The New Vice Presidency: Institutions and Politics

Article excerpt

The criteria for selecting vice presidential candidates and the electoral and institutional impact of the running mates are important and understudied questions in American politics. Popular assumptions are rampant, and yet scholarship is slim. The result is often confusion.

Public discussion of the vice presidency faces two challenges. First, pundits and perhaps presidential campaigns harbor enormous expectations regarding the electoral impact of the vice presidential nominee. Handicapping which potential nominee would help the Republican and Democratic tickets has been a favorite parlor game in the media and talk shows during 2008. This raises a pressing question for presidency scholars: What is the independent effect of the running mate on the outcome of the election? Although the running mate may have an impact (especially in critical swing states such as Ohio and Florida), the enormous electoral significance that pundits attach to the vice presidential picks is inflated.

Second, the popular preoccupation with the running mate's electoral impact has distracted our attention from genuinely significant institutional developments--namely, the enhanced political and institutional power of the vice presidential office since the Jimmy Carter administration. Although the press is transfixed by the electoral impact of the running mate, the media neglects the transformation of the vice presidency into a pivotal new force in the Executive Office of the President and the executive branch more generally.

The neglect of the vice presidency is perhaps not surprising. After all, the U.S. Constitution is nearly silent on the vice president apart from his or her serving as president of the U.S. Senate and as the first option in presidential succession. John Adams aptly noted when he was George Washington's number two, "I am nothing but I may be everything." The constitutional snub led to a long line of obscure vice presidents, including Richard Johnson, George Dallas, and William King from the nineteenth century and Charles Dawes and Alben Barkley in the last century. For nearly 200 years, the vice president languished in obscurity, derision, and irrelevance.

The purpose of this symposium--a collaboration of Presidential Studies Quarterly and the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs' Center for the Study of Politics at the University of Minnesota--is to spotlight and encourage research regarding the vice presidency's electoral and institutional impacts.

The year 2008 is a particularly propitious moment to expand this research agenda, for three reasons. First, presidential succession may appear especially relevant. Nearly one out of three vice presidents (14 of 46) has become president. Knowing more about the running mates may be particularly important in 2008 because the Republican nominee, John McCain, is a cancer survivor and would, if elected, be the oldest president sworn in to a first term.

A second motivation for expanding the research is that the selection of running mates seems to offer a targeted but still critical electoral resource in 2008. If the presidential race is as closely contested in key states as the two most recent elections, even a small impact on a critical state such as Florida or Ohio could alter the election's outcome. The selection may also be a factor in resolving the Democratic Party's deadlock in selecting a nominee.

The third and especially important stimulus is the emergence of the vice presidency as a critical institutional base of power and decision making. The media and other political scholars should scrutinize the electoral strengths of the running mates and their suitability to succeed the president. What also needs far more attention are the qualifications of the vice presidential nominees to serve as vice president given the office's substantial institutional resources and influence.

The papers in this forum by Joel K. …