Thursday, July 24, 2008

High Office and Warm Spit: Vice Presidential Nominations

John Adams, the first vice president of the United States, once wrote of that office that:

My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.

Almost a century and a half later, one of his successors, John Nance ("Cactus Jack") Garner, put essentially the same thought in more earthy terms, saying the office is "not worth a bucket of warm spit". Different sources have different versions of that quotation (and some insist that he referred to a bodily fluid other than saliva) but the gist seems clear enough.

What I want to address here is how vice presidential candidates (running mates) have been chosen at party conventions.

The presidential nominee designates a candidate (with only one exception that I know of) and that choice is ratified by a vote of the delegates.

The exception was at the Democratic convention of 1956, when presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson declined to designate a choice. In an open vote, the convention chose Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee over, among others, future presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

In some cases, the presidential nominee has chosen one of his opponents for the presidential nomination as his running mate. That was the case with Garner in 1932. Other such running mates have included Democrats Lyndon Johnson (1960) and John Edwards (2004), and Republican George H.W. Bush (1980).

Historically, presidential nominees have looked for geographic balance on the ticket. For Democrats, this has often been a case of north-and-south balance. Republicans have more often looked for east-and-west balance. For whatever reason, candidates seem no longer to deem that an important consideration. I would argue that the last classic case of seeking geographic balance was in 1976, when Georgia's Jimmy Carter chose Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale as his running mate.

Since 1976, potential vice presidential nominees have been vetted well in advance of the convention. That is a reaction to the difficulties that Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern had in 1972, when his choice for running mate, Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri, who had been nominated by the convention, later revealed that he had undergone psychiatric treatment. Eagleton resigned from the ticket. After McGovern offered the nomination to several people who declined to take him up on it, he finally settled on R. Sargent Shriver, which choice was then ratified by the Democratic National Committee.

In recent years, not only the screening process, but also the announcement of the running mate is made before the convention. In 1984, Mondale, who was about to be nominated for president by the Democratic Party, announced that Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York was his choice for VP. He made that announcement, not at his party's convention in San Francisco, but rather in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 12, 1984, four days before the convention began.

I'm not sure whether Ferraro's being the first woman so chosen influenced Mondale's timing, and made him feel he needed to give the convention more advance notice of that precedent-breaking choice. But he established a pattern that most nominees have followed in the meantime, of making that announcement before the convention begins.

As I've written in previous posts, Obama and McCain are expected to follow that pattern. The only question is whether McCain will alter that pattern, by announcing his choice weeks in advance, rather than days in advance.

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