We’ve known for quite some time the identities of the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees. What we don’t know is whom Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will pick as their running mates.
But ultimately, how much does it matter? The selection of Geraldine Ferraro by the Democrats in 1984 was seen as one of the most exciting political moments ever, but the Mondale-Ferraro ticket carried just one state and the District of Columbia that November. When Republican Dan Quayle was picked four years later, the choice was widely mocked and ridiculed. Yet when all was said and done, the Bush-Quayle ticket carried 40 out of 50 states.
That’s not to say that the VP pick is inconsequential. True, it’s hard to imagine anyone paying attention to the person who becomes Trump’s number two; The Donald just sucks up all the oxygen wherever he appears. (Though it would be fun to see a Trump-Newt Gingrich ticket, and its combined six current and former wives). But a lot may be riding on Clinton’s choice. Does she hope to win a state with her pick? Send a signal to Bernie Sanders supporters? Make history by choosing another woman? We’re days away from finding out.
While we wait, I’d thought I’d take a trip back in history and list the five best – and five worst – vice-presidential selections since 1960. Let’s see if you agree.
THE FIVE BEST
(1) Lyndon Johnson (Democrat, 1960) — If there’s one running mate that may have swung the election, it’s probably Johnson. His selection arguably gave John F. Kennedy Texas, much of the South, and ultimately the White House.
(2) Tied for second: Dick Cheney (Republican, 2000) and Joe Biden (Democrat, 2008) — Both gave the top of the ticket exactly what they needed: gravitas and experience. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama had foreign policy chops or allies in Washington. Cheney and Biden supplied both.
(4) George Bush (Republican, 1980) – Ronald Reagan was portrayed by the Democrats that year as a right-wing extremist. By choosing Bush, Reagan showed his pragmatic side and silenced the doubters. The move united the party and the ticket swept to a landslide victory in November.
(5) Al Gore (Democrat, 1992) – This selection seemed to violate every bit of conventional wisdom. Rather than seek any kind of geographical, ideological or demographic balance, Bill Clinton instead chose someone very similar to himself. There were differences, of course; while Clinton had the reputation of being a draft-dodging womanizer, Gore served in Vietnam, and his wife Tipper was a strong promoter of “family values.”
THE FIVE WORST
(1) Spiro Agnew (Republican, 1968) – In fairness, this selection was done at a time when vetting potential VP picks was unheard of. But had anyone done even a cursory investigation of Agnew, the governor of Maryland, they would have learned he spent years steeped in corruption, taking bribes. Richard Nixon clearly liked Agnew’s red-meat rhetoric, which served him well … until his past caught up with him and he was forced to resign.
(2) Sarah Palin (Republican, 2008) – With outgoing President Bush unpopular and the Republican brand in trouble, John McCain needed to shake up the election. At the time of her selection, Palin was a highly popular governor with a reputation of taking on corruption and politics-as-usual in Alaska. It wasn’t until some ill-fated interviews with the national media – notably Katie Couric – that the Republicans realized they had a nominee who was in way over her head.
(3) William Miller (Republican, 1964) – In fairness, no number two would have been able to help Barry Goldwater defeat President Lyndon Johnson. But when asked why he picked Miller, a congressman from western New York, Goldwater said, “He drove LBJ nuts.” That’s one way to pick a running mate.
(4) Thomas Eagleton (Democrat, 1972) – As with Goldwater, no running mate was going to help George McGovern defeat President Nixon that year. But the process by which he selected Eagleton – after so many other Dems said no – was an embarrassment. And it didn’t help that within days of naming Eagleton to the ticket, McGovern learned that the Missouri senator was treated with electro-shock therapy for depression. Eagleton was forced off the ticket after just 18 days.
(5) Bob Dole (Republican, 1976) – President Gerald Ford needed a take-no-prisoners right-winger who would appeal to supporters of Ronald Reagan, who had lost out to Ford for the nomination. But Dole was widely perceived as little more than a hatchet man, and his performance in the VP debate with Walter Mondale – when he labeled the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam as “Democrat wars” – was seen as a disaster.
(NOTE: An edited version of this appeared in USA Today on 7/11/16.)