The Year the Veepstakes Really Mattered
It’s the topic that will dominate the next three weeks of political coverage—and if history is any guide, it may not matter much at all. “It” is the veepstakes, when the presidential nominees announce their running mates.
At noon on January 20, 2017, the winner of November’s presidential election will be sworn in. On that day, Donald Trump would, at age 70, become the oldest president at inauguration in American history; Hillary Clinton, who turns 69 just weeks before the election, would be the second oldest, behind only Ronald Reagan. This time, it’s easy to imagine that the choice of presidential running mate could really matter.
But for all the feverish pre-choice speculation and post-choice analysis, there’s a good case to be made that the vice-presidential nominee makes a marginal difference at best. Earlier this year, two academics argued in this space that the running mate almost never delivers his or her home state. The strength other picks may have had—Al Gore underscoring Bill Clinton’s “future vs. past” theme in 1992, Dick Cheney’s “gravitas” for George W. Bush in 2000—is best confined to the “who knows?” realm (it’s difficult to argue a counterfactual).
It’s even hard to argue that the less auspicious choices had any real impact: Spiro Agnew’s foot-in-mouth disease, Dan Quayle’s deer-in-the-headlights vacuity, the sketchy business dealings of Geraldine Ferraro’s husband, and Sarah Palin’s cognitive challenges were footnotes at most—none of them ultimately helped to decide the election. Even the most disastrous VP choice—George McGovern’s pick of Senator Thomas Eagleton, who had to be jettisoned off the ticket after his mental health history was revealed—didn’t mean much in the context of Richard Nixon’s 49-state landslide in 1972.
There is, however, one choice of a running mate that very likely changed the course of history—one where any choice among three strong contenders would have led to three radically different trajectories for the nation.
If you’re looking for the single most consequential vice-presidential choice in modern times—one that perhaps justifies our quadrennial obsessing over the veepstakes—look back to the Democratic convention of 1944. ...