Truth About Mitt Romney’s Running Mate Choice

by Stuart Rothenberg April 27, 2012 · 9:30 AM EDT

Over the past few months, I’ve written a couple of columns about presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s potential running mates Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Start with some biography, an anecdote or tidbit, add a dash of analysis and a blind quote and you’ve got an entertaining piece.

Given that equation, the prospect of an additional six or eight columns about other contenders — Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to name just a few — filled me with joy.

VP columns, which invariably run down the pluses and minuses of each name mentioned, are easy to write and people seem to like them. With each candidate’s stock going up or down depending on what the current buzz is, there is more than enough material to keep a columnist happy.

But I’m not merely a columnist. I’m a political analyst who writes a column. And the political analyst in me tells me that all of the chatter about Romney’s running mate is a lot of wasted, useless, meaningless hot air.

In all likelihood, Romney’s selection of a running mate will have little or no effect on the November general election.

When former Vice President Dick Cheney recently commented that “it’s pretty rare” that an election turns on the vice presidential pick, he was reflecting the views of most serious students of American politics.

There are, of course, exceptions, including the 1960 presidential race when the selection of Lyndon Johnson probably allowed the Democratic ticket to carry Texas. But the homogenizing of American culture (via television and the Internet) and the increased polarization of the country and ideological purity of the two parties have made it less likely that a running mate can “deliver” his or her state.

Of course, I can’t rule out the possibility that the selection of a Hispanic running mate could change the Electoral College math in 2012 or sometime in the future, or that some demographic group could be swayed by a selection for vice president in such a way that it could affect which ticket wins and which loses.

But Republican nominee Sen. John McCain put a woman on his ticket in 2008, only to have female voters give Democrat Barack Obama 56 percent of their vote.

True, a serious female candidate might have helped the Republican ticket perform better among women (and even among men), but the reality of presidential elections is that as the calendar moves away from the national nominating conventions and toward Election Day, voters see the contest as a choice between the two parties’ presidential nominees, not the two tickets.

The 2008 election was about McCain and Obama, not Sarah Palin. Geraldine Ferraro’s place on the ’84 Democratic ticket had no effect on the outcome. And Dan Quayle, for all of the controversy about his selection, didn’t determine who won and who lost the 1988 election.

It’s not that the nominee for vice president is irrelevant. He or she will participate in a debate and have a role in promoting Romney and the Republican Party, as well as in tearing down the president and his party during the campaign. And, of course, the vice president will be next in line should something terrible happen to the president.

Voters apparently understand that while vice presidents have more or less influence on various decisions depending on who is in the Oval Office, it is presidents who make the big decisions.

Given all of this, I do not expect to be writing columns about potential Romney running mates. I’m not ruling it out completely because if some particularly stupid name surfaces, I don’t want to tie my own hands. But you will need to look elsewhere to find rundowns about “potential running mates.”

And you’ll have no difficulty finding chatter about them because everyone and his brother will be writing about it, tweeting it or talking about it on TV.

But so much of the talk about the selection of a Romney running mate will be meaningless drivel about pseudo-candidates who won’t be selected that you might as well just wait until the selection to react to it.

And, while the selection may well “say something” about Romney and his approach to the campaign and the presidency, it isn’t likely to determine who wins in November.

So why will everyone spend so much time on the vice presidential choice?

The cable networks have 8,784 hours to fill this leap year — 4,416 hours to fill from May 1 to the end of October — and they’ll need to fill some of those hours with chatter from people who want to hear themselves talk about running mate selections.

Viewers and readers seem to like the speculation — it’s sort of like a game show — so speculating on running mates has appeal to producers, editors and, yes, columnists.

So go ahead and have fun if you enjoy listening to the speculation. Play the VP selection game at cocktail parties or around the kitchen table. Write your comments about the best pick for Romney, or the worst, at the end of articles on the Web. Just remember that the 2012 election is between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.