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In Search for Female Running Mate, a Shortlist for Romney

Correction Appended

I’m not going to waste my time, or yours, speculating about whether Condoleezza Rice might become Mitt Romney’s running mate when there is no credible reporting to that effect.

But it does seem as though the days when the four candidates on the major-party tickets are all men will be coming to an end, and soon. Sarah Palin gave women a shot at shattering the glass ceiling four years ago. If Mr. Romney wanted to pick a woman this year, whom might he choose?

Actually, Mr. Romney has a bit of a problem. The Republican women with the most traditional qualifications for the vice presidency tend to be moderates, especially on abortion choice, probably making them unacceptable to the Republican base. Another group of up-and-coming female governors and senators may not be adequately seasoned for the rigors of the campaign trail. The few exceptions are probably too old, or too controversial, to be smart choices with swing voters. It has nothing to do with their gender, but any of the women that Mr. Romney might choose would be at least a little risky.

Let’s start by drawing up a “long list” of potential candidates. The qualifications for this are pretty straightforward. You have to be a woman, and a Republican. And you have to have served as governor or U.S. senator in the past five years, or as an alternative, have run for president before.

There are 14 women that meet these criteria. However, all 14 fall into one or more of the problematic categories that I described before.

Potentially Unacceptable to Republican Base

Senator Susan Collins of Maine
Former Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut
Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas

The first five women on this list have generally supported abortion choice — some mostly so, and some more emphatically. That could make them unacceptable options to many Republican base voters, and to many of the delegates at the Republican National Convention, especially since Mr. Romney’s history of varied positions on abortion makes him somewhat wobbly on the issue. (Ms. Rice would also have problems along these lines; she has described herself as “mildly pro-choice.”)

Recall that four years ago, John McCain’s strategists concluded that picking Ms. Palin, while risky, was nevertheless less of a risk than picking a running mate like Tom Ridge who supported abortion rights. Mr. Romney, who has generally run a prudent and cautious campaign, is unlikely to break form.

Most of the women on this list, like Ms. Snowe, take moderate stances on a host of issues along with abortion. The closest thing to an exception is Ms. Hutchison, who takes a conservative view on most issues. Though opponents of Ms. Hutchison have pointed to ambiguous statements she has made that seemed to suggest she supported abortion rights in certain cases, her press secretary, Dean Pagani, said the senator “considers herself to be pro-life on abortion.” In any case, Ms. Hutchison did herself few favors with the Republican base by running to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s left in a primary challenge, and failing in that effort.

Potentially Unacceptable to Swing Voters

Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota
Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona
Former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska

Most vice presidential nominees, like the presidential nominees themselves, tend to be roughly in the middle of their parties rather than at one of the wings. While the selection of Ms. Palin or Mrs. Bachmann might excite the Republican base, they are deeply unpopular figures with independent voters and would represent a clumsy attempt by Mr. Romney to thread the needle.

Ms. Brewer is less well known as a national figure. But her very conservative stances on immigration would bring that issue to the fore, when Mr. Romney would presumably rather focus on the tepid economic recovery.

Would Be Oldest Vice President at Inauguration

Former Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina

Ms. Dole is the only name on this list, apart from Mrs. Bachmann, to have officially run for president before — although her candidacy, in 2000, was mostly a flop. Her strong personal qualities and long history of public service might nevertheless make her an interesting choice, but she would be 76 years old upon her inauguration next year.

That would make her the oldest vice president on inauguration by some margin; the current record-holder is Alben W. Barkley, who was sworn in at 71 in 1949. Since Mr. Romney, 65, is himself fairly old, and since the Constitutional function of the vice president is to be ready to step in if the president dies or resigns, that is probably disqualifying.

Limited National Exposure and Experience

Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire
Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma
Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina
Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico

All four of these women were elected to their current positions for the first time in the Republican wave year of 2010, and all come from small or medium-size states.

Some of them, particularly Ms. Ayotte and Ms. Martinez, have nevertheless drawn buzz as potential choices. But they would present several risks to Mr. Romney.

First, none of them has much of a national profile (although Ms. Ayotte has sometimes been a surrogate for Mr. Romney on the campaign trail). It is simply hard to predict how a candidate will fare when they receive massive national exposure for the first time. Consider how many candidates who, like Mr. Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr., had eminently strong credentials, but were soon exposed as weak campaigners. Vice presidential nominees, who are thrown into the news media spotlight with just a few months remaining until the election, have even less opportunity to learn on the job.

The best hedge is to pick someone who has actually run for president or vice president before: a description that fits only Ms. Palin, Mrs. Bachmann and Ms. Dole, all of whom are likely unacceptable for other reasons. Absent that, the closest approximation might be picking someone from a large state with competitive media markets and a diverse population, which better simulates the national environment than a state like New Hampshire might.

Or you might pick someone who had been in office for long enough to have built up some national name recognition, making them less of an unknown. Any of these women might meet that standard in four or eight years, but they do not right now.

Apart from the fact that an untested vice presidential nominee might be a mediocre campaigner, there is also some chance of a serious problem turning up in his or her background.
Vice presidential vetting processes have missed large problems in candidates including Spiro T. Agnew and Thomas Eagleton (and possibly John Edwards, depending on the timing of his marital improprieties). There is no reason to suspect women like Ms. Ayotte of any wrongdoing, but from an actuarial standpoint, these problems seem to occur more often with relatively inexperienced candidates.

Finally, even if these candidates proved to be adept campaigners and had few or no vetting problems, their relative lack of experience could itself be an issue to voters, as it was for Mrs. Palin.

Of course, if Mr. Romney feels as though he needs to pursue a high-risk strategy to win the White House, then he might be willing to take a chance on an inexperienced candidate, or one who might anger his base. Many of these women are bright, talented politicians who will be in the national spotlight for decades to come.

For the time being, however, Mr. Romney remains close to President Obama in the polls, and could easily win the election without circumstances changing much. And an unsuccessful vice presidential choice generally harms a candidate more than a good one can help. If he’s playing it safe, it will probably be another four years until the glass ceiling is broken.

Correction: A previous version of this post erroneously characterized Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas, as generally supportive of abortion rights.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.