Veepstakes 2016: Remind Voters of Differences

With the presidential nominating season lurching to a close (more or less-ish) pundit attention is turning to potential running mates. A dominant campaign theme this year is “they are screwing you,” with the “they” being a mix of bankers, political insiders, immigrants, minorities, foreign governments, and political hacks, depending on the candidate. A smart tactical running mate choice is one that reinforces this argument.

First, let’s dispense with the notion that the vice presidential candidate should be from a state the nominee needs to win. Vice presidential candidates do not help bring enough votes in their home states to matter. The VP should not be picked based on his or her home address.

A lot of successful political rhetoric constructs and reinforces the identity of the audience, it positions “we” the audience against “them” who threaten the audience. Smart candidates and campaigns deliver this message not just with what they say, but also where they say it, with whom they are seen when they say it, and who says it on their behalf. The surroundings and surrogates echo and reinforce the core message: We stand for the good, and by implication they stand for the bad. The vice presidential nominee is another way to reinforce this usness and themness. During the campaign vice presidential candidates are largely props that help make and reinforce the premise of the campaign. As such, the vice presidential nominee should be someone who ) reinforces the positive identity of the candidate and highlights the negative identity of the opposition.

One could suggest that a VP nominee should bridge the gap to the opposition — broaden the “us” (the traditional wisdom that candidates run to the extremes to win primaries and run to the center to win the general election). But such a selection would muddy the premise of the candidate’s argument, the lines between us and them would be less clear, and the argument therefore weaker. Democrats need people who tend to vote Democratic to turn out and Republicans need people who tend to vote Republican to turn out (people who call themselves independent voters are pretty reliably partisan regardless of what they call themselves). Some of those voters may not love their party’s nominee, but they may hate the opposition candidate. Ambivalence to the top of the ticket that might lead a voter to stay home could be overcome by a vice presidential pick that increases fear of or anger at the opponent. Parties especially need voters in a handful of swing states to vote, which means reinforcing divisions salient to voters each party needs in places like Colorado, Nevada, and Florida.

If Trump is the Republican nominee (or even tied to the Republican “brand” as Democratic candidates nationally will ensure happens) Democrats would be wise to select a nominee who reinforces everything Democrats (especially those in swing states) like least about Trump to reinforce Trump as them, while reinforcing the usnness and good Democratic voters see in themselves. In this light, Labor Secretary Tom Perez would be a good choice. He led civil right prosecutions at the Department of Justice, his title as Secretary of Labor reinforces that he supports workers, and his last name reminds voters of Trump’ hateful rhetoric. HUD Secretary Julian Castro would also be a good choice. Secretary Castro runs the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, reinforcing the Democratic message that cities matter and that the problems of affordable housing, health, and violence are very real. And while his family has been in Texas for nearly a century (and unlike Perez he does not speak Spanish) his name reminds voters — especially Hispanic voters, of whom there are a lot in Colorado, Nevada, and Florida — that Trump wants to build a wall to keep out people like Castro’s grandmother. Choosing someone like Secretary Castro or Perez, who are constant reminders of what Democrats are for and Republicans are against, helps reinforce the usness of Democrats and themness of Republicans. Selecting Secretary Castro’s twin brother, US Rep Joaquin Castro (D-TX) would be a weak choice because it reminds voters of Congress, something partisans of all stripes like less than lice and carnies (and Donald Trump, at least in 2013).

For a whole host of reasons, I hesitate to speculate about Trump’s thinking. But it is probably fair to suggest he will not choose someone like Gov. Kasich or Sen. Rubio to be his running mate (and unlikely they would accept the offer). Suspending disbelief for a moment, such a choice would be a mistake because it would undermine the premise of Trump’s campaign that those insiders screwed you, the us on whose behalf Trump claims to speak. It would be tactically advantageous for him to pick someone who visibly and obviously reinforces, rather than undermines, the premise of his campaign. The person should not be associated with Washington, and should have a history seeming to “say it like it is” such as a talk show host, author, or outspoken and successful entrepreneur.

I want to be clear that this is a tactical argument, what I would recommend to the campaigns if they asked. This is not a normative position in favor of greater division in America, or the moral worth of feeding a beast that seems to be eating our democracy.

The VP pick should of course be someone smart, someone who the presidential candidate trusts, and who could lead the nation should the president be unable to. But all of that matters after the inauguration, the candidate has to get elected first.