Wanted: a universally-popular vice-presidential candidate

Romney’s vice-presidential pick is the crucial next decision of White House race.

With polls indicating this year’s race for the White House will be highly competitive, the key decision Mitt Romney has to make before the Republican presidential convention in August is his choice of running mate. Wide-ranging candidates are being touted in the media, including US Senators Marco Rubio and Rob Portman, Governors Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty, and even Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman.

The vice-presidential selection process is an election year custom that attracts high prominence, partly because of several key changes in US politics in recent decades. Firstly, the vice-presidency has become the single best transitional office to the presidency. Secondly, the office of vice-president has assumed more power and resourcing. And thirdly, the electoral stakes have grown of not selecting a deputy who is perceived to be capable of assuming office effectively upon the incumbent’s unanticipated death or incapacity.

This latter factor was a major feature of the 2008 presidential election when Republican nominee John McCain, aged 71, made the high-risk decision to select Sarah Palin – whose only major experience of office was less than two years as Governor of Alaska. Rather than boosting McCain’s campaign, Palin was – ultimately – widely viewed as too inexperienced to be president. This was also true in 1988 of Dan Quayle, then a two-term US senator, who was selected by George H.W. Bush.

In light of the Palin episode in 2008, Romney will be keen to make a choice that will "do no harm" to his electoral prospects. Hence, part of the reason why Portman and Daniels, with their wide-ranging political experience, have received so much attention from media.

Historically, the process of selecting vice-presidential nominees tended to be fashioned around issues like reconciling important party stakeholders after what can be bruising nomination contests; and the perceived advantage of cultivating so-called ‘balanced tickets’ in which the vice-presidential and presidential candidates where differentiated by factors such as their ‘home’ region of the country, or philosophical wings of the party, so as to maximise support across the nation.

One potential balanced ticket candidate for Romney is Rubio, whose life story – he was born in Florida to Cuban immigrants – potentially contrasts favourably with perceptions of Romney’s wealth and privilege. Rubio is also a Tea Party favourite, potentially neutralising conservative concerns about Romney’s more moderate Republicanism. The selection of Rubio, while containing the potential hazard of his relative national political inexperience (he only entered the US Senate in 2011), would also increase the prospects of Romney winning the key swing state of Florida.   

Romney’s wife, Anne, also enthusiastically highlighted earlier this month that Romney might choose a woman. As well as Whitman (who stood as the Republican candidate in the 2010 Californian gubernatorial election), potential female candidates touted in the media include three who, like Rubio, are serving only their first term of office in their present post: US Senator Kelly Ayotte (who represents the swing state of New Hampshire); South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (an American-Indian whose parents emigrated from Amritsar); and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez (who could potentially appeal to the rapidly growing US Hispanic population). 

However, partly because of the changes in the presidential nomination system, and indeed the proliferation of mass media, these traditional considerations (while still of enduring consequence) are less relevant to the modern process. Thus, Al Gore was selected in 1992 by Bill Clinton (a fellow centrist Democrat and southerner) not to balance the ticket, but instead to reinforce a key narrative about Clinton’s "New Democrat", change candidacy.

Whether or not these developments have potentially injected greater uncertainty into the vice-presidential selection process, it is unquestionably the case that choices are routinely made that confound the pundits. For instance, few (if any) anticipated the selections in 2008 of Palin and Joe Biden, nor in 2000 of Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman.

The selections of Washington veterans Cheney and Biden (who looks likely to Obama’s running mate again this year) were noteworthy inasmuch as they were chosen, in significant part, to fortify the national and international political inexperience of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Cheney, in particular, therefore assumed a high profile role as vice-president, and is widely viewed as the most powerful ever holder of the office.

Cheney’s influence partly derived from his experience and connections as a former White House chief of staff; congressman and defence secretary, and the innovations he brought to the office of the vice presidency – for instance, he considerably increased his national security staff. However, his influence also reflected the increased status of the vice presidency in recent decades which, as well as being reflected in larger staff budgets, also includes greater proximity to the centre of power through a West Wing office in the White House; weekly one-on-one meetings with the president; and authority to attend all presidential meetings.

The selections of Cheney and Biden were also interesting in another sense: both George W. Bush and Obama made the assumption that neither of their more experienced running mates represented a political threat to them, and would thus be very loyal, because they were too old (and in Cheney’s case suffered from too poor health) to run for the presidency themselves in the future. Seen from the prism of the last few decades, this is highly unusual.

Indeed, since 1960, four sitting vice-presidents (Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968; Walter Mondale in 1984; and Gore in 2000) won their respective party’s presidential nomination but then lost the general election, whilst two vice-presidents have been elected president (Nixon in 1968 and George H.W. Bush in 1988). One reason vice-presidents have, in the post-war period, enjoyed particular success in securing their party’s presidential nomination relates to the Twenty Second Amendment in 1951.

This constitutional amendment restricted presidents from serving more than two terms. Importantly, for vice-presidents, this allowed for the possibility of organising a presidential campaign in the sitting president’s second term of office without charges, from inside or outside his party, of disloyalty.

It is thus in this context of short-term political calculation and historical precedent that Romney will make what could prove his defining decision of the campaign. Miscalculation could prove damaging, especially if the race remains tight. However, if the selection wins strong approval, his candidacy will secure invaluable new momentum.

Andrew Hammond was formerly the North America Editor at Oxford Analytica, and a UK Government Special Adviser.
 

Mitt Romney will be anxious to avoid John McCain's "Palin mistake" of 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.

 

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.