The medias favorite pastime this summer, besides pretending that the parties conventions actually matter, is covering what has become known as the Veepstakes. Both presidential candidates will pick their vice-presidential nominee before the convention, and they usually make their announcement at a time when they can maximize media coverage. The process is typically carried out in great secrecy by the presidential campaigns, but leaks--most of them wrong--inevitably appear. To wit: It was rumored this week that John McCain would make his announcement very soon, to draw some attention away from Barack Obamas trip abroad. Now that appears unlikely.
Because the media has usually very little idea who will actually be picked, or who is even a contender, they have license to discuss any reasonably well-known politician under the sun. For Obama, at least 30 names have been discussed in the media, few of which have any real chance of being picked. The average American has heard of maybe three of these people. The list seems smaller for John McCain, if only because he more clearly has to pander to conservative elements of the Republican Party. For both, the picks are likely to be unexciting and mildly predictable, and they will change nothing about the dynamics of the race. No one even watches the vice-presidential debate anyway.
The conventional wisdom spouted by most commentators is that candidates should pick someone to balance the ticket. Obama, by this logic, should pick someone with foreign-policy experience, and McCain should pick someone younger and more charismatic. Former or current senators Sam Nunn, Joe Biden and Tom Daschle are all rumored to be undergoing vetting by Obamas team; the charismatic Mitt Romney and Bobby Jindal are rumored to be at the top of McCains list. Its not entirely clear how Joe Biden would make Obama seem more experienced--everyone knows that it would be Obama with the finger on the red button, not Biden. If the vice presidency had real formal power, then perhaps the conventional wisdom would make sense. But being Veep does not mean much in the end.
What few people seem to realize is that choosing a vice-presidential running mate rarely has any effect at all on the presidential race, and the selection process hardly justifies such hullabaloo. George W. Bush led in the polls before picking Dick Cheney, and Bob Dole trailed before and after picking Jack Kemp. John Kerrys choice of John Edwards had little impact. Only one choice in recent memory has had a real effect--JFKs choice of LBJ meant that he won Texas, and so the presidency. This is one strategy that might have real traction. One journalist following Obamas Veepstakes has an entire category, Virginia is for Lovers, for Virginian Democrats who might help him win the state--Mark Warner, Jim Webb and Tim Kaine. Perhaps aware that they would be selected solely to win their state, Warner and Webb have both declared their disinterest in the office.
The conventional wisdom--choosing someone for balance--is an idea that will likely have no positive effect on the tickets chances. Take Bill Clinton in 1992. Being a young Southern governor, he should have chosen an older, Northern type. Instead, he chose a young Southern senator, which reinforced his message of centrist change. If Obama were to select someone who also represented change, instead of experience, it would add to his credibility as an agent of change and reinforce his campaigns central narrative. McCain is on trickier ground. His age is not perceived as a good thing, and picking someone too old will increase negative perceptions of his campaign. Picking Bobby Jindal, who is 37, would only accentuate the publics perceptions of him as old. But if McCain wants to make the case that age is not a bad thing, he would be better served bypicking someone with a few grey hairs.
The selections will be announced probably a couple of weeks before the convention to great fanfare and discussion. The pick will be evaluated, everyone will talk about it and there will be no discernible bump in the polls for either candidates. And well wonder--or at least I will--why the media took us through the entire process in the first place.