Throughout nearly all of American history, a presidential candidate’s choice of a potential vice president has been among the most irrelevant things in politics.
While you will hear political consultants and pundits drone on about the supposed need to “balance the ticket” geographically or ideologically, the truth of the matter is that voters make their decision about who to vote for based on who is at the top of the ticket, not the bottom.
So meaningless was the choice of a vice president that in the election of 1900, the selection of Gov. Theodore Roosevelt of New York as William McKinley’s vice president was made to get rid of Roosevelt. Thomas Platt, who was at the time the boss of the New York Republican Party, loathed Roosevelt and wanted to get rid of him. The vice presidency was viewed as a meaningless job, and so Platt and other New York Republicans pressured McKinley to choose Roosevelt just to get him out of the way. This was a decision that would backfire on them once McKinley was assassinated a year later.
The typical counter-example is the election of 1960, when then Sen. John F. Kennedy selected Lyndon Johnson from Texas as his running mate. Conventional wisdom says that it was the selection of Johnson that sealed the deal for Kennedy, who was of course a northeastern, blue blooded yankee scion of wealth and privilege.
And to be sure, the America of 1960 was far more divided on cultural and geographic lines than today, and there is no doubt Johnson’s presence was probably good for Kennedy. Then again, since Texas first participated in elections for president, the state chose a Democratic nominee in 23 out of 26 elections, the only exceptions being the Hoover landslide in 1928 and Eisenhower’s two elections in 1952 and 1956.
Even if we were to accept the idea that Johnson is the reason Kennedy won, every election that occurred after 1960 showed that the vice president was little more than an afterthought.
Johnson didn’t win in 1964 because of Hubert Humphrey. Same goes for the elections of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. None of them won because of their respective vice-presidential nominees, all of whom were largely invisible and unimportant to the ultimate calculus of the election.
None of that stops pundits from evaluating the choice of a vice president, and trying to find reasons why it matters. This usually boils down to finding ways in which the selection differs from the nominee at the top of the ticket, and coming up with reasons why that compliment of traits will “play well with voters.”
This is always meaningless doubletalk meant to make you, the consumer, feel like you are listening to something profound, when in fact you are hearing nothing but noise.
Voters vote for the person on the top of the ticket, end of story. In 2016, American voters were sick of the old political class, and wanted someone to shake up the system, and so Trump won. He would have won just the same if he selected quite literally any one of the dozens of candidates he was considering. The same is true of Obama, Bush, Clinton and everyone else in modern American political history.
This year, that is almost certainly true once again. This year’s election is going to be about basically one thing and one thing only: Donald Trump.
If hate of him proves to be a stronger motivating factor for the left than love of him does for those on the right, then Biden wins. If the reverse, and pent up frustration and anger at what the left is doing to the country outweighs that Trump hate, then Trump wins.
Make no mistake, this is a turnout election, not one in which a great swath of undecided voters will be swaying left or right depending on clever candidates or campaigning.
The only caveat to that is that Joe Biden’s age and mental capacity may make Kamala Harris’ selection more important than it usually is. But even still, this is not going to be an election decided by opinions on her as vice president, or even as a potential president if Biden can no longer serve. This is an election about Trump, and Trump alone.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.