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Why Romney's choice for vice president could determine America's future

Marco Rubio? Nikki Haley? Chris Christie? Mitt Romney's VP choice is not just about ticket-balancing, which the evidence does not show as affecting election outcomes. Historical patterns show that with his pick for 'veep,' Romney will anoint a future presidential front-runner.

By Jonathan Zimmerman / May 9, 2012

Mitt Romney campaigns with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, right, at Exeter High School in Exeter, N.H. on Jan. 8. On Romney's potential pick for vice-president, op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman advises: '[D]on’t ask who will help Romney on his path to the Oval Office. Ask who you’d like to see sitting there four or eight years down the road.'

Charles Dharapak/AP


New York

In 1885, a young political scientist named Woodrow Wilson wrote a path-breaking book about the intricacies of American government. Its 344 pages included just one paragraph on the vice presidency, and Wilson wondered if that was too much.

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“The chief embarrassment in discussing the office is, that in explaining how little there is to be said about it one has evidently said all there is to say,” Wilson confessed. By the time Wilson became president in 1912, nothing had changed. Can you even name his vice president? I didn’t think so. (Answer: Thomas Marshall.)

But you probably can name the vice presidents after World War II, when the position became much more important. And not for the reasons you might think. Now that Mitt Romney is assured of the GOP nomination, news media have turned their focus to his selection of a running mate. There’s the inevitable talk of “balancing the ticket,” on the assumption that Mr. Romney’s choice will affect his own electoral fortunes.

Yet we have scant evidence that vice presidential nominees have made much of a difference in presidential elections. But they do make a difference once the election is over. Strange as it would have seemed to Woodrow Wilson, Romney is about to anoint a future presidential front-runner.

For most of US history, presidential candidates played virtually no role in choosing their running mates. That was left to the party conventions, which introduced the tradition of ticket-balancing. The vice presidential nominee almost always came from a different region than the presidential one, and if the party had strong internal camps, the “veep” choice could also provide balance on that front.

No president tried to influence this process until 1940, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt threatened to decline his party’s renomination unless it dropped John Nance Garner as his vice president. Garner, who had opposed FDR’s court-packing plan and his unprecedented bid for a third White House term, famously described the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

But it became worth a lot more after FDR engineered the nomination of Henry Wallace, setting the modern pattern for presidential selection. Roosevelt would drop Wallace four years later in favor of Harry Truman, who succeeded FDR upon his death in 1945.

And Truman would be elected president in his own right three years after that, establishing another new pattern: The vice presidency has become the best route to the White House. Between Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, only one former vice president – Martin Van Buren – was elected president. Except for Van Buren, no sitting vice president received his party’s nomination for the top job until Richard Nixon in 1960.


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