Institutional Change and the Dynamics of Vice Presidential Selection

By Hiller, Mark; Kriner, Douglas | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Institutional Change and the Dynamics of Vice Presidential Selection


Hiller, Mark, Kriner, Douglas, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The American vice presidency has recently matured into a distinguished office of considerable authority (David 1967; Goldstein 1982; Light 1984; Mayer 2000; Nelson 1988a; Pomper 1966). Vice President Richard Cheney's unprecedented power in the administration of George W. Bush, from advocating the Iraq War to shaping the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and forging the nation's energy policy, is only the latest manifestation of the newly invigorated office. (1) The rapid growth in its substantive responsibilities dates back largely to Jimmy Carter's inclusion of Vice President Walter Mondale among his inner circle, the first time a president treated his vice president as a valued advisor on a broad array of issues (Light 1984). Since then, presidents have frequently vested their seconds in command with real authority and, at least in the cases of Albert Gore and Richard Cheney, positions akin to true partnerships.

Despite the office's growth, the vice presidency has evaded scholarly attention, and relatively little is known about how presidential candidates choose their running mates. Here we analyze the vice presidential selection process by focusing on the incentives facing presidential nominees, who since 1940 have handpicked their running mates, (2) and how these incentives have changed over time. We propose a new model of vice presidential selection that emphasizes the influence of two major developments--one a set of institutional changes, the other a historical accident--that substantially changed the incentives driving nominees' choice of running mates. We modify and temporally extend an existing empirical analysis of the selection process (Sigelman and Wahlbeck 1997) to test our belief that these forces lessened the strategic value of ticket balancing, widely emphasized in the literature, and instead increased the importance of choosing running mates with extensive backgrounds in public service who would appeal to the mass electorate in the general election. Freer to choose running mates based on their qualifications and more personal factors, presidents have become more willing to entrust their vice presidents with governing authority once elected, further enhancing the office and the incentive to fill it with a capable running mate.

The Changing Incentives of Vice Presidential Selection

When choosing a running mate, presidential nominees must balance two potentially competing goals: maximizing their chances of actually being elected president and selecting a vice president who is capable of sharing the burdens of government and, if necessary, succeeding to the presidency. Because the latter is meaningless without the former, the academic and popular consensus is that electoral motivations drive the choice of a running mate (Goldstein 1982; Natoli 1985; Polsby and Wildavsky 1991; Sigelman and Wahlbeck 1997). Generally, the conventional wisdom is that presidential candidates seek to balance their ticket by choosing a running mate who contributes key qualities that the presidential nominee lacks. The particular electoral environment will determine which balancing characteristics--such as age, nature of political experience, ideology--matter most.

The most rigorous existing empirical analysis of the dynamics driving vice presidential selection is Lee Sigelman and Paul J. Wahlbeck's 1997 study. To test the ticket-balancing theory, Sigelman and Wahlbeck constructed a conditional logit model of 22 major party selections from 1940 to 1996 comprising a variety of measures of ticket balance along regional, ideological, experiential, and demographic dimensions, as well as a measure of the electoral size of a prospective running mate's state.

Empirically, the ticket-balancing theory failed to pass muster. Factors long thought to influence the selection process, including region, political ideology, religion, race, gender, and ethnicity, were shown, surprisingly, to have little or no effect on the likelihood of selection.

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