Everything you've heard about picking a vice president is wrong

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 8/10/2020, 11:43 a.m.

Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large

(CNN) -- Sometime this week -- maybe as soon as today! -- Joe Biden will announce his vice presidential running mate. Until that moment, the speculation over who he might pick (and why) will run rampant. And the vast majority of it will be totally wrong.

Why? There's no part of politics and campaigns more dictated by arcane conventional wisdom than the veepstakes.

That conventional wisdom goes like this: The presidential nominee is primarily guided by the electoral map when making his (or her) pick. The person who winds up as the choice is someone the presidential candidate believes will help him deliver a particular swing state or an area that the ticket badly needs in order to win.

The problem with that thinking? A vice presidential pick hasn't been the critical piece of carrying a state or a region since -- wait for it -- Lyndon B. Johnson, when John F. Kennedy picked him as VP in the 1960 presidential election. Kennedy needed the South to win and, as a senator from Massachusetts, there was massive skepticism about him despite the solidly Democratic voting nature of the region. LBJ, a senator from Texas, was a known and trusted commodity in the South and, by, selecting him, Kennedy put Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas in the Democratic camp. (Kennedy narrowly won the popular vote over Richard Nixon, but took 303 electoral votes.)

That pick, which is six decades old at this point, remarkably continues to dominate the way that many people -- including many political types -- think about the vice presidential selection process. But even a cursory look at recent history suggests that making a geographic, political pick isn't really a thing anymore.

Let's go through the last seven elections, shall we?

  • 2016: Donald Trump picks Mike Pence, who is from Indiana, a state that the Republican presidential nominee had carried in every election but one since 1964. Hillary Clinton picks Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, from a once-swing state but one that by 2016 had moved solidly toward Democrats.

  • 2012: Mitt Romney picks Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. The GOP ticket loses Wisconsin.

  • 2008: Barack Obama selects Joe Biden from Delaware, a reliably Democratic state at the presidential level. John McCain picks Sarah Palin of Alaska, which is not a swing state.

  • 2004: John Kerry goes with Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a state no Democrat has won at the presidential level since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Kerry/Edwards lose North Carolina.

  • 2000: George W. Bush picks Dick Cheney of Wyoming, one of the most conservative states in the country. Al Gore picks Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a state that hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1988.

  • 1996: Bob Dole picks Jack Kemp, a Congressman from New York. Dole/Kemp lose New York.

  • 1992: Bill Clinton goes with Al Gore, a senator from Tennessee. They win Tennessee! (But Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, might have won it anyway)!