Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Why the Vice Presidential Selection Matters

Pollsters and those reporters who rely on them will tell you that a Vice Presidential pick hasn't mattered since Lyndon Johnson in 1960, if then. Well, it's true, people don't tell pollsters, or themselves, that the VP candidate selection matters to them. But I think it does. I don't necessarily think the reason for this is that voters say "ah, that's his first policy choice, let's analyze it." I think it's more subtle.

I would argue that picking a VP is a way of very publicly emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain policy and personal characteristics. A VP is like a particular kind of funhouse mirror, reflecting certain things to the public, exaggerating some, disguising others. If Obama picked Chuck Hagel (R-NE) for example, it would emphasize his "crossover appeal" facet. If Obama picked Clinton, it would emphasize his "I'm a Democrat" facet. If he picked Powell, it would emphasize his race. If he picked Claire McCaskill, it would emphasize his obscurity. I think that, mentally, people often sort of draw a line in their heads between both partners in a pair, then begin thinking of both as if they occupied that midpoint. But sometimes the VP pick doesn't work that way because the clash is too great. This process of mental averaging doesn't work when it's black-and-white. If Obama picks Joe Biden, it might just clash and emphasize Obama's lack of foreign policy experience rather than lend him some. It may not be clear ex ante how voters will react. But the effect is likely to be subtle and lasting.

I would argue that in 1992, to voters, Gore emphasized Clinton's southernness and youth. In 1988 and 1992, Quayle detracted from the view that Bush Sr. was copetent. In 1996, Kemp emphasized the quixotic nature of Dole's run. In 2000, Cheney lent Bush some of his seriousness (what pundits today call 'gravitas'). That same year, Lieberman's centrism clashed with Gore's southern-preacher-populist appeal he affected in October. In 2004, Edwards was meant to dispel Kerry's Boston Brahmin image - the clash actually just emphasized it.

A VP, in that way, is a lot like a spouse. That is why the First-ladies-in-waiting matter, I would argue. Hillary made Bill seem more liberal than he was. Laura made George Bush seem more ordinary (turns out he was ultra-right-wing). Liddy Dole made Bob Dole seem a lot softer and more modern. Barbara Bush lent George Bush Sr. some class. Nancy Reagan softened Ronny's corners. Cindy McCain makes John seem rich, out of touch, and ultra-white. Michelle Obama makes Barack look more lefty (and more black - remember, he's as black as he is white, but his black wife and kids lend to a picture).

I believe these effects are more pronounced the more obscure the presidential candidate is to begin with. Obama is less well known than McCain, but he's not that well known either outside beltway circles. "Maverick" is a Washington term meaning (apparently) someone who votes with the party 99% of the time but diverges 1% of the time on a few high-profile issues. Both have a lot to gain or lose in their selections.

Is this scientific? Not yet. Measurable? Tough to do if the effect is subconscious, in the sense that voters won't articulate it. But I think that polling data on, say, Bush's seriousness in 2000 or Kerry's elitism in 2004 might just show that the VP pick was at least temporally correlated with a change in voters' attitudes on that attribute.

So what does this mean for Obama, if true? He has a choice: emphasize economic policy (e.g., Sherrod Brown) or play with foreign policy again (Joe Biden). McCain can emphasize his centrism (Romney) or play with the conservatism fire (Huckabee). Not sure if Huckster will make McCain more conservative or clash with him. Not sure if Biden will lend gravitas to Obama or clash with him, as if he were picking a child picking an adult. Ted Kennedy would make Obama seem, by comparison, too young, or (by emphasis) too liberal. Clinton makes Obama seem very "normal" as a politician, which cuts into his crossover appeal and his message of change, BUT she may lend him the aura of 'acceptability' that some say is all he really needs to get voters to check the DEMS box this year. I think Obama's best shot is to stay away from someone like Biden, who - by trying to compensate - might actually emphasize Obama's flaws. At best, Biden reminds voters of the importance of foreign policy, which is playing to his weakest suit. Rather, Obama should choose someone who connects him to bread-and-butter economic issues. In this sense, Clinton is not a terrible choice. I think the best choice probably would have been Edwards. What a loser.

We will likely know in 24 hours. Monitor your thoughts after the pick. How does your impression of Barack Obama change with the knowledge of the partner he chose? I'll bet it does, like a set of clothes (to use another analogy).

1 comment:

Raised By Republicans said...

The rumor today is that it will be Edwards after all...Chet Edwards that is. WHO?! Chet Edwards the Democratic representative of the Texas 17th district (College Station, the world's most conservative college town, and the Republican Dallas Suburbs).

Chet Edwards has a degree in economics from Texas A&M and has survived and even thrived in the post-redistricting world of Texas politics. His district went 70% for George Bush in 2004 but he won reelection by nearly 4% and absolutely trounced his Republican opponent in 2006.

He's a bit socially conservative for a Democrat. He wouldn't stand a chance of winning in that district if hadn't voted for the "Defense of Marriage Act" for example. But he is 100% pro-choice according to NARAL.

Here is the url for his issue stances:

Notice that the bottom line assessment of him is as a "moderate libertarian liberal."

Oh, and Nancy Polosi has been suggesting him as Obama's VP for months.