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The Myth of the High-Risk, High-Reward Veep

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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With both presidential candidates close to choosing their running mates, let’s challenge one common myth: the “high risk, high reward” theory. Here’s the Upshot’s Nate Cohn:

Nate Cohn @Nate_Cohn
When you're a huge underdog, a risky but high upside VP choice makes more sense
Twitter: Nate Cohn on Twitter


This may sound logical. But there’s one big problem. There is no such thing as a “high upside” vice-presidential candidate.

Yes, of course, running-mate choices are important, and not only because of the possibility that the president may not serve out his or her term. Beginning with Walter Mondale in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, vice presidents have been important players in their administrations. And the choice of a running mate can change a party’s future presidential contests. 

But little evidence suggests that running mates can have significant positive effects on their electoral ticket. At best, a good vice-presidential choice might be able to help just a bit in his or her home state, and some political scientists contest even that possibility. 

In fact, the possibility of a high-reward running mate doesn’t fit with everything else we know about general elections. The presidential candidates themselves just aren’t important in most elections. Instead, the party tends to drive votes, supplemented by “fundamentals” such as the state of the U.S. economy and war and peace. Everything else -- candidates, campaigns, policies -- is less important, at least normally.

There are exceptions. Dwight Eisenhower’s personal popularity almost certainly helped Republicans in 1952 and 1956. But it’s far less likely that anything like this is possible for the candidate in the second slot. If a terrific nominee in the top spot can only add a few percentage points, what can someone in the second slot realistically do? As Julia Azari and William Adler have explained, “Presidential elections are about presidents, not vice-presidents.”

The other half of the high-risk, high-reward equation is more realistic. There’s evidence that Sarah Palin cost John McCain some votes in 2008. The 1972 election also demonstrated that even a long-shot presidential candidate has something to lose if he chooses the wrong running mate. George McGovern did not select Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton for any high upside, but McGovern’s already-slim chances were surely hurt when he dismissed and replaced Eagleton soon after the Democratic convention.

This year, Republicans are in a position where their nominee’s running mate might be capable of helping more than usual, but not because of any potential direct effects on voters. Donald Trump’s big problem right now is that the party’s elites, who normally can be expected to support their nominee, do not like him or trust him. A mainstream running-mate selection -- someone such as Indiana Governor Mike Pence -- might help alleviate the situation by demonstrating that Trump might govern as a regular conservative Republican after all. Or at least it might reduce the fear that he’s actively hostile to mainstream conservative policies. 

But Trump’s special circumstances aside, the best advice for the veepstakes should always be Do No Harm. 

  1. Yes, Donald Trump is testing this with his personal unpopularity and his lack of a campaign. But in spite of all that, as of now he’s only five or six percentage points behind Hillary Clinton in polling averages.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

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