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Much Ado About Something

Kathy Frankovic, Director of Surveys for CBS News, is a recognized authority on elections and polling. She is a co-author of The Election of 1980 and The Election of 1992, and has published many articles on elections and public opinion.



Despite all the hoopla surrounding the choice of the Republican and Democratic candidates for vice president, there is little survey evidence to indicate that these nominees make much difference in the final outcome.

In fact, relatively few voters tell pollsters, both during the campaign and on Election Day, that the vice presidential choices matter a lot.

In last week's CBS News poll, just 15 percent of registered voters said that the vice presidential choices would matter a great deal in their vote, while 81 percent said that their vote is determined mainly by the presidential choices, so the vice presidential pick won't matter much. An even stronger indication to keep in mind is that two-thirds of the voters now say their minds are made up and can't be changed.

The vice presidential nominees themselves historically don't make much difference in the end when it really matters - on Election Day. The last vice presidential nominee who carried a state for his party was probably Lyndon Johnson in 1960.

And in general election day exit polls over the last 20 years, fewer than one in ten voters ever admit that the vice presidential candidate was the primary reason for their vote. And those voters usually are not particularly different. They usually split their ballots in the same way as other voters, suggesting that in the end, vice presidential choices don't win or lose elections.

That was true in 1988, even after the media convulsions surrounding the naming of Dan Quayle as George Bush's running mate. That was also true in 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro's candidacy brought excitement to the Democratic ticket, but later resulted in serious criticism of her family's finances. And that was true in 1992, when the much-criticized Quayle candidacy and the much-praised Gore nomination had a more or less indistinguishable impact on the voters who cared.

Of course, there is still an important reason to pay attention to the vice presidential choice. But it is not so much who gets picked, but how the candidate is selected. This will be, for many voters, their first experience with an important decision by the men who would be president.

This year, that experience could be critical. Even after months of campaigning, about a third of all registered voters are still unable to say whether their opinions of Bush and Gore are favorable or unfavorable. This week's decision may matter a great deal in how those voters view George W. Bush, and later, Al Gore for the remainder of the campaign. Does the choice strengthen or weaken the public's assessment of the candidate's leadership, intelligence, or trustworthiness?

ometimes the effect is measurable, though sometimes it is not. Clinton's choice of Gore - creating a ticket of two grown-up baby boomers - may have helped in strengthening their campaign theme of generational change, though it was hard to quantitatively sort this out from the other convention effects that year (including Ross Perot's temporary disappearance from the race).

Sometimes the selection - particularly one of a weak candidate - affects the later campaign. If a candidate's vice presidential choice is not seen as someone who is capable of being president, the presidential nominee might have to work harder to draw distinctions between himself and his opponent, hoping that on Election Day even fewer voters than usual care about second place.

At the moment, George W. Bush polls very well on presidential qualities. Sixty-six percent of registered voters in the latest CBS News/New York Times poll say he has strong qualities of leadership, while 73 percent say he understands the complicated problems a president has to deal with.

His weaknesses, if any, come on the perception of his ability to deal wisely with an international crisis, and on some of the more traditionally Democratic issues. In that same poll, 55 percent say Al Gore has strong qualities of leadership, and 84 percent say he understands the problems that a president deals with. But he too is weak on handling crisis.

How the public evaluates these candidates on those presidential qualities in the wake of their first presidential-level decisions will be the best measure of the success or failure of the vice presidential running mates.

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