The Myth of the Battleground-State Veep Candidate

President Obama Delivers His Last State Of The Union Address To Joint Session Of Congress
The state of origin shouldn’t matter in the selection of successors to these two 2012 vice-presidential nominees. Photo: Alex Wong/2016 Getty Images

One good thing about the extended presidential nominating season in both parties is that it has delayed the often tedious quadrennial speculation about the identity of each party’s running mate. Like the vice-presidency itself, such speculation is often less significant than it seems, full as it is of pseudo-scientific calculations about which magic name will pull which large quantity of voters across the line or simply to the polls. 

There’s one factor in the veep speculation, though, that should probably be consigned to the flames: the idea that choosing a running mate from a battleground state is the smartest possible tactic. We might have been able to deduce that was not the case from the fact that the last five vice-presidents hailed from Texas, Indiana, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Delaware. But now comes a reputable academic study, summarized by its authors in Politico Magazine, concluding that Veep candidates have remarkably little influence on the voting decisions of their fellow home-state citizens. 

[W]e analyzed state-level election returns from 1884-2012 and individual-level survey data from 1952-2008 to determine whether vice presidential candidates do, in fact, deliver a home-state advantage — and, if so, by how much. If the advantage is real, we should be able to detect and quantify it.

Our conclusion: While presidential candidates typically enjoy a home-state advantage (approximately 3 points to 7 points), vice presidential candidates generally do not. In each of the three analyses described above, a presidential ticket performs no better in the vice presidential candidate’s home state than we would expect otherwise. Statistically speaking, the effect is zero.

We did find that veep home-state voters are more likely to care who wins an election compared with non-home state voters—but they aren’t more likely to turn out to vote, volunteer for or donate money to a campaign, influence other voters or attend political rallies.

And yes, the study did include the case so often cited as “proving” the veep candidate can be the ultimate game-changer, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket of 1960, which created so strong a mythology that it may have been one reason Democrats resurrected the “Boston-Austin Axis” in 1988 with Dukakis and Bentsen (the Republican ticket won Texas by quite a bit more than its national average). 

To the extent Veep candidates do have some palpable home-state appeal, conclude Kyle Kopko and Christopher Devine, it’s because they are long-serving officeholders from small states. That’s kind of a self-limiting asset, of course, and unlikely to decide an election. 

In other words, geography should probably be taken off the table among the factors usually cited for choosing this or that running mate. John Kasich is not going to “deliver” Ohio to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz; nor is Tim Kaine going to push Virginia across the line for Hillary Clinton. 

But shouldn’t this year’s Republican and Democratic nominees choose a battleground-state running mate just to be on the safe side, all other things being equal? That’s the catch: All other things are not going to be equal. Using the veep gig to appeal to an underrepresented constituency makes more sense politically and morally. And candidates can always just choose the best qualified person to become, as the cliché goes, a “heart-beat away from the presidency.”

The Myth of the Battleground-State VP Candidate