Just when you thought the Republican presidential nominating picture couldn’t get much murkier, here’s a new variable: Who will be the running mate for the yet-to-be-identified nominee? The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker have been hanging around the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting in Florida and report that veep speculation is all the rage in the mix of party hacks and candidate operatives circling each other at the beachfront confab.
It seems that Ted Cruz and John Kasich have already set up vetting operations for possible running mates (though Kasich adviser Charlie Black ruefully admits it may be difficult to get people to submit to a vet from a presidential candidate they don’t view as viable), while Team Trump purports to be focused solely on winning the main prize. Still, the possibility that the veep could be a key poker chip in winning the main prize is part of the speculation at the RNC meeting. After all, one very feasible scenario is for Trump to finish the primaries tantalizingly close to the 1,237 delegates he needs. Might making someone who commands delegates his running mate put him over the top?
Trouble is the two people who fit that description are John Kasich and Marco Rubio. Kasich’s got his own fish to fry, and has repeatedly and emphatically disclaimed any interest in the veep gig. Rubio is by all accounts near the beating heart of the #NeverTrump movement, and is in fact fighting to hold on to his delegates so as to deny them to Trump and deliver them elsewhere down the road.
Ted Cruz might also be tempted to use the second spot on the ticket as a deal lubricator in (assuming Trump doesn’t win on the first ballot) his drive for the nomination on the second or third ballot in Cleveland. His choice could either represent a hand outstretched to Trumpland, via the small list of elected officials who have endorsed the mogul, or a token of reconciliation with the Republican Establishment to convince it not to block him and deadlock the convention into a megaballot nightmare.
In any event, the potential strategic importance of the veep offer points in two very different directions, at least for Trump and Cruz: either a Reagan-esque pre-convention announcement aimed at changing the dynamics long before the first delegate arrives in Cleveland, or a hasty choice made on the fly in some late-night hotel stairwell like it was allegedly done back in the day. The latter approach, which may also be the only avenue available to some theoretical “dark horse” nominated on the umpteenth ballot, will conjure up the ghosts of the two great cautionary tales about hasty vetting: Tom Eagleton, whose DUIs and electro-shock treatments were unknown to the McGovern campaign in 1972, and Sarah Palin, the “high risk, high reward” choice of John McCain in 2008. The guy who placed that label on Palin, McCain vetter A.B. Culvahouse, summed up the dilemma to Costa and Rucker as follows:
“The hardest thing about the vetting process is the tension between a time-consuming process and late-emerging political considerations where, for example, an adviser or pollster says if you pick this individual then you can win this state,” Culvahouse said.
There are some guidelines you can anticipate. All other things being equal, Trump will likely pick someone with significant elected-official experience to reduce the terror associated with his nomination in Establishment circles. Cruz might do so as well for the same reasons. Everyone will be aware that a woman on the ticket would be helpful, though several of the more camera-ready possibilities, like Carly Fiorina and Joni Ernst, don’t exactly have impressive résumés.
One final factor that Costa and Rucker only allude to briefly is that the delegates formally nominating the veep will not be bound to pay attention to the presidential nominee’s decisions. If, say, Trump wins the nomination on the first ballot with the “bound” votes of hundreds of delegates who hate the very sight of him, can he rely on these newly liberated prisoners to ratify his choice of a running mate? It’s a very good question that apparently has occurred to Reince Priebus:
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview that an open convention could affect the timing of a vice-presidential nomination. He said he would be open to delaying formal proceedings to afford the presidential nominee time to negotiate or make a decision. Even with the prospect of a somewhat chaotic convention, Priebus said he doubted that the choice would be left to the delegates.
“I think that the nominee will choose the vice president,” Priebus said. “The delegates will probably honor that choice.”
Easy for you to say, Reince.
It’s unclear whether “delaying formal proceedings” means an hour or a week, but without question the risk of a delegate revolt could be higher than at any point since 186 delegates voted for George Romney as veep in 1968 out of what turned out to be a prescient distaste for Spiro Agnew. Then there’s the ultimate “nuclear option” of just letting the delegates make the veep choice without a presidential thumb on the scales. That’s happened exactly once in living memory: in 1956, when Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson invited delegates to pick a running mate for him. In the end, Estes Kefauver edged out John F. Kennedy thanks to second-ballot support from Al Gore Sr. You can expect that and other lessons from history to be thoroughly explored by the time the deal goes down in Cleveland and Republicans form a ticket.