Do VP Choices Matter?

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This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.
Would adding Hillary Clinton to his ticket help the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama? Do vice presidential candidates matter?

The survey evidence is mixed, on the extent to which vice-presidential choices help a ticket win. Although one obvious reason for choosing a vice president is to help carry a particular state or region, many past choices have come from states that reliably vote for one party or the other. John F. Kennedy's choice of Texan Lyndon Johnson, in 1960, is probably the last time a vice presidential candidate brought his home state along and made a difference. But when George H.W. Bush chose Senator Dan Quayle in 1988, it wasn't because he was worried about carrying reliably Republican Indiana. Nor was his son, George W. Bush, worried about losing Wyoming's three electoral votes in 2000, if he didn't choose Dick Cheney.

The vice-presidential choice says something about a presidential candidate's judgment, and frequently it cements a particular view of that presidential candidate in the minds of voters. Since the choice is typically made during or just before a party's nominating convention, it may also be a way to add excitement to a ticket.

That was certainly the hope in 1984, when Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro as his vice-presidential nominee. Having the first woman on a major party's ticket may have excited women's groups, but only 23 percent of Democratic voters said they were "really excited about it" in a CBS News/New York Times Poll conducted right after he nomination. And nearly as many Democratic voters (19 percent) thought it was a "bad idea." The exit poll that CBS News and the New York Times conducted that general election day suggested that- despite her supporters' excitement - Ferraro's presence on the ticket could only account for a gain of less than one percent of their national popular vote. In any case, whatever her impact, she and Mondale lost resoundingly to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

But sometimes a vice presidential candidate appears to make more of a difference. Before the 1992 Democratic convention, our polls showed George H. W. Bush leading Bill Clinton by four points, 36 percent to 32 percent, with independent Ross Perot at 26 percent. After the convention and the nomination of Al Gore as Clinton's running mate, plus Perot's temporary withdrawal from the contest, Clinton held a 23-point lead over Bush in the CBS News Poll.

But mostly the impact is less than that. Gore's choice of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, narrowed the gap between him and George W. Bush from 15 points to 10 points. Bush's naming Dick Cheney as his running mate had no discernible impact on support for the Republican ticket.

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry's chose John Edwards, who had finished second to Kerry in the primaries. After the addition of the former North Carolina Senator, the Kerry-Edwards ticket had a five-point edge over Bush-Cheney, whereas before picking Edwards, Kerry had led Bush by just two points.

Only one in five voters admit that the choice of a vice presidential candidate has a great deal of influence on their vote - 21 percent said that in 2000, 16 percent in 2004. And in fact, elections are not about the vice presidential candidate. If they were, the outcomes might be different. In 1988, Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen was viewed as having enough experience to be president - and by nearly a two-to-one margin. By more than two to one, voters thought Republican Dan Quayle did not have enough experience. When pitted head to head, just before that election, in a hypothetical vice president-only vote, Bentsen led Quayle 53 percent to 28 percent. But Quayle and his presidential running mate, George H.W. Bush, easily won that election.

So what about 2008? Nearly all the names now being discussed are not well-known except for the best-known - Hillary Clinton.

If she were chosen by Obama, Clinton probably would be the most well-known vice presidential nominee since Johnson. In the last CBS News Poll, conducted just as the nomination process was winding down (May 30-June 3), eight in ten registered voters had an opinion about her - even more than had an opinion about Obama. Forty one percent of registered voters viewed each of them favorably, but Clinton elicited more unfavorable opinions (39 percent) than Obama did (31 percent were unfavorable towards him).

Months ago, Obama himself was talking about how he was more electable than Clinton, basing his claim on poll data showing small differences in head to head matchups. In our new poll, he leads McCain by six points, 48 percent to 42 percent. But three in ten Democrats who supported Clinton for the nomination in that poll say right now that they would either vote for McCain or NOT vote at all in November (and in her head-to-head match-up with McCain, Clinton actually led by nine points, 50 percent to 41 percent).

Polls taken five months before an election aren't much better predictors than the polls Obama was citing three months ago. They may even be worse predictors. But it's fair to say that whomever Obama chooses will say a lot about him. Right now, about a third of the Clinton supporters may not be thrilled about the Obama victory. Just as many of those Clinton voters DON'T have a positive view of Obama as do have a positive view. But three out of four of them say Obama SHOULD pick her as his running mate. Maybe THAT choice would excite them about Obama's candidacy.
By Kathy Frankovic
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