KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— History suggests that whoever wins the Republican presidential nomination is unlikely to choose one of their rivals for the nomination as his or her running mate.
— This has happened on occasion in the recent past — including Joe Biden selecting Kamala Harris as his running mate in 2020 — but it is very uncommon, especially on the Republican side.
— Running mates in recent times often, though not always, have not run for president before. They often are not from the ranks of those who were early endorsers of the eventual nominee. Moreover, in modern times they have always been past or present officeholders.
Lessons from history on VP selection
When pundits run short of things to say about presidential nominating races, they often turn to the choice of the vice presidential running mate. This cycle, an unusual amount of early speculation is already occurring about the Republican vice presidential choice as some, perhaps prematurely, view the presidential nominee as apparent.
The past is not always prologue regarding vice presidential selection because each new cycle presents different circumstances and a presidential nominee who has never, or perhaps only once, chosen a running mate, and never from the same pool. These factors make vice presidential selection idiosyncratic even though it demonstrates some consistent patterns. The characteristics of past selections aren’t dispositive, but their history is worth knowing and considering. And that history suggests that some current speculation advances selection narratives that are anomalous to say the least.
Presidential nominees rarely choose rivals
Some observers were quick to label the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, 2023 as an audition to be Donald Trump’s running mate, with some concluding that Vivek Ramaswamy had helped himself in that regard. Ramaswamy has disclaimed interest in the second spot, an obligatory posture for anyone running for president, and it’s early to anoint Donald Trump as the nominee.
Yet history suggests it’s unlikely that the Republican vice presidential candidate will come from those competing for the party’s presidential nomination. As Walter Shapiro recently reminded, presidential nominees rarely choose their nomination opponents as their running mate. Republican nominees have been especially unlikely to do so.
Since 1960, presidential candidates have chosen a rival for the nomination as their running mate only five times. On three occasions, the presidential nominee chose the runner up, namely when John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960; Ronald Reagan selected George H.W. Bush in 1980; and John Kerry chose John Edwards in 2004. On two other occasions, presidential nominees have chosen candidates who fared less well, namely when Barack Obama selected Joe Biden in 2008 and when Biden himself selected Kamala Harris in 2020.
During this time period, there have been 25 instances where a major party presidential nominee selected a new running mate (in other words, when someone other than an incumbent vice president was chosen to run, including both of George McGovern’s 1972 selections). Thus, only 20% of the time have recent presidential candidates chosen a rival for the nomination. Even if the instances in which there was essentially an uncontested presidential nomination (1960 Republicans, 1964 Democrats) are eliminated, same year rivals are chosen less than 22% of the time since 1960.
All but one of this small sample of occasions have occurred on the Democratic side. Reagan’s selection of Bush in 1980 was the only time a recent Republican presidential candidate chose a rival during the last 60 years. Put differently, only once (9%) among the last 11 times a Republican presidential candidate chose a first-time running mate — 1960, 1964, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016 — did the Republican presidential nominee choose a same-year nomination rival.
Bush was actually Reagan’s second choice, after former President Gerald R. Ford, but Ford ultimately declined. The unprecedented nature of a former president running for vice president provides important context to Ford’s refusal. Yet Reagan had run against Ford in 1976, so whether one considers same-year rival Bush or prior-year rival Ford as Reagan’s 1980 choice (and doesn’t distinguish between the two types of scenarios, but see below), the percentages don’t really change. And even if one includes all instances when a presidential nominee selected a prior-cycle nomination rival, the odds don’t shift much. The only two instances where that occurred since 1960 were 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson chose Hubert H. Humphrey (although Humphrey was out of the 1960 race before LBJ got in) and 1996, when Bob Dole selected 1988 rival Jack Kemp.
These low numbers are striking because presidential candidates have had ample opportunity to select a campaign rival. Richard M. Nixon, for instance, passed on Govs. George Romney, Nelson A. Rockefeller, and Reagan to choose Gov. Spiro T. Agnew in 1968. That same year, Humphrey selected Sen. Edmund S. Muskie instead of Sens. Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern. In 1976, Ford and Reagan met right after Ford won their intense battle, but a condition the Reaganites imposed for that unity meeting was that Ford would not offer Reagan the second spot, something Ford had no interest in doing anyway. That year, Jimmy Carter shortlisted but ultimately rejected rival candidates Sens. Frank Church and Henry M. Jackson and didn’t even interview Rep. Morris K. Udall, the runner up, or Gov. Jerry Brown. He would go on to choose Sen. Walter F. Mondale, who had announced his decision not to run on Nov. 21, 1974, over Muskie, who had opted to run for reelection to the Senate rather than the presidency.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis selected Sen. Lloyd Bentsen over a group including primary opponents Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Al Gore, and Rep. Dick Gephardt, whereas Bush chose Sen. Dan Quayle over primary opponents Dole and Kemp, among others. Bill Clinton chose Gore in 1992, four years after Gore ran, rather than 1992 rivals Brown, former Sen. Paul Tsongas, or Sens. Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin. Of those also-rans, the only one Clinton short-listed for the vice presidency was Kerrey, although Tsongas declined to be vetted, perhaps due to health issues.
