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Hillary Clinton Picks Tim Kaine, Betting She Can Beat Trump Without A Splashy VP

Hillary Clinton chose Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia as her running mate on Friday, making a prototypical Clinton decision that adds a safe politician to her ticket. Kaine might provide a marginal electoral benefit in his home state, but in choosing him, Clinton is making the bet that she doesn’t need a splashy running mate to beat Donald Trump.

Kaine has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the ticket for months. Of course, there’s usually a reason why someone is consistently on a short list: He or she makes sense as a vice presidential pick. Kaine speaks Spanish, so he can comfortably represent the ticket on Hispanic media, acting as a counter to a Republican ticket that is seen as hostile to Spanish speakers. At the same time, he grew up in the Midwest, he’s Catholic, he’s white and he’s a man — the Clinton campaign may have been worried about voters resistant to a ticket with two women, or a woman and a Latino or African-American.

Plus, Kaine has been through the wringer before and isn’t likely to make a fool of himself. He has won two major statewide elections in Virginia (first for governor and then for senator) and was reportedly a finalist to be Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008. That’s helpful in avoiding the situation John McCain found himself in that year, when he selected then-Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, an unvetted politician who may have hurt McCain’s chances. The first rule of picking a VP is “do no harm,” and Kaine is likelier than most to pass that test.

The one positive way vice presidential picks can matter is by providing a boost to the presidential candidate in the running mate’s home state. While there’s some debate over how big that bounce can be, it’s probably, on average, a little more than 2 percentage points. You can see this in the chart below, which shows how the home state of the vice presidential nominees voted versus the nation as a whole in elections since 1920 before and after they were on the ticket.

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Notice too that the bounce has apparently grown in recent years. The vice presidential nominee’s home state has given a boost to the presidential nominee in every election since 2000. The only candidate whose home state didn’t help the ticket since 1984 was Jack Kemp of New York, and, unlike Kaine, he was never elected to a statewide office. Palin, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan all saw their party’s presidential nominee do better in their state by more than 3.5 percentage points compared to what we’d expect based on recent elections.

If Kaine provides only the average vice presidential lift in Virginia, it could still make a pretty big difference. It increases Clinton’s chances of winning the election by 0.7 percentage points, according to my colleague Nate Silver. In a game of inches, 0.7 percentage points matters.

Ideologically, Kaine probably won’t be polarizing to most Americans. He can best be described as a middle-of-the-road Democrat. We can see this through the same three measures that I used last week to rate Mike Pence’s ideology: DW-Nominate common-space scores (which are based on a candidate’s voting record in Congress), fundraising ratings (based on who donates to a candidate) and OnTheIssues scores (based on public statements made by the candidate). Kaine scores an average of -37 (-100 is the most liberal, and 100 is the most conservative).

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The average Democratic vice presidential nominee since 1976 scores a -33 and the median scored a -38. Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that Clinton, who is running as the heir to Obama, selected a vice-president whose ideology is very close to that of Biden. (Biden’s average across the three metrics is a -38.)

The risk in Kaine is that he doesn’t excite the base. Clinton still has some problems with former Bernie Sanders supporters, and Kaine probably isn’t going to make them go gaga, unlike Elizabeth Warren, who averages a -67. Kaine is actually closer to the middle than Clinton is. He’s already getting hit from the left for his vote to fast-track approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Indeed, Kaine is unlikely to excite anyone at this point because he isn’t well-known. Just 40 percent of Americans can form an opinion of him in an average of recent Marist College and YouGov surveys. That puts him close to the average of previous vice presidential picks.

OPINION OF CANDIDATE
YEAR PARTY VP CANDIDATE FAVORABLE UNFAVORABLE NET FAV. HAVE AN OPINION
1976 D Walter Mondale 14% 6% 8 20%
1980 R George H.W. Bush 25 23 2 48
1984 D Geraldine Ferraro 5 2 3 7
1988 D Lloyd Bentsen 16 6 10 22
1988 R Dan Quayle 24 18 6 42
1992 D Al Gore 29 9 20 38
1996 R Jack Kemp 33 14 19 47
2000 D Joe Lieberman 33 6 27 39
2000 R Dick Cheney 29 10 19 39
2004 D John Edwards 26 11 15 37
2008 D Joe Biden 27 22 5 49
2008 R Sarah Palin* 22 9 13 31
2012 R Paul Ryan* 25 25 0 49
2016 R Mike Pence* 9 15 -6 23
2016 D Tim Kaine* 18 22 -4 40
Tim Kaine is marginally better known and liked than Mike Pence

*Averaged from two polls. All percentages are from polls from around the time each VP was selected and are rounded to the nearest whole number.

Kaine also isn’t overwhelmingly adored by those who are familiar with him. Kaine’s lack of current popularity could backfire, especially if there is a liberal revolt.

Chances are, though, that with an ideological record similar to past Democratic running mates, Kaine isn’t going to elicit major blowback from voters. There was that danger with Pence, whose risk was somewhat higher because he is far more conservative than previous Republican vice presidential selections.

Overall, Clinton seems to think she’s going to win this election without a Hail Mary pick. Even if Sanders voters don’t love her, Clinton currently has a better chance to win the election than Trump does. Trump stuck to the playbook he used during the primaries at the Republican National Convention, leaving the middle of the ideological spectrum open for Clinton. Kaine doesn’t interrupt her movement to the middle, and he probably gives her a better chance of winning the election in a tangible way by helping out in Virginia.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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