Veepstakes

Now that most of us, at least, are reasonably confident we know the identity of the Republican nominee for president, talk will naturally shift to the identity of Mitt Romney’s running-mate. For while there is little evidence that vice-presidential candidates have much of an impact on presidential voting decisions, the choice of a running-mate often does affect broader strategic issues such as intraparty unity, targeted voter appeals, and allocation of campaign resources. In the case of victory, of course, the Veep choice can affect future elections enormously. If a president dies or resigns, the effect can be more immediate, and once in a while (e.g., 2000) can elevate someone to Blair House who has a big impact on policies without becoming president.

What do we know at this early date about Romney’s Veep options? There are a few things:

1) He has to pick a “movement conservative.” Trust in Romney among conservative activists is undeniably low, and since the Veep choice would be the first of many decisions on which “the base” will judge his fidelity to The Cause, he can’t afford to run risks. He certainly won’t try, as John McCain initially did, to find a “game-changer” who violates important ideological litmus tests on issues like abortion or taxes–not that there are many Republicans left who are inclined to such heresies.

2) He cannot pick someone as rich as he is. With Romney’s wealth being an unavoidable issue in the general election, doubling down with a conspicuous moneybag would make life too easy for Democrats. Recall that Mitt himself was dropped from McCain’s Veep list for that very reason, after the senator forgot how many houses he owned.

3) He can’t pick someone obviously unqualified to serve as president. Experts still differ on the net effect of Sarah Palin in 2008. But her lack of basic qualifications–subsequently so richly verified–didn’t help. First-term governors without any other statewide or congressional public experience are probably out; at TNR. Eliza Gray argues that “the curse of Palin” probably rules out the otherwise decent case for NM Gov. Susana Martinez.

4) He needs to reach out to a swing voter category. Although some Republicans persist in thinking the general election will be a cakewalk, that’s not the prevailing view. The rightward lurch of the GOP since 2008, even with a perceived “moderate” like Romney as its nominee, will be the central subtext of the Obama campaign in its effort to make the election a choice between two futures rather than a backward-looking referendum on the last four years. A Hispanic candidate would be ideal, since this is a group expressing a lot of ambivalence towards Obama, but also a lot of potential hostility to Romney given his recent positions on immigration. The obvious choice is Marco Rubio, though as Jonathan Cohn has persuasively argued, Rubio has little demonstrated appeal to Hispanics beyond his own Cuban-American community, which has never been much in sync with other Hispanic groups. Martinez is another obvious option, but again, she’s got the “Sarah Palin problem.” An alternative route would be to choose an Anglo candidate with indirect appeal to some Hispanics, such as a Catholic, particularly since white Catholics are something of a swing demographic as well.

5) He might want to tilt the playing field in an important battleground state. For all the talk about this factor every four years, truth is it is rarely decisive. Here is a list of the home states of every Veep nominee in the last nine presidential elections: Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming. With the arguable exception of Tennessee in 1992 and perhaps Texas in 1980, none of these were true battleground states. Certainly if Mitt decides Rubio is the answer to his Hispanic problem, it will be helpful that he is from a very large and important battleground state. But you’d want to see the polling as to whether it really mattered.

6) Media impact. The idea that any particular choice will be a “game-changer” is overrated, and usually the sign of a campaign in deep trouble (e.g., McCain 2008, Mondale 1984) that simply needs attention. And with a candidate as essentially colorless as Romney, there would be great reason to fear that any running-mate dramatic enough to draw a lot of attention would also overshadow the Boss and spawn “right ticket, wrong order” stories.

7) Personal comfort level: This could actually be an underrated factor, especially for a guy like Romney who seems to have, well, issues connecting with other people, and a low opinion of his fellow-politicians.

These are just some initial thoughts on a subject that will be endlessly litigated over the next few months. About the only thing we know for sure is that there will be no Romney-Huntsman ticket, much as “genius strategist” John Weaver will try to construct an argument for it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.