Ticket Balancing


With the announcement of the Republican and Democratic Vice Presidential nominees, much attention has been given to the practice of ticket balancing. George Bush did something very rare in American politics. He selected a running mate without taking advantage of the benfits of ticket balancing.

Ticket balancing is the practice of picking a running mate according to what strength he can add to the presidential candidate in the election. Rarely is a person picked solely because he would make a talented, or even competent, substitute president.

For our purposes, we will define a ticket as the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of a given party. The presidential candidate is usually referred to as the head or upper half or the ticket. The vice-presidential candidate is usually referred to as the bottom or lower half of the ticket. (The term “ticket” also refers to all the candidates of a given party for all offices, national, state and local, but we are only looking at the national ticket in this article.)

Ticket balancing goes back to the very beginning of our republic. The second place on the ticket is filled based on how much the choice can help the ticket get elected, regardless of how incompetent the person may be. It has led to some stunningly poor vice presidents and potential vice presidents.

In the very beginning, it was a simple matter of balancing north and south geographically. In 1796, John Adams of Massachusetts ran with Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia ran with Aaron Burr of New York. In the next election in 1800, Jefferson again ran with Burr, and Adams ran with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, also of South Carolina. In succeeding elections, James Madison of Virginia ran with George Clinton of New York and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (after Clinton died during his first term). James Monroe of Virginia ran with Daniel Tompkins of New York in two elections.

In the years before the Civil War, all parties except the Republicans, balanced north and south on their national tickets. For example, slave owners James Polk and Zachary Taylor ran with Pennsylvanian Dallas and New Yorker Fillmore, respectively. The tickets they defeated had similarly balanced tickets.

The Republican Party in the two elections before the Civil War (the Party was formed in 1854) balanced east and west, since they were an anti-slavery party with no hopes of winning in the south. In 1856, the presidential candidate was John Fremont of California. His running mate was William Dayton of New Jersey. You can’t get much more of an east-west spread than that. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois (which was considered the west at the time) ran with Hannibal Hamlin of Maine.

In the years after the Civil War, it became a bit more complicated. During Reconstruction, little concern was given to the south. There were still tickets that were balanced mainly by geography. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and other states in that area were considered the west. (California, Nevada and Oregon were considered the far west. There were no states in between, just territories.) Indiana was a “swing state,” that is a state so evenly divided that it could go either way in a given election. This led to a number of vice-presidential candidates being from Indiana, not only to carry the west, but that particular state.

In 1876, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee was Thomas Hendricks. In 1880, the same party nominated William English of Indiana for vice-president. In 1884, Hendricks was again the vice-presidential nominee. This time he won, but he died within a year of taking office. In 1888 and 1892, the Republicans nominated Benjamin Harrison of Indiana for President. This was a swing state in an important region, so a nominee from that state served two important purposes: helping to win a key state, as well as strengthening the ticket in a region of the nation.

There are some classic examples from modern times. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt, New York, urban and liberal picked for the second spot on the ticket John Nance Garner of Texas (south and west), rural and conservative. (This pairing led one Garner supporter who thought little of FDR to remark that it was a Kangaroo ticket: one stronger in the hindquarter than in the front.) In 1960, John Kennedy, young, Massachusetts, New England, Catholic and liberal, named Lyndon John, experienced (read older), Texas, southern and western, rural, protestant and conservative (supposedly!). This bit of genius in balancing the ticket may have well provided the margin of victory in one of the closest election in our history. Also in 1960, the Republicans paired Richard Nixon of California with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., of Massachusetts, hoping to offset Kennedy’s strength in the northeast.

Sometimes candidates have been selected for their wealth. In 1880, the Democrats nominated wealthy (very wealthy) banker English of Indiana hoping he would make a major financial contribution to the party. They did the same thing again in 1904 when they nominated very wealthy former Senator Henry Gassaway Davis of West Virginia, hoping he would provide much needed money in a hopeless campaign. He didn’t. Today’s campaigns are much too expensive for any one man to contribute a majority of funds necessary to run a campaign.

Shortly after the 1904 campaign, the Gridiron Club held their annual dinner in Washington. This event always includes political humor, often at the expense of many of the politicians present. At the dinner after the 1904 campaign, there was a skit presented which featured a person supposed to be Henry Gassaway Davis who went to a fortune teller. The fortune teller asked which Mr. Davis and the man answered “Henry Gazaway Davis, and I would like to know my fortune.” The fortune teller then asked if this was the late candidate for Vice President, and the man answered, “The same.” The fortune teller then took the man’s hand and read it. He then announced, “Mr. Davis, your fortune is exactly the same as it was before you were nominated.” Davis enjoyed this skit as much as anyone.

In this election year, there was the usual speculation about the selection of running mates. One often mentioned possibility for the second place on Al Gore’s ticket was (and not for the first time in this election) was Senator Bob Graham of Florida, a key state with a large number of electoral votes. Such a choice would be a prime example of selecting a candidate in order to carry a key state. It is often a major consideration. Instead, Gore chose Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, which will help him with the Northeast (Gore is from Tennessee) and with Jewish voters, as Lieberman is the first Jewish candidate to be named to a major party ticket.

George Bush did something very rare in presidential politics. He chose his running mate with no regard for the practice of ticket balancing. Instead, he chose his running mate strictly on the grounds of personal and political compatibility. This has rarely, if ever, been done before to this degree. He selected Dick Cheney of Wyoming to fill out his ticket. Bush is already strong in the west, and no state has fewer electoral votes than Wyoming. The Republican ticket gains no traditional “ticket balancing” strength from this choice. It looks as though Bush has, as the Founding Fathers naively intended, selected a person solely based on his ability to govern if Bush for some reason could not, rather than on how much he helps get the ticket elected. This may be unique in our history.