3/22/2008

The McCain Veepstakes

Seeing that the race for the Republican presidential nomination is essentially over, the only real storyline on that side of the ledger now concerns whom John McCain will chose as his running mate.

Vice presidents are chosen for a variety of reasons. They are tapped to bring ideological balance to a ticket (e.g., a conservative trying to broaden his appeal by selecting a moderate), add geographical balance (e.g., a Northeasterner selecting a Southerner), or simply deliver a state (e.g., choosing a governor from State X to take it out of play for the opposing party in the general election). Other vice presidential picks are chosen for reasons unrelated to state-by-state electoral calculus, such as complementing one's resume (e.g., a stiff policy wonk choosing someone more charismatic who can connect with regular people) or to even placate one segment of the party base (e.g., a Republican moderate on illegal immigration choosing a hardliner as his running mate).

There are some factors that may preclude a nominee from selecting a particular running mate that are not due to any weakness of the potential running mate himself. For example, if a Democratic nominee likes a Democratic senator that hails from a state which has a Republican governor, there's a good chance that the Republican governor would appoint a Republican senator, thus changing the balance of the Senate. So in that case, choosing this particular Democratic senator as a running mate may do more harm than good, especially if the Democrat's presidential bid is ultimately unsuccessful.

In the case of John McCain and geography, he has effectively taken Arizona off the map because that is his home state. Democrats had been looking at Arizona as a possible pick-up opportunity, but that will have to wait until 2012 at the earliest.

Regarding ideology, McCain has two paths available to him. He could make a play for the center by selecting a moderate Republican or he could firm up his base by selecting a conservative. McCain still enjoys relatively favorable ratings among moderates, independents, and even Democrats because he is not seen as a hardcore partisan. If he wants to drive a stake in the heart of Democrats everywhere, he would choose a popular Republican governor from a blue state. Former Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania would seem to be a particularly wise choice because Pennsylvania is one of the most important swing states that the Democrats have been able to win in recent elections. Should the Democrats lose Pennsylvania, they would have to flip Ohio or Florida to offset it and hope that Michigan doesn't slip through their fingers.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist may also be a wise choice because Florida is not nearly as Republican as Georgia and Tennessee are. Governor Crist has good looks, strong favorability ratings, and a youthfulness that cancels out McCain's age. And more importantly, taking Florida off the map would force the Democrats to compete elsewhere. A Crist selection seems plausible because of his endorsement of McCain before the Florida primary. So McCain owes Crist.

Of course, the weakness of selecting Gov. Ridge, Gov. Crist or any moderate would be a potentially dispirited conservative base. McCain was pummeled in the primaries for not being sufficiently conservative on taxes and illegal immigration. In fact, John McCain would not have been the nominee had Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson not all split the conservative vote. Would evangelical Christians and staunch conservatives stay home, or will they vote for the Constitution Party nominee? If these conservatives don't turn out at the polls, swing states like Missouri and Virginia could go blue.

Why would these conservatives rather stay home instead of vote for McCain even if that means they are helping the liberal Democratic candidate? It's because they want to send a message to Republicans that conservatives and conservatism matter. These conservatives care more about ideology than party. In other words, they are more conservative than Republican.

The second ideological tack McCain could take would be to select a conservative as a running mate. This would certainly please the base. However, the problem here is that the most fertile conservative territory is to be found in the South. Tapping Senator John Cornyn of Texas or Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia is not going to help much. Running up the score on Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in Alabama and Oklahoma is not going to bring McCain any closer to the nomination because those Southern states are states he should carry anyway.

Governors Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Haley Barbour of Mississippi are strong conservatives, but neither of them will help McCain win any states he shouldn't already be able to win by virtue of being a Republican. Even if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, South Carolina and Mississippi are decidedly uphill climbs for Democrats, especially in presidential elections. Conventional wisdom says these two candidates are good choices, but I ultimately believe their selection is unlikely. Gov. Sanford did not endorse McCain until long after the South Carolina primary and Gov. Barbour would probably rather remain as Mississippi's chief executive so he could help rebuild the state after Hurricane Katrina.

Geographically speaking, McCain would be unlikely to choose a candidate from the West. In addition to a lack of candidates to choose from in that part of the country, such a pick would not add much geographic balance to the ticket. On top of this, most Western and Plains states have small populations that would not be of much help electorally. This would eliminate otherwise attractive candidates like Senator John Thune of South Dakota.

