It says here that Rob Portman is all in.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Who Wants to be Veep in 2016?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Is Senator Rob Portman running for vice president?

That’s what Politico claimed yesterday. The presidential prospects of the Ohio Republican are dim, yet he has (supposedly) emerged as an early veepstakes favorite.

The punditry about who will be chosen for the second slot on a 2016 ticket is way beyond premature at this point, but this raises a reasonable question: If a politician wants to be vice president, is it smart to run for president?

It turns out it isn't a bad idea at all, and it probably doesn’t have to progress far for it to be an asset. Counting 1976 as the beginning of the modern era for choosing vice presidents,  we can divide presidential campaign experience into five categories:

  • Two VP picks had been runners-up for the presidential nomination.
  • Two had progressed past New Hampshire and Iowa but never seriously threatened to win.
  • One had dropped out after Iowa and New Hampshire.
  • Three ran proto-candidacies but dropped out long before the Iowa caucuses.
  • Six had never run for president when they were asked to join the ticket.

Before you stop me on the last fact, remember, there's a funnel here: Far more politicians have never run for president than have been runners-up for nominations. So, yes, six out of 14 had lightning strike despite having never sought national office, but that’s out of hundreds of eligible people, while two (George H.W. Bush and John Edwards) out of only a handful of runners-up over the years were able to get the prize.   

Then again, veepstakes is going to be a minor consideration for anyone with a strong chance of getting nominated. What is intriguing about the results is that three early dropouts -- Walter Mondale, Lloyd Bentsen and Dick Cheney -- wound up as vice-presidential selections. In the latter two cases, it took a while: Bentsen’s presidential campaign was in 1976 (and the vice-presidential nod didn't come until 1988), and Cheney’s flirtation with one was in 1996. It’s notable, too, that Joe Biden flamed out in 1988 and failed in Iowa in 2008 before getting the call.

There's no way to know if those semi-candidacies and flops help secure future spots on national tickets. Mondale and Cheney had national profiles before their aborted presidential runs. And causation could be the other way around: The same things that made them good VP candidates also made them newsworthy enough that their musings about the presidency easily advanced to the Thinking About Running stage.

Still, I suspect Portman has advanced his chances of reaching No. 2 by the things he’s been doing to achieve No. 1. And given that the costs of floating one’s name early aren’t onerous, it isn't a bad strategic move.

This ignores the question of whether the “prize” is one a sane politician should want in the first place. But for those who want to be vice president, it may be possible to upgrade their chances, at least a little, by building and then dismantling a quickie presidential effort.

  1. Why 1976? One effect of presidential-nomination reforms was to transform conventions from deliberative bodies to tools of the nominee. Before 1972, the second slot was often part of the bargaining over the nomination and therefore not a choice of the nominee. And then the disastrous 1972 choices, Tom Eagleton and Spiro Agnew, meant much higher scrutiny for vice-presidential selections.

  2. Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas didn’t drop out in 1976, but he counts in this category because he scaled back from a national to a regional favorite-son campaign before losing in early states.

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