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Can a VP Nominee “Win” a State?

As a prelude to some work Nate is doing on VP picks, one of the common conventional wisdom canards on presidential elections is that the presidential nominee can – and maybe should – pick a vice-presidential candidate who adds a particular state into the win column in the fall. For example, Monday afternoon on the MSNBC show assigned to David Gregory, an inane conversation took place about the notion that Rudy Giuliani could bring New Jersey into play if he were McCain’s VP nominee. This highly questionable theory about just what electoral gain a VP can contribute deserves closer inspection.

Consider the rationales offered for many potential choices even now: Ted Strickland for Obama or Rob Portman for McCain because they bring Ohio, one of the Virginia options for Obama because they bring Virginia, or Tim Pawlenty for McCain because he “puts Minnesota in play.” Further examples are numerous. Bill Richardson supposedly brings New Mexico and the Southwest in general; other candidates are considered to have a strike against them if they do not bring an obvious electoral benefit.

The emphasis placed on such a strategic pick is born of two consecutive nailbiter elections, where the flip of one battleground state has determined the winner. Although it’s somewhat understandable that this conventional wisdom has emerged, the evidence demonstrates it’s hypothetically sketchy at best.

In looking at the vice-presidential selections of the past five decades or so since television has expanded the regionality of presidential elections, it’s clear that, in reality, both major parties rarely have nominated VP candidates as a strategic electoral vote collector, and to the extent they have set about deliberately trying to add a state with a VP pick it has almost never worked.

Taking a look at the Republicans and working backward, Wyoming (Cheney) was always in the Republican column except for Johnson’s ’64 landslide; New York (Kemp) had been reliably blue since the 60s with the exception of the Nixon and Reagan landslide years; Indiana (Quayle) and Kansas (Dole) had been reliably red since FDR except for ’64. Even Spiro Agnew, when he was added to Nixon’s ticket in 1968, could not bring Maryland into the Republican column until 1972 as the incumbent in a national landslide. Republican VP picks in 1964 (Miller, New York) and 1960 (Cabot Lodge, Massachusetts) failed to bring those states into the fold, and it’s hard to think Republicans chose Cabot Lodge strategically in a year where the Democratic presidential nominee was from the same state.

You could argue that selecting George Bush in 1980 was a strategic pick to gather Texas, a state that had voted Democratic essentially since the Civil War except for Eisenhower’s two terms and Nixon’s ’72 landslide. But given the larger macro forces at work in Texas, a state that voted Democratic for most of the previous 100 years and then hasn’t been competitive for Dems since 1976, it’s hard to chalk that shift up to the popularity of George Bush or appreciation to Republicans for putting him on the ticket. Put another way, it would be like Obama choosing Sebelius of Kansas and then Republicans not being competitive there for the next three decades and counting.

For Republicans, one really has to go back to Richard Nixon of California where a state flipped from Democratic (5 straight elections) to Republican. Even then, the popularity of FDR and Eisenhower were far bigger macro forces than the drawing power of a young Richard Nixon.

For Democrats, John Edwards obviously did not make a competitive state out of North Carolina, whose only post-Southern Strategy flip back into the Democratic column was Carter’s 1976 win. In 2000, Democrats won Connecticut for the third consecutive presidential year as part of a larger solidification of the northeast.

Although Dems won Tennessee in 1992 and 1996 with native son Al Gore on the ticket, bringing the state back into the Democratic column for the first time since Carter’s lone post-Civil Rights Act 1976 win, the fact that as the headliner Al Gore couldn’t win his own state in 2000 indicates that Bill Clinton had more to do with winning Tennessee in the 90s than did the VP choice. Similarly, the choice of Estes Kefauver in 1956 did not win Tennessee for Dems at a time when 1952’s loss of the state was an anomaly from the previous couple decades.

Lloyd Bentsen could not bring Texas back for the Democrats, the racist Geraldine Ferraro could not hold New York in the 1984 landslide, and Sargent Shriver in 1972 could not keep Maryland’s three previous Democratic preferences going strong.

The best Democratic examples of a VP helping with a state are Walter Mondale in 1976 and 1980, Edmund Muskie in 1968 and Lyndon Johnson in 1960. Muskie is perhaps the best example, simply because with the exception of 1964’s landslide, Maine hadn’t strayed from the Republican column since Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and then promptly went back into the red column afterward. Lyndon Johnson undoubtedly helped the Catholic Kennedy in Texas, but Texas at that time was reliably Democratic anyway. And Walter Mondale certainly helped the Baptist Southerner Carter in 1976 and 1980, but Minnesota had been a reliably Democratic state since FDR, with the exception of Eisenhower’s two elections and the ’72 landslide.

In order for a vice-presidential candidate’s home state to be a strategic addition, it would have to be true that but for the selection, that party’s ticket would not have carried the state. And you really have to think about how this would come about. Which voters would vote for one ticket who would ordinarily vote for the other ticket or stay home? This extra margin could be a function of extra in-state voter organization and/or extra enthusiasm that makes the difference in a razor-thin race. Such hypothetical voters have to be politically plugged in enough that they know they definitely like the VP nominee, but undecided enough about the two major presidential choices that it’s the VP who closes the deal. Not only does it seem a little far-fetched that such voters would be around in any meaningful numbers to tilt an important electoral battleground one direction or another, but it seems especially far-fetched in a macro contrast election year such as this one.

My pet theory that spins off this VP-electoral vote argument, untested and probably untestable, is that such voters are more likely to exist in small, typically ignored states with 3-5 EVs. For example, the pride for North Dakotans of having one of their own in such a high profile role. Or Hawaiians. Even that might not be enough, but it’s more in alignment with intuition about history-making candidacies capturing the imagination of voters who might otherwise have stayed home or gone the other way. This theory certainly dovetails with the best example in the last 5 decades: Edmund Muskie of small-state Maine.