The Vice President – More Important Than We think?

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The common wisdom is that the vice presidential candidate does not make much difference in the election. Newsweek ended its recent article about Senator Lieberman with the statement, “History strongly suggests that the voters don’t pay much attention to the bottom of the ticket when making their choice.” Maybe they should.

It must be remembered that fourteen of the forty-one men who have served as President were at some time Vice President before they moved into the White House. (Before some of you start writing me that we have had forty-two Presidents, please remember that Grover Cleveland was numbers 22 and 24, making it forty-one individuals who have served in the office.) Just over 34.1% of all Presidents came from the ranks of the Vice Presidents. This means that statistically, there is slightly better than a one out of three chance that the person we choose as Vice President will become President someday. This warrants a much closer look at the bottom half of the ticket.

Four Vice Presidents have been elected President while serving in the second office. John Adams (1796), Thomas Jefferson (1800), Martin Van Buren (1836) and George Bush (1988) have all done it. Richard Nixon (1960) and Hubert Humphrey (1968) came very close to doing it as well. And of course, Al Gore is trying very hard to join this list.

One Vice President was later elected President, after he left the Vice Presidency. That was Richard Nixon (one of the VPs listed above) who finally won the office in 1968, denying Hubert Humphrey a place on the list of VPs elected President. Nixon remains the only former Vice President (that is a VP who has left office without being elected to the White House) to be elected President.

Better known are the Vice Presidents who succeeded to the office of President because of the death or resignation of the President. John Tyler (1841), Millard Fillmore (1850), Andrew Johnson (1865), Chester Arthur (1881) and Gerald Ford (1974) all moved up in this manner but were not elected to a full term of their own, although Gerald Ford came very close. All but one of the above came into office on the death of their predecessor. Ford got there after the only resignation of a President in our history.

Probably the best known are the Vice Presidents who moved up to the Presidency on the death of their predecessors, and then got elected to a full term in their own right. This group includes Teddy Roosevelt (1901, elected 1904), Calvin Coolidge (1923, elected 1924), Harry Truman (1945, elected 1948) and Lyndon Johnson (1963, elected 1964).

Those who say the Vice Presidential selection has not affected the election should consider some close elections from the past. Abraham Lincoln felt the selection of a running mate crucial. In a close contest, Republicans and pro-war Democrats formed the National Union Party (for that one election only) and selected a southern, pro-war Democrat (Andrew Johnson). Lincoln felt it might make the difference between victory and defeat.

Of course, the best example is that of John Kennedy choosing Lyndon Johnson in 1960. In a superb piece of ticket balancing, the young, liberal, Catholic New Englander selected Lyndon Johnson, a southern and western conservative, older and more experienced, and Protestant. By uniting the two wings of the Democratic Party as well as balancing the ticket geographically and philosophically, Kennedy gained an edge that may have made the difference in one of the closest elections in our history.

Certainly, the name at the top of the ticket is by far the most important. But the running mate should not be completely ignored. As proven by Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle to name a few, the choice of the Vice Presidential candidate can affect elections and bring strength or weakness to an administration. Voters should look carefully at the name on the bottom of the ticket. In electing a Vice President, they may very well be choosing a future President.

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