Jeff Pasley: Veeps don't matter

Roundup: Historians' Take

... I would lose my political historian’s license if I did not emphasize just how little vice-presidential picks matter, electorally speaking. Voters vote for president, the top, nation-embodying office, and always have, even back in 1796 when only local electors were actually running.

Now, the fact that the Veep might have to assume the main office, we should take seriously. [Something McCain, apparently, does not take seriously.] The Whigs wished they could have had a do-over on that John Tyler pick, and the Radical Republicans nearly succeeded in doing Andrew Johnson over. Yet electorally, and barring presidential death, it has almost never been a big thing. Lyndon Johnson and John Nance Garner brought some Texas-style political muscle to their respective tickets, yeee-haawww, but Texas was still a Democratic state back then.

The example that seems to hang over the veep-stakes in recent times has been Missouri’s own Tom Eagleton from 1972. While the Democrats’ craven handling of that episode certainly did not help McGovern in November, the idea that a 49-state, 23-point pulping like 1972 could truly hinge on a momentary running mate snafu is the kind of thing that only a pundit could actually believe. Let’s just say there were some larger forces at work.

In most other presidential elections, even objectively disastrous picks have just not mattered. Dan Quayle, anyone? Take Dukakis running mate Lloyd Bentsen’s celebrated pantsing of Dan Quayle in 1988.
It became “one of the most famous moments in US political history” (per the YouTube caption) and entered the permanent cultural lexicon, all the way to getting referenced in children’s Christmas specials. Yet it hardly saved the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket, or even made any difference at all as far as I can tell. Perhaps a non-Quayle would have helped Bush père a bit more in 1992, but I am really just saying that to be nice.

1992 may only be the second-best example of why running mates don’t matter very much. The best one is probably 1836. Martin Van Buren’s controversial veep pick was Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, a national hero in some circles for allegedly killing Tecumseh and fighting to keep the post offices open on Sunday. Suffice it to say that Johnson turned out to have some serious negatives. In a country where only white men could vote, and where questioning racism in any way drew vilification and mob violence, Johnson was exposed as having lived openly with an African-American woman named Julia Chinn and the couple’s two mixed-race daughters, whom Johnson educated and married off to white men. The Whig press, really still just proto-Whig at this point, heavily publicized Johnson’s private life and clucked that such race-mixing was the inevitable result of Democratic slumming and demagoguery. The U.S. would be seen as a “national of mulattoes” if Van Buren and Johnson were elected, one newspaper warned. A racist political cartoon was published depicting the Johnson family at home. [For an excellent article on the incident, see Thomas Brown, "The Miscegenation of Richard Mentor Johnson As an Issue in the National Election Campaign of 1835-1836," Civil War History 39 (1993): 5-30.]

Old Kinderhook’s problematic image down south was not improved by the controversy, but he won the election anyway, carrying Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia, and other states not known for their open-mindedness on racial matters. Looking at the map, Johnson’s unorthodox living arrangements may have hurt Van Buren as much with northern bluenoses, also usually racists, as it did with southerners. At any rate, Van Buren was hardly doomed even by such a catastrophic pick as Johnson.

comments powered by Disqus