David Greenberg: How Veeps Get Picked

Roundup: Historians' Take

David Greenberg, in the NYT (April 11, 2004):

A hundred years ago, most people voted for president strictly according to their party's line; having two regions or factions represented on the ticket made sense as a way to bolster party unity. But through the 20th century, power migrated from party bosses to the candidates. The nominee's image came to loom larger than his affiliation, and as a result the choice of running mate now matters mainly for what it says about the top contender himself....

The idea of balancing a ticket started in the 19th century, when candidates owed their livelihoods to the party bosses who ran state and city machines - and whose ability to turn out voters decided elections. At convention time, the bosses had to maintain harmony within the party so they could rally the troops in the fall. They kept peace by allocating nominations regionally, calibrating their tickets with one Northeasterner, usually from New York, and one Midwesterner, usually from Ohio or Indiana. In the 15 elections from 1864 to 1920, two-thirds of the major party candidates came from those three states.

Progressive Era reformers, who viewed party politics as corrupt, weakened the bosses' power by instituting changes like primaries, which gave voters a voice in picking presidential nominees. Later, with television's arrival, candidates could reach voters directly, further marginalizing the bosses.

But as late as 1944, the bosses still held sway. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had stiffed the bosses and selected Henry A. Wallace as his No. 2. Four years later, however, the bosses, who considered Wallace a left-wing eccentric, struck back, replacing him with a respectable but nondescript Missouri senator, Harry S. Truman.

Still later, in 1952, it didn't even occur to Dwight D. Eisenhower, a political newcomer, to select his own understudy. When his adviser Herbert Brownell Jr. asked him his preference, he answered:"Gee, I don't know. I thought the convention handled that." Brownell polled Republican brokers, who liked Senator Richard M. Nixon.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he grasped that his own performance, not his running mate's home state, would be decisive. Nonetheless, he picked Lyndon B. Johnson, who he hoped (correctly) would carry Texas. Besides, conventional wisdom still held that a too-liberal ticket, especially on racial matters, would lose Southern votes. Indeed, for another generation the Democrats would often pair a Northerner with a Southerner to finesse conflicts on civil rights and related issues. The Republican Party similarly continued to offset a Rockefeller Republican with a staunch conservative, as with Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1980.

By the 1980's, however, both parties had grown more ideologically uniform. Factionalism diminished, and with it the need for conciliatory gestures.

The final step was realizing that the choice of No. 2 provided a candidate with his first real chance to define himself. Reflecting the new calculus, in 1984 Walter F. Mondale decided on Geraldine A. Ferraro because, he said recently, he needed"a bold choice to change the political picture." Ms. Ferraro enlarged neither the ticket's geographic nor ideological appeal. What Mr. Mondale enhanced was his own image; his historic selection of a woman helped dispel - if briefly - perceptions that he was boring and meek. Mr. Clinton and others have operated in this vein.

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