Monday, June 4, 2012

Romney's Pick for Vice President? Part II

In Part I, we considered who might be quickly eliminated from Mitt Romney's list of potential vice presidents. In this post, we will take a closer look at some of the "frontrunners" for the VP pick, and how Romney might choose among them.

The Intrade market on Romney's VP selection has Rob Portman and Marco Rubio far above the rest. After eliminating Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty, Chris Christie holds a slight edge among those who remain. What's the reasoning behind the perception that Portman has the best chance, and why is Rubio ranked so high? Is Christie a reasonable option, or would he fail to balance the ticket?

The conventional wisdom is that Portman, a U.S. Senator from Ohio, has the best chance of being picked because he is not a "risky" option. Portman is an experienced politician who long served in Ohio government. He also served as the U.S. Trade Representative for a year under President George W. Bush, and another year as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Consequently, he has a reputation for being knowledgeable about the economy. He is not associated with any scandals.

According to conventional wisdom, Portman would not really add anything to the ticket, though he hails from an important swing state and would reinforce Romney's campaign theme of economic expertise. He would be described as "another boring white guy" and would not add charisma to the ticket, but at least he would not harm it. The idea is that Romney may be receptive to a boring, safe choice after John McCain's disastrous experience with Sarah Palin in 2008.

Though Romney may in fact be thinking along those lines, Elephant Watcher believes that it would be a mistake to do so. The analysis of why Portman carries less risk is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of how Palin was chosen and why she carried risk. In 2008, McCain made a last-minute decision to consider Palin for VP. There was no time to conduct a normal vetting of Palin. According to those who conducted the vetting, the McCain team only had time to do some light research on Palin, mostly on the Internet. They did not travel to Alaska or interview Palin's colleagues. This was risky, because they simply didn't know much about Palin before choosing her for VP.

By contrast, each of Romney's potential VP candidates will be thoroughly vetted. If they find skeletons in a candidate's closet, he will be eliminated from consideration. If not, they will go forward. In either case, Romney won't be taking a risk on an unknown candidate.

In addition, Palin was risky because she was untested by the media. She had not been grilled by liberal interviewers or appeared on Meet The Press. (Indeed, after all these years she still hasn't been on Meet The Press.) Since no one could guess how Palin would perform, McCain took a risk. It proved to be a catastrophic mistake, as the interviews revealed she was unprepared for the office.

Once again, by contrast, even relative newcomers like Rubio and Christie do not carry this risk. Within months of becoming a U.S. Senator, Rubio had already appeared on Meet The Press; Christie has been on the show multiple times. Both have been on countless other televised interviews--by friendly and hostile interviewers--and have acquitted themselves well.

The alternatives to Portman may not be "risky," but what about the idea that Portman has no drawbacks? This, too, is untrue. As we explained in an earlier post on how VP nominees are chosen, choosing among potential VPs always entails trade-offs. If Christie or Rubio have upsides that Portman doesn't, then the lack of those upsides is, in effect, a downside for Portman.

More importantly, Portman does have one major weakness: His association with the economic policies of the Bush administration. Since Portman served as the OMB director while Bush was president, it would be easier for Barack Obama to characterize Romney as a Bush retread. As we explained in the Candidate Rankings, Obama's odds of winning reelection are highest if he is able to convince voters that Romney would simply repeat Bush's economic policies. For that reason, Portman must be considered a VP pick with a dangerous flaw--not a "safe" option.

What about Christie and Rubio, and other potential VP picks? We will continue our examination in Part III.