It’s time to take a serious look at running mates. The Democrats have effectively sorted out their nomination fight and John McCain knows he’ll be up against Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton. As I’ve written before, there are several strategic considerations when considering a running mate, the overriding one being finding someone who won’t diminish the nominee’s chances of victory. There is little that a running mate can do to help, but a lot that this person can do to hurt.
You can use a running mate to 1) try and win a key state (or in rare instances, a region), 2) shore up a policy weakness of the candidate; 3) shore up a political weakness of the candidate, 4) “balance” a ticket by appealing to a constituency that the candidate himself is not strong with, or 5) “double down” on a strength of the candidate that the running mate shares. Also, we need to consider the role of the running mate in the campaign — often, the running mate is given the job of “attack dog,” having to say things that are more aggressive and critical of the other ticket than the candidate himself can say, because the candidate should look “statesmanlike” and “above politics.” After all, the voters vote for the guy on top of the ticket, not against the running mate. No one who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 did so because they disliked John Edwards — maybe they disliked John Kerry, but Edwards was not much of a factor in their minds.
So let’s think about some of the likelier choices for McCain. McCain’s strengths are his maverick image, bipartisan appeal, foreign policy credibility, and strong military appeal. His weaknesses are that the social conservative wing of the GOP distrusts him despite a more-conservative-than-average record on social issues, his age and health are issues, and he has weak economic policy chops. Because McCain has some bipartisan appeal and clearly needs to build bridges to the core of his own party more than reaching across the aisle, I dispense with the odd notion that he would pick anyone but a lifelong Republican, including his good friend Joe Lieberman.
Charlie Crist, the incumbent Governor of Florida. Florida is as key a state as can exist for Republicans. No realistic scenario for McCain winning the White House permits him to lose Florida. Crist is most desirable because he would greatly strengthen McCain’s chances in Florida, where he is quite popular and has a strong machine. Additionally, Crist’s endorsement of McCain’s candidacy was the factor that put McCain over the top in Florida, effectively pushing McCain into the nomination, so a strong case can be mace that McCain owes Crist the VP spot regardless of any other consideration. He’s done a pretty good job with Florida and provides moderate, but not strong, support on the economic policy front. On the downside, although Crist is about twenty years younger than McCain, his dramatic white hair makes him look older, so this leaves McCain open on the “old white guy” flank.
Mike Huckabee, the former Governor of Arkansas and McCain’s former rival for the GOP nomination. Social conservatives and particularly a large number of evangelicals believe that Huckabee “came in second” in the primaries and proved his mettle as a tough, persuasive campaigner. They have something of a point. Of the candidates on this list, no one would play the “attack dog” better, and no one would sound quite so nice doing it. Huckabee is genuinely likeable and he would be a strong bridge to the social and religious centers of the right wing. Unlike Mitt Romney, he is an evangelical Baptist and therefore there is no significant religious objection.
Bobby Jindal, the incumbent Governor of Louisiana. Jindal’s big strength is that he is quite young (not yet 40) and not white. Normally, one would submit that Jindal has simply not acquired enough experience to be ready for the big time — he’s only been Governor of Louisiana for a year, and had only four years’ worth of experience in Congress before that. But Senator Obama has only had four years’ experience in Congress and has never been Governor or even the top administrator of anything, and he’s managed to get the top spot on the Democrats’ ticket, so “inexperience” might not be the best rock for the Democrats to throw at Running Mate Jindal. Rather, the problem with Jindal is that the chances of Obama carrying Louisiana no matter what else happens are quite low (although I can predict with confidence that he’ll carry Orleans Parish) so Jindal doesn’t bring any electoral votes to the table with him. He has some economic policy savvy but his inexperiencehere minimizes the impact of running Louisiana for all of one year.
Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska. No one needs to tell Alaskans to vote Republican for President. They like their guns too much — and outside of the urban centers of Anchorage and Juneau, they need their guns and a significant portion of the state is employed by the military, by oil companies, or by timber companies. Palin is attractive because of her youth, her gender, her good looks, and the expertise she’s brought to the table in Juneau as a very capable governor. Having a woman as a running mate may be a way of McCain drawing some of Hillary Clinton’s substantial body of supporters over to his column. But on the other hand, Gov. Palin just gave birth to a child a few months ago, and the logistical challenges of both running Alaska and campaigning, make the choice a difficult one.
Tim Pawlenty, the Governor of Minnesota. Pawlenty is reasonably popular in Minnesota, although his strength there has proven less than was assumed when his name started to be thrown about as a potential running mate for McCain. Pawlenty is young and possesses some economic expertise, and is thought to be “acceptable” to social conservatives. They aren’t too excited about him, though, in part because as the Governor of a moderate state, Pawlenty has not been able to pursue red-meat type social policies and in particular is thought to be “weak” on abortion. Chances are reasonably good, though, that Pawlenty could switch Minnesota to the GOP column, depriving the Democrats of votes that they would otherwise rely on in their strategies.
Rob Portman, former U.S. Trade Representative, former Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bush (the Younger), former U.S. Congressman from Ohio. Portman is in his early fifties and would therefore vitiate the age issue. He also has substantial economic and foreign policy experience on his resume and has proven his electability. He is from a critical swing state (his former district included suburban Cincinnati and tracked eastward from there along the border with Kentucky) and has a strong network of supporters still in place there. His economic credentials, though, are suspect because his executive experiences comes from the Bush Administration, which has proven to be so fiscally irresponsible that a majority of Republicans, or at least a growing group approaching a majority, have grown critical of it. Portman could too easily be portrayed as being a link to that legacy. On the other hand, Ohio is a very important battleground for the general election.
Jodi Rell, Governor of Connecticut. An interesting proposition that could put Connecticut in play. Positives include her gender and her image as a reformer, having taken over government of Connecticut in the wake of a corruption investigation of her predecessor. She also ordered the state’s first execution since Fidel Castro took over Cuba, so she’s “tough.” Some policy reforms have saved the state some money, and she has pushed for a spending cap as a budgetary control measure, but Connecticut remains a high-tax, high-spending state so she could leave McCain weak on the economic front. She is critical of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is popular in some quarters and unpopular in others. She is a survivor of breast cancer, her disease having been in remission since being treated in its early stages four years ago. Social conservatives will likely distrust her for her advocacy of public campaign financing and an extensive civil union law for homosexual couples.
Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts and McCain’s former rival for the Republican nomination. Romney obviously can’t carry Massachusetts for McCain; Massachusetts will vote Democratic in November, period. Romney’s appeal is his economic savvy and the fact that a lot of social conservatives got behind him in the primaries. He would shore up McCain’s weak links to the social conservative wing of the party and, being about fifteen years younger than McCain, assauge the age issue a bit also. On the downside, some social conservatives find Romney just as unpalatable as they do McCain, because Romney is a Mormon and not some “regular” kind of Protestant. Romney also brings to the table a lot of fundraising prowess, which is an area of some weakness for McCain, who plans to use public financing for the general election.
If I were advising McCain, my order of preference for consideration of these running mate candidates would be:
I really think Romney is the best choice for McCain although I confess some personal discomfort with the choice.