Requiem for a Lightweight: Vice Presidential Candidate Evaluations and the Presidential Vote

By Romero, David W. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Requiem for a Lightweight: Vice Presidential Candidate Evaluations and the Presidential Vote


Romero, David W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Every four years, Americans experience the hoopla of a presidential election. A sideshow in this spectacle is the vice presidential nominees. Presidential nominees, party officials, journalists, and pundits all weigh the pros and cons of the candidate short list. Voters are also assumed to size up the veep nominees when mulling their vote for president. And, since 1976 (excepting 1980) vice presidential candidates have engaged in nationally televised debates.

The question is, Do vice presidential nominees influence the presidential vote? Plausible scenarios can be offered for and against their relevance. Recently, election scholars have begun to investigate this question. Their results are mixed. Aggregate-level analyses, for example, find that vice presidential candidates have no influence, bringing the national ticket no home state or regional advantage (Dudley and Rapport 1989; Holbrook 1991). Individual-level analyses, on the other hand, find that one's evaluation of the vice presidential nominees has a considerable influence on one's presidential vote choice-about one-half the influence that presidential candidate evaluations and partisan identification have and about one-and-a-half times ideology's influence (Wattenberg 1984, 1995).(1)

Whether the conflicting findings between the levels of analysis are anomalistic is unclear.(2) What seems clear, however, is that the individual-level results generate exaggerated estimates of the influence that vice presidential candidates have on the presidential vote. Given that the presidential nominees are the central focus of the campaign and that the information voters receive over the course of the campaign (from both the campaign and the media) is overwhelmingly skewed toward the presidential candidates, it seems unlikely that the vice presidential nominees would have a particularly powerful influence on the vote. A modest influence, at best, is a more reasonable expectation.

In this investigation, I reexamine the extent to which vice presidential nominees have a meaningful influence on the individual vote for president. Given that the individual-level analyses discussed above include the obvious controls (voter partisan identification, etc.), I assume the source of the influence exaggeration is more subtle. Using the 1972-76 National Election Studies (NES) panel study, I test whether voter rationalization of their intended vote exaggerates the influence vice presidential nominees are estimated to have on the presidential vote. After controlling for rationalization affects (on both presidential and vice presidential candidate evaluations), I find that while presidential candidate evaluations maintain a statistically and substantively meaningful influence on the vote for president, vice presidential candidate evaluations do not.

The Scenarios

Arguing in favor of vice presidential candidate influence, one could point out that at least twice, the presidential campaign spotlight shifts to the vice presidential nominees--first, around convention time, when journalists and pundits ponder the veep selection; and second, when vice presidential candidates engage in nationally televised debates. In addition, voters might note that the vice president's administrative responsibilities have increased and that his staff has grown accordingly (Cronin 1982; Goldstein 1982; Light 1984). Finally, voters could consider that the vice presidency has recently provided an inside track for the presidency. Since World War II, nearly every administration's vice president has either inherited, been nominated for, or run for the presidency.

Arguing against vice presidential candidate influence, one could point out that while the office might provide an inside track, the runners in that lane have no apparent advantage. Three incumbent vice presidents have run for office; two have lost. Two former vice presidents have run; one has lost. Three vice presidents have run after inheriting the presidency; one has lost. …

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