I asked NAPP readers who, from a list of nine possible choices, would be the best choice for John McCain to make as his running mate. Eight of the nine were Republicans (obviously any such list will consist of all Republicans or at least people acceptable to Republicans).
Seems to me that the #1 priority in picking a running mate is finding someone who won’t hurt the ticket’s chances of being elected. First, do no harm. The first thing that voters think about with respect to the running mate is, “What if something bad happens and this guy has to take over?” If you’ve got Dan Quayle, then you aren’t going to inspire a lot of confidence that this is the guy who’ll be ready to pick up the reins. So you can’t have a Dan Quayle.
After that, then there’s a bunch of other ways you can go. Traditionally, the running mate is supposed to be able to carry a swing state — for instance, John Edwards was supposed to carry North Carolina for John Kerry in 2004 (he failed). Alternatively, the running mate is supposed to buttress the ticket’s appeal to a particular segment of the electorate — as Al Gore did for Bill Clinton in 1992, raising the appeal of the Democrats to southern male voters (this seemed to work). Finally, the running mate can make up for an area in which a candidate is seen to suffer from a policy weakness — the way that George H.W. Bush brought foreign policy gravitas to the Reagan ticket in 1980.
The choices I put to the Readers were as follows:
- Charlie Crist, the Governor of Florida. Crist, I figured, is somewhat younger than McCain, and could help deliver a critical state to McCain’s column because he is reasonably popular. Gov. Crist got four votes. This seems like a solid play — as far as I can tell, Crist is minimally acceptable to social conservatives, and the electoral strategy of locking up Florida is of obvious importance. I don’t know quiet enough yet about Crist to know whether I’d be pleased with having him step in should something happen to President McCain.
- Tim Pawlenty, the Governor of Minnesota. Pawlenty’s attractions include his youth and relative moderation as a Republican governor of a liberal-leaning state. He’s photogenic and the Republicans have targetted Minnesota as a swing state that they could take (which is why the convention is there). Nevertheless, Pawlenty got only one vote. His support in Minnesota is seen to be soft, which may explain the lack of enthusiasm for him.
- Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas. Perry was George W. Bush’s successor to tho Governor’s office and had been W’s Lieutenant Governor upon the President’s assumption of office. He would be more palatable to conservatives than some other choices. Perry got one vote from NAPP readers. Perhaps that’s because there is functionally nothing that any candidate could do to sway Texas out of the Republican column, so Perry doesn’t really add anything to the ticket.
- Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina. I figured Sanford’s charms were pretty much the same as Pawlenty’s, and he seems to enjoy more solid support than Pawlenty. But as with Perry, South Carolina is thought to be so Republican that there just isn’t any reason to pluck it out of the air for a boost, and Sanford doesn’t have a national following.
- Jim Gibbons, the Governor of Nevada. Nevada, like Florida, is anticipated to be a “battleground state” as the Democrats are looking to poach this state from the Republicans in this election cycle. Gibbons might be able to help with that. But he’s not as photogenic as some of the other choices and Nevada is not worth many electoral college votes. Like Sanford, no one picked him as the best choice.
- J.C. Watts, a retired Congressman from Oklahoma. Watts used to be a college football star and did well in the Canadian League, but never broke in to the NFL. Instead, he pursued politics. A strong conservative and a black man representing an overwhelmingly white district, Watts reached the #4 spot in the House of Representatives’ leadership structure before moving on to his private businesses, where he has cleaned up big-time. At least one NAPP voter thought that having a black man on the ticket would be a boost to McCain, and would certainly be a nice counterpoint to the Democrats nominating Barack Obama.
- The winner was Mike Huckabee, with five votes. Again, this confuses me. Huckabee seems like a very poor choice to me — he’s a big-government populist and his only real appeal would be to hard-core religious conservatives. He’s got some charisma, to be sure, but I don’t see that he brings anything to the ticket that Romney wouldn’t, and he for sure lacks foreign-policy credentials and does not seem ready to me to step onto the world stage during what would surely be a time of crisis if McCain should fall or otherwise become suddenly unable to serve. Also I don’t think Arkansas is in the Republicans’ control — if Clinton is the Democrats’ nominee, they will take Arkansas, and if not, then the Republicans will take it. Picking Huckabee as the running mate won’t change that math either way. But, the poll results are what they are, so Huckabee is the choice of NAPP readers (although not the choice of NAPP’s author).
- Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, got no votes at all. This was very surprising to me. Of the nine choices, I would have voted for Romney myself. In the primaries, Romney proved to be the most appealing candidate to mainstream conservative leaders, and his status as running mate would go far towards re-uniting the party. He bested McCain in a few states, too, and most importantly, he would be able to shore up a significant policy weakness — the economy — that McCain on his own must endure. I’m quite surprised that only I thought Romney was the best choice. Now, as I argue below, I think that McCain needs to steer the party towards restructuring its coalition of interest groups and the appeal it makes to the electorate as a whole, and Romney is not the most ambitious choice with regards to doing that because Romney pandered so much to the right wing during his candidacy. But it would be a tentative half-step, given Romney’s more moderate policy past, and the shore-up on the economy (and Romney’s money) would be big immediate boosts. Most importantly, Romney strikes me as the least likely to say or do something that would embarass McCain or the party. The paramount criterion for picking a running mate is someone who won’t screw things up. Romney fits that bill very effectively.
- Finally, I note that no one thought McCain should nominate Joe Lieberman. McCain and Lieberman are close friends; Lieberman is no longer affiliated with the Democratic party and seen as a moderate-to-conservative; and he proved in many cases more popular and appealing than John Kerry when he was Kerry’s running mate in 2004. Picking Lieberman would also demonstrate to moderate voters, and even some moderate Democrats, that McCain was beholden to no one and ready to be his own man from day one — at the cost, which I think explains his lack of support, of further alienating hard-core Republican voters.
Now, I wanted to include a woman on the list. There were three possibilities that I considered but ultimately excluded:
First, I thought about Elizabeth Dole, Senator from North Carolina. This seemed to violate rule #1 — she’s the same age as McCain; he needs a running mate as old as him. McCain’s already vulnerable on his age, so that would be a weakness he needs to shore up, not one upon which he should double down.
Second, I considered Kay Bailey Hutchison, Senator from Texas. She didn’t seem to add anything that Perry wouldn’t have, and Perry was already not bringing much to the party. She’s also thought of as something of a policy lightweight, so she would too obviously have been a choice for no reason other than her gender, which would defuse whatever advantage having a woman on the ticket would have otherwise brought.
Finally, I thought about Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska. At age 44, she would certainly have youth and energy on her side. The Republicans do not need any help to get Alaska’s electoral college votes, and while she’s apparently a reasonably competent Governor, she hasn’t got any particular policy chops to bring to the table that I know of. And logistically, travelling to and from Juneau to at least take “caretaker” level care of Alaska while campaigning would be a good deal more difficult than to a place like, say, Baton Rouge or Harrisburg. (She’s also seven months pregnant, which I didn’t know when I excluded her, and I haven’t given any thought as to whether that would limit her ability to be an effective campaigner. Maybe it wouldn’t be an issue, but like I say, I haven’t thought about it much because I excluded her from consideration even before I knew that about her.) I could yet be proven wrong in having decided to exclude her, though — particularly if the Democrats wind up nominating Clinton instead of Obama. Of the three women I thought about, she seems like she would be the best choice.
I couldn’t think of any other Republican women of enough prominence that they might be considered. So with regret, I did not include any women on my list.
With that in mind, of those choices made available, my read of the “best choice” was, in order, 1) Romney, 2) Crist, 3) Pawlenty, 4) Watts, 5) Lieberman, 6) Sanford, 7) Gibbons, 8) Perry, and 9) Huckabee. Note that I use the phrase “best choice” to mean the pick that would be most helpful to the Republicans, mainly in the 2008 general election and with an eye to the residual benefit to increasing the party’s share of votes for the next several election cycles.
But it seems that NAPP voters, overall, think that McCain needs to reach out as far to the right as he can with his VP choice — that it’s more important to keep the existing coalition intact than to try and re-align the electorate to create new kind of Republican coalition. Again, I disagree — I think that the coalition of the past has become untenable and like a comet that gets too close to the sun, it has calved into several discrete bodies moving in formation but separate from one another — and it’s now inevitable that they will go their separate ways. To use another analogy, when a couple gets a divorce after twenty-five years of marriage, there’s going to be no talking them into staying together.
Now that John McCain is, at least for the next six months, the architect of the Republican Party’s fortunes for the next four years, I personally think he will be better-served, and the party better-served, if he starts laying a foundation for the next generation of Republicans rather than trying to keep the last generation together. Recognizing that at least a plurality of NAPP voters feel otherwise, I’d be interested in your thoughts on why Huckabee would be a better choice.