The vice presidential candidate matters less than you think
The myth surrounding the power of vice presidential candidates to sway voters is deeply ingrained in American politics. It is true that, once in office, vice presidents can make policy changes and create lasting impressions on voters, which is helpful if they decide to run for president in future elections. Vice presidents benefit from their role but do not return the favor during elections to their presidential running mate. Vice presidential candidates are widely thought of as helping determine the election by people in politics.
One of the main reasons people in politics believe the vice presidential candidate can change the outcome of an election is because of a “home-state advantage.” This is where the candidate is thought to be able to deliver extra votes in their home state. Therefore, the vice presidential candidate coming from a key electoral state is a fundamental requirement for the presidential candidate. For example, in 2012 Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, hoping he could win Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin. Yet McCain and Ryan lost Wisconsin to Barack Obama by nearly 7 percentage points (footnote 1). Politicians use conventional wisdom when choosing their running mate from a battleground state, but studies have proven that there is essentially no home-state advantage given to vice presidential candidates (2). If this advantage existed, there would be statistically predictable deviations of voting trends in the vice presidential candidate’s home states.
There is one exception to this rule: A home-state advantage can occur when the state has a small population and the candidate has an intimate level of familiarity with the voters. This was illustrated by Joe Biden in the 2008 election, where President Obama won with a 25% margin of victory (3). However, these states have a small number of electoral votes, and therefore it is unlikely they will change the outcome of an election. This once again reinforces the small impact of vice presidential candidates on the final election night result.
Many presidential candidates may also choose a running mate in hopes that he or she will attract voters who belong to that candidate’s affiliated demographics, like race or gender. However, studies indicate that this strategy does not pan out. When talking about a study done on targeted effects, Christopher Devine, author of “The VP Advantage,” says, “Targeted effects as far as picking up groups of voters, we find very little in terms of winning over women for our own (Sarah) Palin, or winning over religious groups” (4). Even when Americans see themselves reflected in a vice presidential candidate, they still tend to make their decision based on the top of the ticket. Joe Biden choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate makes her the first woman of color to be on a major party’s presidential ticket, but it is unlikely that will play a factor in the outcome of the election (5). If a voter’s primary concern is to have a Black woman on the ticket, then they would have come out in stronger numbers for Harris’ own presidential bid. Prior to Biden announcing Harris as his running mate, he already had overwhelming support from minority voters, especially young minority voters (6).
At the end of the day, the presidential candidate has three times the amount of influence on votes than the vice presidential candidate does. Devine explains, “Running mates have very little direct effect on voters. When people go to the polls, they are primarily expressing a preference for the presidential candidate, not the second person on the ticket.” For a running mate to have any significant influence on the outcome of the election, they must be either really terrible or really popular. However, this is rarely the case.
Vice presidential candidates fail to increase their influence through their one chance at a debate. This does not come as a surprise because the presidential debates are widely seen as ineffective at swaying voters and they have a far higher viewership than the vice presidential debates. Gallup’s Andrew Dugan says, “Voters are understandably more focused on the top of ticket, and debates themselves rarely influence voters’ pre-existing views.” In the election years 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2008, Gallup conducted polls that concluded the median change in support of candidates after the vice presidential debates was only one percentage point. Additionally, the vice presidential debate occurs late in the campaign, when a significant majority of voters have already made up their minds on who they are voting for. The people who watch the debates, and especially the vice presidential debates, are the ones who already pay close attention to politics and are unlikely to be swayed.
Every four years, the media extensively covers the vice presidential candidates and theorize how they will affect the outcome of the election. As Christopher Devine put it, “We all know running mates don’t matter that much, but then when we start strategizing as political junkies about how to win the race, there’s a tendency to really overstate what effect the running mates may have” (7). This phenomenon can be seen in voters, too, with many of them saying the vice president is important when deciding who gets their vote, yet none can point out a time where it changed their vote (8). Americans should change the way they view the importance of strategically picking a vice presidential candidate with the knowledge of what little effect they have on the outcome of an election.
Gretchen Bell lives in Plattsburgh.