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.
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.