With the presidential election only months away, roommates Zach and Labib square off on one of the campaign trail’s toughest questions: Who will be Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate? Both give their take on what Romney needs to keep in mind.
IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID
By Jonathan Labib
Leading up to the Republican National Convention in late August there has been much discussion of Mitt Romney’s choice for his running mate. The discussion has mostly taken two sides: Romney should play it safe and choose a center-right moderate like himself, or he should take a risk, choosing a VP further to the right to solidify his base, or a candidate based on geography, gender, or charisma.
It is in Romney’s best interest to select his running mate conservatively, as his best chance of winning is to focus on the economy and present himself as a center-right moderate alternative to President Obama, and not as a further-right candidate trying to appeal to the Tea Party.
The state of the economy is important for two reasons: voters say that it is important, and it has proven to be a critical factor in elections in the past. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that a vast majority of voters identify the state of the economy as a very important concern. History is also not on President Obama’s side, as no President since FDR has won re-election with an unemployment rate of over 7.2%. The unemployment rate currently stands at 8.2% and isn’t expected to drop much, if at all, before the election in November. Importantly, in another Rasmussen poll only 31% of likely voters believed that President Obama was doing a good job with the economy.
With voters clearly dissatisfied with President Obama’s handling of the economy Mitt Romney has a real opening to present himself as the center-right candidate who can pull the economy out of the stagnation exacerbated by Obama’s center-left policies. However, if he pulls too far to the right it could dissuade independents from voting for him, choosing President Obama as the lesser of two evils.
Governor Romney’s two most discussed “safe” choices are Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Both men are eminently qualified to serve as Vice President, and if necessary as President. Portman has served in the Senate, House, as a United States Trade Representative, and as Director of the Office and Management and Budget during the George W Bush administration. Pawlenty has nine years of executive experience and was awarded an A on fiscal policy by the Cato Institute during his tenure. Both are reliably fiscally conservative and play to Romney’s strength, his appeal for a change in stewardship over the American economy. Importantly both are moderate enough to attract independents, which Romney needs to do to win the election. I’m confident that whoever Romney chooses as a VP the conservative base will support him, as they overwhelmingly disapprove of President Obama.
Alternatively if Governor Romney chooses one of the “riskier” VP choices that have been discussed, such as Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio, he could alienate the middle of the electorate. Paul Ryan is a favorite of the right, but is currently politically toxic due to his budget plan which cuts entitlement spending, especially on Medicare. The Obama campaign would be able to turn Ryan into a major liability through negative advertising and paint Romney as too far right for the country. Rubio’s strong association with the Tea Party could also be problematic for Romney, as the Tea Party became unpopular after the debt ceiling debacle last summer.
Romney won the Republican nomination because unlike the other candidates, such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, he is moderate enough to successfully attract independents. Adding Ryan or Rubio to the ticket could destroy his appeal to most undecided voters, who could feel that he is too conservative.
Picking a nominee based on their home state, such as Rubio in Florida, or to appeal to a demographic, women or Latinos, can prove to be futile. Research by New York Times statistical whiz Nate Silver has shown that a VP usually does little to help a Presidential candidate carry a state, negating one of Rubio’s major perceived advantages, as Florida is a battleground state. The 2008 election demonstrated that aiming for a specific demographic with a VP choice, Sarah Palin and women in that case, can be disastrous if selected solely for that reason. No matter whom Romney chooses as his running mate it is very unlikely that he will win either the women vote or the Latino vote anyway.
At the end of the day Romney’s election chances will depend on the issue that is most important to the voters: the economy. Romney’s biggest strength is that he provides a fiscally conservative platform that can be contrasted with President Obama’s Keynesian policies that have failed to reduce unemployment to below 8% at any point during his presidency. Choosing a “risky” running mate could distract from that central issue and provide an opening for the Obama administration to paint Romney as too extreme for the country.
HISTORY DEMANDS AN EXCITING VP FOR ROMNEY
By Zach Goldaber
In recent presidential election history the Republican and Democratic parties alike have put up a stunning amount of candidates who are not quite the charismatic dynamos people imagine when they think of presidential candidates. From Barry Goldwater to Gerald Ford in through to George H.W. Bush and John Kerry, Governor Mitt Romney is merely the latest in a string of candidates who occasionally make buttered toast exciting by comparison.
Governor Romney’s team has a big choice to make in the next few weeks – whether they try to pick someone less exciting than he is as his vice presidential nominee. If he chooses that route, it will in all probability hurt his chances. In the first place, how many politicians exist who are less exciting than Romney? The answer, I think, is few at best – and probably no one of national prominence.
For all of his solid, staunchly conservative policies, Ohio Senator Rob Portman remains unknown to over half of all Americans. Governor Sarah Palin was unrecognized by 70% of all Americans before her nomination in 2008, and as a result many Americans were introduced to her by the excoriating profiles the mainstream media used to introduce her.
Speaking of Governor Palin, the fact remains that a candidate’s choice for vice president typically does not impact election results all that much. A study by Bernard Grofman and Irving Kline at the University of California at Irvine concluded that the net impact of vice presidential selection on popular vote margins “is at most 1 percentage point” in ordinary elections.
That study and another by Brian Brox and Madison Cassels at Tulane and Penn State respectively concluded that even the supposedly outlandish choice of Governor Palin had about the average effect on voter choice rather than the outsize impact most media pundits claimed. The latter study concludes something interesting: Palin did demonstrably “rally the Republican base” around McCain in some skeptical conservative circles. The problem was that she did not draw independent voters, which was what Senator McCain needed to win 2008.
Governor Romney has a slightly different problem. He holds a 14-point lead among independents in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, but he is not an engaging campaigner and lacks much of the vigor that Obama has demonstrably shown throughout his administration, let alone the 2008 campaign – which he will admittedly be unable to replicate. Governor Romney needs a firebrand speechmaker, someone who is stiff on the issues where he is week, and someone with all the personal warmth he lacks because he just cannot connect with voters.
That, above all else, is why the Republican vice presidential choice needs to be exciting – it will be tough for Romney to win if he expects to draw the same numbers from conservatives voting against Obama instead of for Romney/Christie, Romney/Paul Ryan, or even a Romney/Bachmann ticket. Hate, to put it simply, is a much easier path to voter apathy than voter enthusiasm. In a situation where a vice presidential choice is likely to have very little impact on the election numbers anyway, it makes much more sense for the former Massachusetts governor to go for broke and pick someone polarizing and exciting rather than playing it safe.
Of course, having said all that, Governor Romney is probably perfectly comfortable campaigning on the economy and health care as an issues man. His advisors are likely pointing him toward a relatively pedestrian pick – someone like Portman, or Tim Pawlenty, or Kelly Ayotte if they are feeling especially vigorous after their morning Metamucils. He may yet win with that approach – if he and President Obama do enough this fall to keep his conservative base from falling asleep.