McCain could also choose a personal friend as his running mate. The advantage to this would be the natural rapport between the two candidates. The Kerry-Edwards and Gore-Lieberman tickets seemed a bit awkward and forced. That would be akin to McCain choosing someone like Tom Tancredo. Two of McCain's closest friends happen to be the two senators that joined him on his most recent trip to the Middle East--Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Both senators would be safe picks in that they hail from states that have Republican governors (who would therefore likely appoint Republican Senate replacements) and they would be acceptable to both conservatives and moderates. Sen. Graham is a center-right senator, rather than a hard right senator. And Sen. Lieberman is seen as Republicans' favorite Democrat. Lieberman could give the Democrats fits because they need his seat in the Senate even though liberals are flummoxed by his defense policy. Then again, partisan Democrats may already view Lieberman as a traitor because of Iraq, so they may be happy to see him go. Lieberman has not expressed much interest in another White House run, but if his good friend McCain asked him, who's to say he would refuse? Another point worth considering is that Lieberman could also put the light blue states of Connecticut and New Jersey in play.

And lastly, no serious discussion of the McCain veepstakes would be complete without assessing his last serious rival for the nomination--Mike Huckabee. Conventional wisdom says that Huckabee would be a good fit for McCain because he could consolidate support among Southerners and evangelical voters. And they both needed each other to beat Mitt Romney. However, I disagree that Huckabee is a likely choice for McCain because 1) his economic populism likely would not go over well with fiscal conservatives, and 2) Huckabee may have worn out his welcome by staying in the race too long and potentially embarrassing McCain. Of course, Huckabee could have been sowing the seeds for another run at the White House in 2012 instead of trying to further endear himself to McCain, so maybe Huckabee doesn't care about McCain's decision.

Of course, all of this is idle speculation. Until the Democratic race gets settled, it would be prudent for McCain to focus more on improving his own relations with the GOP base, rather than worrying about his vice presidential pick. And besides, there's no sense in choosing a running mate before you even know who your own general election opponent is. McCain's choice should be at least partially be based on countering what the Democrats ultimately decide on. Suppose an Obama-Clinton ticket actually does materialize, despite my skepticism. Could McCain then look to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice or her predecessor Colin Powell? What a coup that would be!

In the meantime, considering all current and recent governors and senators, it would appear that Tom Ridge, Charlie Crist, and Joe Lieberman have the inside track.

7 comment(s):

Brett said...

Crist, I'm guessing, assuming McCain doesn't pull a maverick and choose Lieberman. Having Florida in his pocket would be a nice bonus for the Republicans, and Crist would almost certainly take the job if offered it; he's an ambitious fellow (although not a lot of VPs have gone on to become President immediately after their VPness).

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

in guess thats why he was campaiging in israel

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

John McCain and Lincoln Chaffee:)

(I love Chaffee. He's my perfect GOP politician).

I would love to see him paired up with a moderate GOP. I think this will revitalize the party.

With a ticket like that, I would actually seriously consider voting for him:)

Thomas said...

I have heard it suggested that John McCain pick Mitt Romney as his vice-president. I think Mitt Romney proved this past primary season that he is not a feasible national candidate. His flip-flopping may become less of an issue over time but he just doesn't have the warm personality that we seem to need in a president. He is much more akin to a Hillary Clinton than he is to a Barack Obama or a Mike Huckabee. I am not a Mitt Romney supporter by any means but watching him on the stump made me wince in pain. I felt sorry for the guy.

Brett said...

I think it would be extremely bizarre for McCain to pick Romney. If you judge a VP by how well they can bring people from the center, bring people from the base, or bring a state, then Romney fails on all three counts - he was never particularly popular in the center, there are plenty of better Republicans from the base, and Romney has zero chance of bringing Massachusetts.

Of course, you never know. McCain can be an odd duck - remember when he had Rudy Giuliani accompanying him for a while after Giuliani dropped out and endorsed him? Or how Lieberman continues to follow him around?

Lieberman, of course, would probably love to be chosen as McCain's VP - and I imagine the Republican Party Leadership might not mind as long as it brought a state or two. Not to mention that it would probably require Lieberman to fully defect over the Republican tent.

Thomas said...

Anthony, here is a quote from today's David Brooks column: "Second, Obama’s lawyers successfully prevented re-votes in Florida and Michigan."

Is this going to hurt Barack Obama in these two states (especially Florida if McCain chooses Charlie Crist) in November? Does this not show that Obama is as opportunistic as the next politician?

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett,

Neither Crist nor Lieberman would surprise me. But one of the strikes against Crist would be "inexperience." That would inoculate Obama from the charge. And given McCain's age, people would probably place a bit more importance on his VP selection.

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Torrance,

Lieberman and Graham are probably McCain's two strongest and closest friends in Congress. I could easily see Graham as Attorney General if McCain passes over him for veep.

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RHW,

Lincoln Chafee would make moderates everywhere happy. Chafee is probably my favorite senator. I hope he makes a run for governor sometime before considering a presidential run for himself. In any other year, he would not have lost his seat. But 2006 was a wave election, so I guess nobody was safe.

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Thomas,

I deliberately avoided mentioning Mitt Romney. He will get his own special post in the very near future. Stay tuned. Oh, and the state of the Dems' race will also be addressed very soon as well. Obama and Clinton surely aren't failing to give me lots to write about!