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16 VP Selections Explained

By Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellow

Despite ample evidence that voters do not cast their ballots because of the second fiddle on a presidential ticket, it has not stopped politicians and commentators from strategizing endlessly about potential vice presidential picks. This year has been no exception, as Washington insiders and journalists conjecture (Washington Week included) on who might accompany Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to the White House. To understand the strategy behind a VP pick, we looked back at 16 VP selections through history -- from the Revolutionary War to modern-day. Some of them never made it to the White House; others did; a few came to occupy the Oval Office for themselves.

1. Joe Biden to Barack Obama 

Before winning two presidential elections, Barack Obama had been a U.S. senator for just four years and had minimal experience on the national and international stage, a common criticism from his opponents. When Joe Biden was added to the Democratic ticket, he brought a resume of extensive Washington experience, with over 36 years serving in the Senate and 12 years as the Chairman or Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee. This bolstered Obama’s own lack of foreign policy experience, and the pair went on to win in 2008 and 2012.

2. Sarah Palin to John McCain

Just after Arizona Sen. John McCain announced that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate for 2008, many commentators saw the logic in his choice. Palin could potentially woo female voters who had been stung by Hillary Clinton’s loss in the Democratic primary, as well as social conservatives impressed by her tough line on abortion and marriage equality. But, in the end, Palin’s lack of national and international experience, coupled with her bruising Katie Couric interviews, did not give McCain the boost he had wanted.

3. Dick Cheney to George W. Bush

Dick Cheney had a bit of a head start when it came to George W. Bush’s VP pick because he had been Secretary of Defense during Bush’s father’s presidency. More importantly, though, he headed up Bush’s VP selection process for the 2000 election. Through that process, Bush came to see how Cheney’s military background and consistently conservative background could add a boost to his own profile.

4. LBJ to JFK
When Lyndon Johnson’s agreed to serve as John F. Kennedy’s vice president in 1960, it came as somewhat of a surprise, given how tensely they had fought each other for the presidency. But JFK chose party unity over their embattled personal history; as a Protestant Texan, LBJ offered a complimentary background to JFK, a Catholic and a New Englander. LBJ had also served as the Senate Majority leader, which served him well when pushing civil rights legislation through Congress, following the assassination of JFK in November of 1963.

5. George H.W. Bush to Reagan
George H.W. Bush was, frankly, not Ronald Reagan’s first choice for vice president in 1980. Reagan’s attempts to convince former President Gerald Ford to be his number two had failed, so he turned to his toughest opponent from the Republican primary, Bush. Ford made more sense in many ways because Bush was at odds with Reagan over a constitutional ban of abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, but Bush emerged as the victor because he, unlike Ford, who wanted veto power over cabinet positions, was willing to totally adhere to Reagan’s authority as president. 

6. Harry Truman to FDR
Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, Henry Wallace, was not working out. FDR had envisioned Wallace as "an additional set of eyes and ears," but he planned to assign less authority to Vice President Harry Truman, a senator from Missouri who could solidify FDR’s support in the South and assuage concerns of Wallace’s hard liberalism. So, in the few months that Truman served as Vice President in 1945, he learned nothing of the developing atomic bomb or brewing tensions with the Soviet Union. When Truman became president following FDR’s death on April 12, he remembered, "I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."

7. Theodore Roosevelt to William McKinley

Perhaps no politician went less willingly to the vice presidency than Theodore Roosevelt. He actively tried to stop his nomination for the 1900 election, telling fellow Republicans, "I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president." But, unfortunately for Roosevelt, his nomination just made too much sense. He was the young and very popular governor of New York, recently returned from his successful tour with the "Rough Riders" in the Spanish-American War, which had been widely reported in newspapers across the country. Roosevelt had also spent years traveling on the western frontier, making him a favorable choice for a large swath of the U.S. When McKinley won easily on election night, in part due to the 600 campaign speeches Roosevelt had given across 24 states, the new vice president (and later president) felt sure that his political future was headed to "oblivion."

8. Walter Mondale to Jimmy Carter
Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale provided a necessary foil to Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter; Mondale was the Washington insider to complement Carter’s far outsider experience. Mondale had been in Congress for 12 years and had worked with Lyndon Johnson to establish many "Great Society" programs, eventually becoming an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Carter, on the other hand, had been the dark horse to win the 1976 Democratic nomination, inspiring liberal Democrats who were wary of his moderate leanings to form the "Anyone But Carter" movement. Mondale’s liberal background helped ease those concerns and helped Carter win a close race.

