Mary Jane Dunlap

KU study sheds new light on influence of vice presidential nominees in elections

Mon, 05/07/2012

LAWRENCE – Mitt Romney’s campaign advisers may want to read a new study at the University of Kansas on how vice presidential candidates influence presidential voting.

Past research considered whether vice presidential candidates had an aggregate effect on campaign voting, but a dissertation successfully defended by Whitney L. Court at KU shows that vice presidential candidates are most successful when they target specific segments of the voting public.

In her analysis of the risks and rewards associated with selecting vice presidential running mates over the past 50 years, Court focused on John F. Kennedy’s selection of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960 and John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in 2008.

“In both elections the vice presidential nominee was effective in mobilizing their targeted constituencies while for the most part maintaining original levels of support outside the target,” Court said.

“In 2008, for example, McCain needed the support of the conservative base of the Republican party,” Court said. “McCain actually got more conservatives to come out and vote because of Palin. He lost by less than he would have without Palin.

“The political environment was against McCain,” Court said. “He was up against a scenario that demanded change: The outgoing president had low appeal; the wars were losing popularity; the economy was not going well.”

Court and Michael S. Lynch, KU assistant professor of political science and Court’s doctoral adviser, presented their research on Sarah Palin’s 2008 candidacy at the 2011 Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting. Their paper from that presentation is under review for publication.

“The Romney campaign would be smart to read Whitney's dissertation,” Lynch said. “A vice presidential pick popular among conservatives could help Romney secure the Republican base. A vice presidential pick designed to appeal to everyone is likely to have a very limited impact on voting.”

Romney faces a situation similar to McCain’s in that neither is considered a true conservative, Court said.

As the American electorate continues to polarize and the numbers of groups and subgroups not willing to vote for the presidential candidate increase, the selection process becomes more complex, Court said.

The challenge will be to find a candidate that appeals to the social conservatives – those concerned with abortion, marriage and religion – and to those feeling left behind by the economy and not lose more moderate voters.

“Romney will be looking for someone to connect with these voters in a genuine way, which is why McCain picked Sarah Palin,” Court said. “Although she ran into trouble in news interviews about her knowledge of foreign policy, for example, social conservatives liked that she stayed true to her convictions and walked the walk.”

Historically the office of vice president has suffered low esteem, but Court noted: “We’re beyond the one-and-done vice presidents.”

Since the 1960s, “There has been tremendous growth in the office and in focus on who going to be selected.” Vice presidential candidates tend to negotiate for a role in the president’s cabinet; the office now has a staff of about 70; and media attention to the vice presidential nominee has increased.

Reporters may press potential GOP candidates about their interest in being on the ticket, but none are going to say they are interested, Court said.

“It’s part of the dance – part of the game; if you look too interested, you might not get picked. Speculation is fun, but it’s when we see it snowball into acceptance of misinformation that it becomes harmful,” Court said.

In November, Court and her husband, an elementary teacher, will be voting in Salem, Va., where she has an assistant professor position at Roanoke College. Originally from La Crescent, Minn., Court earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and has a master’s degree in education from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and a Master of Arts degree in political science from KU.

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