John Adams—the United States’ first vice president—called his role as second-in-command to President George Washington “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived.” One of his successors, Vice President “Cactus Jack” Nance Garner, who served under President Franklin Roosevelt, had a bit of a different take. Having been elected to the vice presidency after serving as Speaker of the House, Nance later fumed he, “should have stuck my old chores as Speaker of the House. I gave up the second most important job in the government for one that didn’t amount to a hill of beans.”
Regardless of one’s view of the office itself, today one of Americans’ favorite parlor games is guessing every four years who will be chosen to stand at a nominee’s side. And this game is now in full swing. In the last week, several major news organizations, including CNN and The New York Times, have published “shortlists” naming the individuals Joe Biden is considering for the vice presidency.
The rosters include former 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Biden—a former vice president himself—also is considering Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and former United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, both of whom have national security experience. U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and Atlanta, Ga. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are on the shortlist too since, as The Times explains, “they have played crucial roles in [the] cascading civil rights crisis” that is gripping the United States today.
Which brings us to our first question: what factors go into choosing a vice president?
As the interest in Rep. Demings and Mayor Bottoms indicates, policy expertise certainly is a factor. According to Atlantic Senior Editor Nora Kelly Lee, Biden’s own foreign policy expertise was a key factor in President Barack Obama’s decision to choose Biden as a running mate in 2008. (A U.S. senator for less than one term, and a state legislator before that, Barack Obama came to the campaign with little national security experience.) Former President George W. Bush’s choice of Dick Cheney in 2000 also helped alleviate concerns about Bush’s perceived inexperience. (Cheney was a former congressman, U.S. secretary of defense, and White House chief of staff.)
The ability to “sell” a policy platform to legislators, the public, and other stakeholders is another determining factor. That’s because, as executive coach and leadership educator John Baldoni pointed out in the Harvard Business Review in 2008, “The vice president may lead some initiatives but [is] more often champion [of] the president’s initiatives to the people” and works with Congress “to get them carried out.”
Next, there are the political factors. According to GOP strategist John Feehery, Dwight Eisenhower did not personally like his 1952 running mate Richard Nixon, “but put him on the ticket to shore up his conservative base.” Eisenhower’s dislike of Nixon was so strong that “on several occasions, Ike considered kicking him out as his vice-presidential candidate.” The dislike and resulting vulnerability led Nixon “to give a national address citing his dog Checkers in a bid to save his place on the ticket.”
Additionally, under a system in which one state could determine the outcome of the Electoral College vote, a potential running mate’s home state also could be a factor. In 2016, the Bipartisan Policy Center assembled a group of prominent Republicans and Democratic strategists to give the parties’ nominees advice about whom to pick as a running mate. In a paper published in April 2016, this group said, “Of course, politics will play a role in the selection. The vice-presidential nominee may provide some electoral benefit in a particular state or with an important constituency.” Elected officials from swing states with high name recognition and favorability ratings therefore are often very appealing in the veepstakes.
Finally, there is the relationship that exists between the nominee and the potential running mate.
As the BPC recalled in its study, Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager in 2012, said Romney and his vice-presidential selection, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), worked very well together on the campaign trail. Rhoades said the two “hit it off, and there was an immediate chemistry. The advance guys would call me, and they would be like, ‘Oh, he’s our favorite surrogate, you guys. You’ve got to see these guys together.’ It just worked. They both liked big ideas. They both liked talking about substantive issues. They both believed the country was in trouble and that they needed to do big things to fix it.” (For his part, Romney said he focused his search for a vice president on finding someone who could do the job of the president if something were to happen to him.)
That’s what goes into the choice. But what can these individuals expect if they are chosen—and if their ticket wins in November?
The answer: a lot more than John Adams did. As the Smithsonian Magazine explained in 2014, America’s founders saw the vice presidency “as a backstop measure … a kind of president-in-waiting.” The vice president, of course, is given only two official duties under the Constitution: to break tie votes in the Senate, and to replace the president if he or she dies, is removed from office, or resigns.
According to scholar Jules Witcover, who wrote a book on the vice presidency that was published in 2014, things started to change about a half-century later. Witcover explained that in 1832, President Andrew Jackson “personally chose his chief political strategist, Martin Van Buren, as his vice president and relied heavily on his counsel.” The second-in-command finally had sway! And in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln made the personal choice “to drop Hannibal Hamlin, his first-term vice president, in favor of Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat, to strengthen his chances of reelection.”
A century later, because of the importance of the vice president within the administration and on the ticket, investigating a potential nominee’s background was serious business.
As Smithsonian Magazine recalls, in 1972, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate. Sadly, after it was discovered that Eagleton had a “history of medical illness,” he “was dropped from the ticket.” According to Smithsonian, “Four years later, Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter, not wanting a repetition, had all prospective vice-presidential nominees more thoroughly interrogated and he interviewed six or seven himself, choosing Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota for his experience in the Senate and for their compatibility.” As the magazine notes, “The pattern was followed notably by President Bill Clinton with Al Gore, George W. Bush with Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama with Joe Biden.”
That does not mean choices since the early 1970s always have worked out to the nominee’s benefit. In fact, according to Witcover, some of the worst vice presidential picks have been made since then. President George H.W. Bush’s choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 and the late Sen. John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008 were two of the worst, according to the scholar. Witcover said both lacked sophistication and a real record on which to run, which hurt the ticket at the polls during election season.
But the absolute worst? Witcover believes that title goes to Richard Nixon’s choice of Spiro Agnew. Agnew eventually was investigated by the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland on suspicion of criminal conspiracy, bribery, extortion and tax fraud, and was forced to resign from office in order to escape jail.
Witcover interviewed several vice presidents for his book. Former Vice President Biden told him, “The way the world has changed, the breadth and the scope of the responsibility” an American president has “virtually requires a vice president to handle serious assignments.”
The American people seem to agree.
John Adams might have lamented the role the vice president plays in American policy and politics, but Americans have strong views about the individual who should occupy this spot.
The winning characteristic?
Experience. As The Wall Street Journal explained last week, “Over the past five elections, polls show voters consistently prefer experience in a running mate” and someone who could take over “should the unthinkable happen.”