VOICES: “Veepstakes” not a game, but a choice that requires serious analysis

Credit: Larry Burgess

Credit: Larry Burgess

The November presidential election might seem far away, but it’s time for the veepstakes – already. You know, that favorite game of pundits, politicos and political junkies who, every four years, obsess over the presidential candidates’ choice for vice president.

With President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on track to win their party’s nominations, media headlines are already turning to the veepstakes. Who will Trump pick for vice president? Will Biden drop Vice President Kamala Harris?

As a political scientist who has studied veepstakes media coverage, I advise anyone following the vice presidential race to take all of this feverish speculation with a grain of salt.

You’ll hear in the speculation, for example, that vice presidents don’t really matter once in office and that the vice president pick has to be someone who can help win the election by delivering a key state or voting bloc.

But what matters most to voters, according to my research, and to the future of this country is finding someone who is well qualified to serve as vice president – and president, if necessary.

Veepstakes media coverage deserves its poor reputation as little more than an electoral parlor game. Too bad: Given the vice presidency’s importance and the media’s opportunity to educate Americans about the office’s potential next occupant, it should be so much more than that. This is the conclusion from my 2023 book, “News Media Coverage of the Vice-Presidential Selection Process: What’s Wrong with the ‘Veepstakes?’”

My research shows that veepstakes articles tend to focus on whether a potential running mate can help win the election – not on who can help the president govern once in office.

For example, I found that journalists are more likely to discuss a potential running mate’s physical appearance than whether he or she is qualified to serve as vice president.

A prospective vice-presidential candidate’s political or professional experience gets even less media coverage in the run-up to a close election. Only when the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion do journalists spend about as much time weighing a potential running mate’s governing capacities as their electoral appeal. Choosing a well-qualified vice president is treated as a luxury that only some presidential candidates can afford.

The problem with veepstakes media coverage, generally speaking, is that it overstates the running mate’s influence on voters and understates the importance of electing a well-qualified vice president.

Vice presidents have little in the way of formal, constitutional powers. They break ties in the Senate. And in what used to be a simple ceremonial function, they also open and count states’ electoral votes before Congress.

They are also first in line to take over as president, if necessary.

But over the past half-century, vice presidents have gained a great deal of informal power, too. In most administrations, they serve as top presidential advisers who play key roles in many major decisions. It is therefore important for presidential candidates to choose a running mate who can help them govern once in office.

Choosing a well-qualified running mate is also a good electoral strategy. My co-author, Kyle C. Kopko, and I demonstrate this in our 2020 book, “Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections.” Voters reward presidential candidates for selecting someone with the experience necessary to serve as vice president.

The opposite is true when selecting a less-experienced or poorly qualified vice president in a desperate bid for votes – think Sarah Palin, in 2008. That strategy backfires.

In short, running mates mostly have an indirect effect on how people vote by influencing what they think of the presidential candidates. Rarely does the choice change anyone’s vote simply because they like the vice-presidential candidate or come from the same state or demographic group.

As coverage of the 2024 veepstakes picks up, the media could better serve the American people by helping to provide relevant information about contenders for the vice presidency before they join a party ticket or get elected to office.

Informative news articles can provide answers to the most important questions: What are the potential running mate’s qualifications? What strengths will he or she bring to the White House? If elected, would the new president and vice president work well together?

My research suggests that this is the standard to which journalists should aspire. The “veepstakes” is not a game, but rather a consequential choice that requires serious, substantive analysis. You can pay attention to those who treat it as such – and ignore those who don’t.

Christopher Devine is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Dayton. A version of this column first appeared in The Conversation, a nonprofit news source for expert analysis.

About the Author