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Do Vice Presidential Picks Matter During An Election?

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In the lead up to the national conventions, there is much speculation regarding the vice presidential picks for both candidates. It not only concerns who the candidates will announce as their respective running mates, but also, when that announcement is going to occur.

Although the process for vetting vice-presidential picks is considered grueling, and the timing of the announcement is very important to ensuring that media coverage is maximized, the question remains: how much does a vice presidential pick really help win an election?

As the shortlist for both candidates emerge, we are hearing more and more discussion surrounding how certain vice presidential picks may help the nominee carry a competitive state, especially if it is that pick's home state. In this election cycle, many cite Ohio as an example of how Senator Sherrod Brown can help Clinton carry the state, or conversely, how Governor John Kasich can help Trump take Ohio.

This logic is commonly accepted because it seems to make sense on the surface. However, if we look at how candidates have selected their running mates historically, it is not incredibly often that presidential candidates choose vice presidential picks hailing from swing-states. Further, we can also see that swing state choices do not always lead to wins.

In fact, many political scientists seem to find little evidence of any home-state advantage that may result from their vice presidential selection. In a 2010 study, scholars at the University of California, Irvine, analyzed data from the American National Election Survey over a 40 year period and found that the net effect of a presidential candidate is generally less than 1% in terms of getting voters to cross party lines.

In their paper, "Evaluating the Impact of Vice Presidential Selection on Voter Choice", the authors looked at the commonly accepted notion that the selection of former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, sank John McCain's chances of winning the presidency in 2008.

The authors found that not only was the "gross impact" of the selection of Palin at about one-half of a percentage point, it was even lower than its historical average.

More recently, in The VP Advantage, political scientists Christopher Devine and Kyle Kopko analyzed state-level election returns from 1884-2012, as well as individual-level survey data from 1952-2008.

They were looking to determine whether or not a home-state advantage was real, and if there was, what was the magnitude. The authors found that the presidential ticket does not perform any better in the vice presidential candidate's home state than they would have performed otherwise.

Interestingly, there is a home-state advantage for presidential candidates of approximate 3-7 points.

Let's say that geography doesn't play as much of a role than conventionally thought. What about demographics? If Trump selects a Latino or a woman as his vice presidential pick, can that help him more broadly? Or, if Clinton selects another woman as a running mate-- how does having two women on the ticket affect her chances of winning?

When it comes to demographics, Devine and Kopko think they will likely not have much of an impact, concluding that although "they are viewed more positively by [those] voters", continuing, "those positive feelings don't necessarily translate into votes."

The jury is still out, however. It would be misleading to simply conclude that vice presidential candidates do not matter at all. The impact a vice presidential pick may have on a ticket extends beyond just the crude calculation of trying to figure out how many more votes they are directly responsible for. The vice presidential pick becomes a central figure to the campaign and helps shape the campaigns narrative and refine the campaigns voice for the media.

Further, certain vice presidential picks can be more helpful than others when it comes to gaining ground support from within its own Party. This is in-line with much of the talk about how Trump can select an establishment candidate that will help him work better with the Party itself.

In other words, having a vice presidential pick that helps unite a Party may not necessarily lead to more votes directly, however, there may be indirect benefits such as access to more fundraising opportunities, new donors, and even additional surrogates to help push media narrative.

As this election cycle seems to defy political convention in many ways, and both candidates have set records for unpopularity. This may be the election where we see the vice presidential pick play a far more significant role in garnering voters.

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