Does the VP selection even matter?

With Washington awash in speculation about Mitt Romney’s running mate, it’s a perfect time to answer that most fundamental question of all — does the vice presidential pick actually matter?

The conventional wisdom is contradictory and seems to veer from news cycle to news cycle.

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On one hand, every pundit and “unnamed senior strategist” in Washington seems to have offered Romney advice. Go safe, one group says, and pick Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Go bold, the other side urges, and pick someone like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The assumption underlying the advice is that a vice presidential pick is an integral part of a candidate’s pitch — that it reflects the values of the presidential nominee and offers a preview of what his administration would look like.

On the other hand, there’s a group of scoffers who argue that the vice presidential pick doesn’t really matter in the final analysis, and that the frenzy over the decision is manufactured and owes as much to summer’s relative lull in news as to the first Tuesday in November.

So who’s right?

Well, over the past 30 years, it’s rare to find a time when a vice presidential pick actually made a difference — for either the good or the bad.

The ultimate suggestion that a running-mate decision might not matter at all came in 1988 when George H.W. Bush picked the young, gaffe-prone Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate, while Michael Dukakis tapped the experienced senior senator from Texas, Lloyd Bentsen.

By anyone’s standards, Bentsen crushed Quayle in the vice presidential debate and on the campaign trail, yet when the presidential election rolled around, it was Quayle’s ticket that won in a landslide, 426 electoral votes to 111. 

Thus, in 1988, it’s hard to say that Quayle hurt Bush, but it’s equally hard to say that he helped Bush in any meaningful way. That makes 1988 Exhibit A for the argument that picks for VP don’t really matter.

There are other examples of relative meaninglessness. 

In 1984, Walter Mondale nominated the first female vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, and promptly lost the female vote by 16 points on his way to losing 49 states. And in 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) earned praise for picking Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) to appeal to Southern voters. Only problem? Kerry ended up losing every state in the South, including North Carolina. 

Still, no one blamed either vice presidential nominee for the losses. Ultimately, 1984 was a referendum on President Reagan’s first term, and 2004 a referendum on President George W. Bush’s.   

Those examples would suggest that a vice presidential pick doesn’t matter all that much.

But the counterargument is a common one — that Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) much-criticized selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008 indicates that a vice presidential pick actually matters and can do harm. But there’s a problem with that argument — there’s simply no empirical evidence that Palin hurt McCain.

Directly before picking her, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed McCain trailing then-Sen. Barack Obama by 7 points. After picking her, McCain jumped to a 4-point lead — his biggest since January of that year — and it’s often noted that McCain only began to bleed badly after the fall financial crisis.

Those who suggest that a vice president can help in this modern era generally point to the 1992 and 2000 elections, and at last, there’s some empirical proof to back up the claim that a vice presidential candidate can matter.

In 1992, Bill Clinton tapped Tennessee Sen. Al Gore as his running mate. Gore and Clinton shared youth, geographic roots and a centrist Democratic ideology, and Gore helped reinforce Clinton’s message of change at a time when the electorate was pining for a shift in course. 

Clinton ultimately won the election, and Gore was credited with playing a significant role in that victory. In fact, CNN’s polling director, Keating Holland, estimates that Gore gave Clinton up to an 11-point bounce after he joined the ticket in July 1992. Clinton opened up a lead in what had been a very tight race and never trailed again.

In 2000, both presidential nominees seemed to help themselves with their vice presidential picks. 

As a Texas governor with no national political experience, George W. Bush was widely viewed as a foreign-policy lightweight compared with his rival, then-Vice President Gore. Most observers think that Bush picked Dick Cheney to address that perception. Cheney, after all, had served for four years as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of Defense and played a vital role in the success of 1990’s Desert Storm operation in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Gore selected Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman — a pick that seemed to give Gore a nice bounce. According to a USA Today/Gallup poll at the time, 60 percent of voters approved of the selection and Gore quickly cut Bush’s double-digit lead into single digits.

Critics raved about the selection. Not only did Lieberman appeal to the crucial Jewish vote in Florida, but he also had a strong reputation on moral values at a time when Gore was trying to distance himself from Clinton’s indiscretions. 

Both vice presidential candidates were widely viewed as helps, not hindrances, and polls seemed to confirm that.

So then, in the modern era, there have been clear cases of vice presidential picks not mattering — and also, mattering. 

But, interestingly enough, as of yet, there’s no evidence of a vice presidential pick actually hurting a presidential nominee over the past 30 years.