Based on past history, who Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton select as their running mate may help us predict who will win the presidential election in November. While, as I have noted in past posts, the sample size of presidential elections is small (making it difficult for the past to be predictive of the future) there are some interesting facts that may be more than coincidence. (To place this in context, the winning tickets are listed in parentheses)).
More often than not, for example, the more experienced vice presidential running mates are on the winning tickets. Those vice presidential nominees with less experience are on the losing side. That has seldom been more evident than in the disparity in 2008 between Joe Biden, who had served in the U.S. Senate for 36 years when Barack Obama tapped him as his running mate, and Sarah Palin who had been governor of Alaska less than two years.
One explanation is that losing campaigns often look like losing campaigns well before the election. This has two effects: it discourages some of the best possible vice presidential candidates from offering their names for consideration, believing a loss will tarnish their reputation, and it also often convinces the losing presidential nominee to go for a “hail Mary” to shake up the race. That was clearly why John McCain selected Palin. But this almost never works. In other landslide losses in presidential history, the vice presidential candidates were also obscure.
In 1984, Mondale carried just one state; his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, had served just six years in the U.S. House (Reagan/Bush), In 1972, after many credible candidates turned him down, George McGovern, who also carried only one state, chose Thomas Eagleton who had only been in the Senate four years. When Eagleton was forced off the ticket when it was revealed he had undergone electro-shock therapy for depression, McGovern turned to Sargent Shriver, who had never held elective office but led the Peace Corps (Nixon/Agnew).
Barry Goldwater also lost in a landslide in 1964. His running mate, New York Congressman Bill Miller had served 14 years in the House, but he was not well-known outside his district. Goldwater later admitted he chose Miller primarily because he believed Miller “drove (Lyndon) Johnson nuts.” (Johnson/Humphrey)
It does seem an axiom that those vice presidential candidates whose tenure was exclusively or primarily in the U.S. House — such as Miller, but also including Ferraro, Paul Ryan, Jack Kemp, and John Sparkman — are usually on the losing side. The last exception was John Nance Garner, who was FDR’s running mate in 1932 after serving 30 years in the House.
There are other examples. In 1936, Alf Landon — who won two states — selected newspaper publisher Frank Knox as his running mate (Roosevelt/Garner); Knox had never held elected office. In 1920, James Cox selected a man whose highest post had been assistant secretary of the Navy, but even his magic last name did not give Franklin Roosevelt the cache to help Cox avoid a catastrophic defeat (harding/Coolidge). The same occurred in 1924 when Charles Bryan, brother of William Jennings Bryan, was added to the ticket despite having served only two years as governor of Nebraska and two years as mayor of Lincoln. In a three-way race that year, Bryan and the Democratic presidential nominee John Davis failed to get even 30 percent of the popular vote (Coolidge/Dawes).
This suggests another truth, that those who do not currently hold elective office when nominated — Kemp, Shriver, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Knox, also tend to be on losing tickets.
Youth — separate from experience — seems to bother voters less than inexperience. Paul Ryan was 41 and FDR was 38 on losing tickets; Richard Nixon was 39 and Dan Quayle was 41 on winning tickets.
Despite his youth, Nixon did not have appreciably less experience than his counterpart in 1952, Adlai Stevenson running mate Alabama Senator John Sparkman. Nixon had only served four years in the Senate and two in the House, but Sparkman had been a senator only two years after ten in the House (Eisenhower/Nixon).
Baby-faced Quayle might certainly have seemed junior to Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who had 18 years experience in the Senate when tapped to be Michael Dukakis’s running mate, but Quayle had served eight years in the Senate and four in the House.
Of course, there are exceptions to the idea that a more experienced vice presidential running mate portends victory. Ed Muskie, who had been a senator for ten years and was formerly governor of Maine, had more experience than Spiro Agnew in 1968 when Agnew had been governor of Maryland for just two years after being a county executive for four, but generally it can be said that when there is a clear advantage in electoral experience held by the vice presidential nominee, that nominee is likely to be on the winning ticket, while those races where there is relatively equal experience between the two vice presidential nominees there will be a relatively close race.
This general rule suggests three things. First, perhaps voters pay more attention to vice presidential running mates than we think they do and they reward the selection of experience, knowing that fourteen vice presidents have become president — eight because the president they served died in office.
Second, not only does who is nominated to be vice president say something about the presidential nominee’s judgment, it also says something about the state of their campaign. High risk choices suggest a campaign at risk.
Third, high risks almost never pan out.
With history as a guide, I will predict that the winning ticket will have as its vice presidential nominee someone who currently holds elective office, who has at least a decade of experience in elected office, who has earned more of that experience as a senator or governor than as a congressman, cabinet secretary or some other post. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to sort out who that leaves as the best choice from both Clinton and Trump to make in the next few weeks.