9. Al Gore to Bill Clinton
When deciding on a running mate for the 1992 election, Bill Clinton chose to "break with tradition." Tennessee Sen. Al Gore shared many commonalities with Clinton: both Southern, both moderate, and both young. At 45 and 44, they were the youngest ticket for a major political party in history, but that youth may have projected an air of innovation, which was needed for a lagging economy that sitting President George H.W. Bush could not explain. Although they only secured 43% of the popular vote, due to Ross Perot taking 19% as a third-party candidate, Clinton and Gore won enough electoral votes to reach the White House.

10. Paul Ryan to Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate for the 2012 election was more controversial than some may remember now. Now House Speaker, Ryan was most remembered at the time for his drastic budget proposal, a plan to slash the country’s debt by cutting Medicare costs and lowering the tax rate for all Americans. By choosing the 42-year-old Ryan, Romney (who was 65) infused a sense of youth and urgency to his sluggish campaign that had been dragged through a long primary. In the end, the choice did not result in success; Obama and Biden won reelection with five million more popular votes than the Republican ticket. 

11. John Adams to George Washington
George Washington took John Adams as his vice president for a rather straightforward reason: he had no choice in the manner. At the time, the Second Article of the Constitution stipulated that the candidate who received the second-most electoral votes would become vice president. Adams, who had finished 35 votes behind Washington’s 69 electoral votes, served two terms under Washington until winning the presidency for himself. In 1804, following the disastrous 1800 election between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution changed the process by which the vice president was chosen.

12. Andrew Johnson to Abraham Lincoln
When seeking to replace his Vice President Hannibal Hamlin for the 1864 election, Abraham Lincoln wanted a candidate who would signify unity to the Civil War-embroiled nation. He settled on Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee senator and War Democrat who had been the only southern senator to return to the Union after his state seceded. Johnson’s vice presidency began "inauspiciously," to put it mildly. He arrived to his March 1865 inauguration ill and drunk, delivering a rambling speech to the Senate and onlookers that made his state clear. It did not do much to inspire confidence who, one month later, following Lincoln’s assassination, would become president.

13. Geraldine Ferraro to Walter Mondale
Despite his success as Jimmy Carter's VP pick, Walter Mondale did not think he would win the presidency in 1984, against the popular incumbent Ronald Reagan. So he decided that he would at least have a vice presidential candidate who would make a splash. TIME reported in the months leading up to the election, "When a Gallup poll showed Reagan 19 points ahead, the impulse to go for broke was reinforced." Mondale interviewed multiple female and minority politicians before settling on Geraldine Ferraro, a congresswoman from Queens, New York. The Democratic National Convention erupted with excitement when Ferraro took the stage for her speech as the first woman on a major party’s presidential ticket. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi later said of the moment, "It was as emotional an evening as I have ever seen at a convention."

14. Joe Lieberman to Al Gore
Then-Vice President Al Gore knew what he wanted out of his own VP pick: someone who would distance him even more from Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal. With the president’s impeachment trial less than two years removed from the 2000 election, the nation still vividly remembered the spectacle of hearing details on Clinton’s sex life before Congress. Gore wanted to keep that memory as far away from his campaign as possible, which is why he chose moderate Democrat and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman had publicly denounced Clinton’s behavior from the Senate floor and was known for "his tough call for higher moral standards," which would also help Gore ease concerns about past inquiries into his campaign fundraising practices. Lieberman would have also been the first Jewish American to serve on a presidential team, but he and Gore lost in a hotly contested general election to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

15. John Edwards to John Kerry

In 2004, John Kerry took a page out of JFK’s playbook, selecting a fellow senator and former primary rival for his vice president slot. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards had quickly become one of Kerry’s staunchest supporters after dropping out of the presidential race and was seen by many as an "an antidote to Kerry's serious and stiff style." While many also predicted that Edwards would help Kerry among rural and suburban voters, the boost was not enough to secure the presidency; the pair lost to Bush and Cheney by three million popular votes. 

16. Dan Quayle to George H.W. Bush
The George H.W. Bush-Dan Quayle ticket in 1988 was a study in opposites attracting. At 64 years old, Bush was attracted to 41-year-old Quayle’s youth and the "glamour" that the "Robert Redford look-alike" would bring to the ticket. Bush also hoped that Quayle, as the staunchly conservative junior senator from Indiana, would attract voters that he could not as a more moderate Texan. The choice backfired somewhat when Quayle was dogged with questions about his enlistment in the National Guard after college, avoiding the draft for the Vietnam War, and later when he performed poorly at the vice presidential debate. Despite the hiccup, he and Bush went on to win election with 40 out of 50 states in their column.

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