Neither major party’s presidential candidate has officially announced a running mate, but speculation as to how those choices will impact each ticket has already flooded political conversation. But before getting swept away by the deluge, it is important to understand what the vice president can and cannot do, on the campaign trail, and in the White House.
Research in my new book, ‘On Behalf of the President’, suggests that the barriers vice presidents face to exerting political influence, in addition to those inherent to their official limitations, are exceedingly high. Across the last three administrations, vice presidents have given fewer public speeches than presidents and first ladies, and within the universe of those speeches, fewer campaign remarks than both. According to data provided on the White House Briefing Room website, in 2015, Joe Biden made 16 public speeches compared to Michelle Obama’s 76. Vice presidents also have lower rates of name recognition than presidents and first ladies, and they are generally less popular than presidents and first ladies. Vice presidential favorability also tracks very closely with presidential favorability. In almost every year from 1993 to 2014, average favorability ratings of the president and vice president have either both increased or both decreased. This is not the case for the presidential spouses, who can retain or increase their popularity even when the president’s falters.
These findings are in line with what the founding fathers intuited. Upon becoming the first Vice President of the United States, John Adams famously declared, “My country has…contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived…I can do neither good nor evil.” Nelson Rockefeller also reluctantly accepted the post, asserting he was “not built for standby equipment.” Symbolic gestures of vice presidential significance have also dissipated over time, such as one inaugural tradition whereby presidents and their running mates share a car and walk together from the inauguration ceremony to the White House, a role that has been filled by the president’s spouse since 1952.
Yet in recent years, presidency researchers and former White House staff have adduced that the vice presidency has expanded beyond its restrictive formal bounds, growing closer to the Oval Office and higher in prestige. According to these arguments, what grew out of Walter Mondale’s broadened responsibilities and influence in the Carter administration eventually resulted in the imperial presidency of Dick Cheney.
Even more than professional qualifications or beltway experience, the key variable that experts have deemed a necessary condition of an influential vice presidency is, of course, the president’s willingness to include his nominee in the decision-making process. That willingness has been in flux over time. It has been reported, for example, that George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle were a less constant West Wing presence than Mondale, while Al Gore acted as an all-purpose advisor to President Clinton.
What has been more consistent over the last three administrations is the lack of ability vice presidents have to boost the president’s appeal, a capability that is central to the selection of a running mate and determining which surrogates to deploy on the campaign trail and in the White House.
One of the crucial tasks to any successful political surrogacy is getting voters to consider the president or candidate in a different light, and to fill in perceived deficits in personality, knowledge, or credentials. But in a series of survey experiments in my book administered via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service in August 2015 among 1,683 survey respondents, I measured the impact of appeals made by vice presidents to the impact of identical appeals made by first ladies on political opinion. I found that there are very few instances in which vice presidents have a greater effect on opinion of the president than the president’s spouse. This difference is especially pronounced when the question is one of the president’s character and fitness to lead, two of the most widely cited litmus tests for electability.
To use the Bush administration as an example, Dick Cheney was worse than Laura Bush at convincing respondents George Bush handled his job well, worse at convincing respondents the president was honest and moral, worse at convincing respondents the president was compassionate, and worse at convincing respondents the president was a good leader. The results followed a similar pattern, but were not as strong in the Clinton and Obama administrations. In fact, in the realm of policy, it seems vice presidents can sometimes excel in messaging endeavors. For instance, when respondents were asked how well Bill Clinton handled the economy, Al Gore was more effective than Hillary Clinton, and when respondents were asked how well Barack Obama has handled foreign policy and health care, Joe Biden was more effective than Michelle Obama.
There is almost no empirical research on the vice presidency despite the abundance of news coverage vice presidents and vice presidential running mates receive every four years. My research indicates that while vice presidents can occasionally affect opinion in the arena of public policy, they are rarely able to accomplish precisely what presidential campaigns require of them: to humanize candidates and broaden their bases of support. Choosing a spouse may be a more consequential political decision than choosing a running mate.