Veepstakes II

Of my last post, Isaac Chotiner writes:

I think the reason to pick Warner would in fact be that he would likely win Virginia. Sure, Lieberman or Cheney or Gore may have helped around the edges, but it's hard to believe any of them actually flipped electoral votes. Media narratives are important, but I just cannot believe any veep pick really matters at all, unless they can bring around a state (obviously if Kerry had landed McCain or some other wild scenario were to play out the vice presidential nominee would matter). I'd be happy if the Dems just went for a pick that guaranteed them Colorado or Arizona or Missouri or Iowa. It's hard to believe we can expect more from the #2 on the ticket.

There's no way to settle the question of how much media narratives are shaped by VP picks, obviously, but I think it's important to recognize that the last two elections - which came down to the need to flip a state here or there, usually by a percentage point or two - were relatively anomalous, and in most Presidential elections one of the candidates establishes a substantial lead over the course of the summer (or earlier) and then holds on through the fall. The size of the "bounce" that a candidate gets around his convention, in particular, usually tells you what his chances are in November: If you're trailing in the polls, summertime is your best chance to pull even (as Gore did in '00), and if you don't (as Bush didn't in '92, and Dole didn't in '96), the race is usually finished. Obviously, a Vice-Presidential pick is just one factor that determines the size of this "bounce," but it's a visible and much-discussed factor, and something that the media seizes on when they write the gauzy stories about "Tom Democrat: His American Journey" and "Is Mike Republican A New Kind of Conservative?" that usually fill the summertime lull before the conventions.

Clinton's pick of Gore, in particular, reinforced a steady shift in the press's coverage of his campaign, and the public's perception of him. Here's a July 1992 Pew analysis:

On the eve of the Democratic Convention, Governor Bill Clinton has taken a giant step toward improving his personal image. A Times Mirror poll conducted on Wednesday and Thursday evening of this week finds 59% of the voting age public having a favorable impression of the Democratic candidate VS. 34% unfavorable. This is a much improved evaluation over the 46% favorable, 47% unfavorable rating recorded for Clinton in Times Mirror's June survey. This is the first time since February that Clinton's negative rating has been below the forty percent level.

Now, the Gore pick came late in this bounce, and though voters reacted favorably to it - "Forty percent of the public thinks that Al Gore was an excellent or good choice for running mate," Pew reported, "while 22% judged him as only fair and 5% poor" - Clinton was rising before the choice was made. But I remember that campaign pretty well - it was the first one I followed in any detail - and there's no question in my mind that adding Gore to the mix, and creating the "Bill and Hillary, Al and Tipper" dynamic that carried through the convention and into the fall, made an enormous difference in sustaining the surge of favorable press that the Clinton campaign received, and with it the surge in public favorability.

Again, this sort of thing is nebulous and hard to quantify, and nobody knew before Clinton picked Gore that they'd have that great bus tour together, and become such "great friends," and so forth. Which is why it's always going to feel more hard-headed to take Isaac's approach, and assume that the veep pick doesn't matter unless "they can bring around a state." But I'm hard-pressed to think of a recent campaign when this worked: Edwards didn't get Kerry North Carolina; Jack Kemp certainly didn't get Bob Dole New York; Lloyd Bentsen didn't flip Texas to Dukakis, and so forth. Sure, Clinton won Gore's Tennessee, but he won it in the context of a larger sweep, which is what most winning Presidential campaigns are about - engineering a landslide, not counting electoral votes and hoping to squeeze into the White House. And so candidates looking for a running mate should be looking for someone who can help shape, or reinforce, a narrative that leads to a landslide, rather than someone who seems likely to make the ticket marginally more electable in a particular state or region.

The same goes for voters looking for a candidate, I think, but that's a topic for another day.