice President. Presidents and presidential candidates, by comparison, don’t seem so wacky. There was Nixon, but he counts in the vice-presidential ledger too. And there have been failed presidencies (Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush), but these dudes aren’t political jokes along the lines of John Edwards.

I followed up with some hypotheses (and Jonathan Bernstein added more), but my real point is there’ve been a lot of stinkers on this list.

At the same time, there’s not much evidence that a VP choice provides electoral benefit. On one hand, we’ve estimated the VP home-state advantage to be about 3 percentage points, enough to win Ohio perhaps (and I’ve heard people credit Lieberman for Gore’s popular-vote victory (estimated at approx 20,000 votes if all the ballots had been counted) in Florida in 2000). On the other hand, actual choices have include probable big-time vote-losers Quayle and Palin. So the electoral benefits would seem to be a wash at best. As a political scientist, I don’t see the evidence that a campaign can improve its chances with an outside-the-box Vice-Presidential nominee.

Put all this together and it leads to the suggestion that a presidential candidate should pick as running mate the person he thinks would be best qualified to become president, if that were to be necessary.

Think of it this way: It’s tough being a politician. No matter what your goals are, you’re always having to compromise. The vice-presidential nomination is one place where playing politics doesn’t seem to work. So I suggest forgetting the cleverness and forgetting about the idea that voters choose candidates based on their looks, and just picking the person you actually think would do the best job. Ruling out the Quayles, the Bidens, and the Palins … that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, both as politics and as policy.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.


  • Ennis on April 10, 2012 3:48 PM:

    "Ruling out the Quayles, the Bidens, and the Palins…” Why do you have Joe Biden on this list?

  • pbasch on April 10, 2012 8:05 PM:

    I agree with Ennis. Biden is a prince compared to a lot of vps. Biden could actually be a decent president. When you consider the likes of Agnew, Biden looks like George Washington.

  • axt113 on April 11, 2012 2:25 AM:

    Biden is actually an example of a quality VP

    He may Gaffe a bit, but when it comes down to it, he's extremely knowledgeable and probably a great advisor to Obama on a range of topics.

    If he had to step into the role of President, I think he would be a very competent President

  • Califlander on April 15, 2012 9:32 AM:

    Biden has to be included, or the article would fail to meet the "both sides do it" test.

  • SadOldVet on April 20, 2012 12:39 PM:

    By all means, include the former Senator from MasterCard.

    It is nebulous to predetermine who would make a good president. While we can judge that Quayle and the former half-term governor from Alaska likely would not; who is to say? Was LBJ selected because Kennedy thought he would be a good president after LBJ had him assassinated? Was LBJ a good president?

    For this discussion, it might be more appropriate to limit the discussion to Mittens RMoney and who would make a quality v.p. candidate to run with him. I would suggest that quality is even open to debate! Chris Christie has the qualities of being fat and abusive. Man-On-Dog Santorum has the qualities of being so catholic that he is perverted. Neutered Gingrich has the qualities of being a self centered money hungry @ss. But that is probably too much like Mitt to be viable. Mitten probably needs to go with Paul Ryan who has the quality of being a darling of the corporately owned media.