In 2000, George W. Bush chose non-candidate Dick Cheney, not Sen. John McCain (his principal rival), and Gore chose Sen. Joe Lieberman without short-listing former Sen. Bill Bradley, his primary opponent. Eight years later, McCain chose Gov. Sarah Palin without shortlisting rivals like Gov. Mike Huckabee, although he seriously considered non-candidates like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, non-Republican Lieberman, and, probably to a lesser extent, former Gov. Mitt Romney, a 2008 rival. That same year, Biden’s most serious competition for the second spot on Obama’s ticket were non-candidates Sen. Evan Bayh and Gov. Tim Kaine, not runner-up Hillary Clinton, who Obama considered but did not vet.
In 2012, Romney considered non-candidates Gov. Chris Christie, Sens. Rob Portman and Marco Rubio, and short-time presidential candidate Pawlenty, not rivals former Sen. Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Romney would pick Rep. Paul Ryan, someone who did not run in 2012. Four years later, Trump chose non-candidate Gov. Mike Pence over also-ran Christie and non-candidates Gingrich and Sen. Jeff Sessions, although he unsuccessfully courted Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a rival who refused to participate in Trump’s VP search and did not vote for him. Trump did not consider Sen. Ted Cruz, who ran second in the primaries. Hillary Clinton chose Kaine without giving serious consideration to her primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders. A few other same-year rivals have received serious consideration but, as this partial account indicates, recent major party presidential nominees rarely have even included same-year rivals on their vice presidential shortlists.
Varying factors account for the tendency of presidential nominees not to choose those they defeat. Lingering acrimony from the campaign sometimes explains the reluctance, perhaps coupled with the awkwardness of having a running mate whose attacks might be prominently featured by the rival ticket. Such factors probably contributed to Ford’s failure to consider Reagan in 1976, George H.W. Bush passing on Dole and Kemp in 1988, and George W. Bush not considering McCain in 2000. Yet Kennedy chose Johnson and Reagan chose Bush despite such baggage. Sometimes selecting a primary rival doesn’t send the message the presidential candidate wants to emphasize or fails best to unify the party. Such considerations may help explain why Nixon chose Agnew, not Romney, Rockefeller, or Reagan, in 1968, or why Dukakis chose Bentsen in 1988 rather than Gephardt or Gore. Sometimes the defeated rival is the one who declines the relationship, like in 1972, when Humphrey and Muskie declined McGovern’s overtures (Muskie in both instances; Humphrey in the second); in 1992, when Tsongas refused to be vetted by Clinton; and in 2016, when Kasich had no interest in associating with (or even voting for) Trump. Candidates who do poorly running for president may hurt their chances of vice presidential selection, as Sen. Bob Graham in 2004 and perhaps Pawlenty in 2012 did, although Biden perhaps helped his chances in 2008 despite his early exit because, as Obama wrote in his memoirs, Biden impressed Obama, “with his skill and discipline as a debater and his comfort on a national stage” during the primaries.
Presidential nominees rarely choose a prior year’s rival
Former rivals may not carry the same baggage as vice presidential wannabes because bad feelings may have had time to heal and the age of any critical comments may diminish their punch for the other party’s attack ads. Yet former rivals are rarely chosen, perhaps because there are very few instances where 1) a second-time presidential candidate 2) chooses a new running mate 3) some prior year rivals remain as viable VP options 4) but were not presidential rivals that year. Since 1960, 12 repeat presidential candidates (Johnson, 1964; Nixon, Humphrey, 1968; McGovern, 1972; Reagan, 1980; Bush, 1988; Dole, 1996; Gore, 2000; McCain, 2008; Romney, 2012; Hillary Clinton, 2016; Biden, 2020) have chosen a running mate. Only two (Johnson, Dole) chose prior year rivals and one (Reagan) would have done so had Ford accepted and they had been able to agree on an arrangement.
Yet it’s often not feasible to choose a prior year rival, which probably explains why there are so few instances. In 1968, Nixon really had no prior rivals, and Humphrey was not going to choose Johnson or Sen. Stuart Symington, his only living rivals from 1960. McGovern’s 1968 rival Humphrey and Bush’s 1980 rival Dole would go on to be each’s top competitor when McGovern and Bush went on to win nominations in 1972 and 1988, respectively. Gore, in 2000, considered Richard Gephardt, who aspired to be House speaker and was thus reluctant. Romney may have considered Huckabee in 2012, but a two-governor ticket would have been unusual in modern times.
This year’s Republican field includes two prior presidential candidates, Trump (2016, 2020) and Christie (2016). It seems unlikely that either, if nominated, would choose Cruz, Rubio, or any of their other 2016 opponents.
Running mates generally haven’t previously run for president
In modern times, most first-time major party vice presidential candidates have not previously sought the presidency. Of the 25 first-time vice presidential candidates since 1960, 16 had never sought the presidency whereas nine (Johnson, Humphrey, Bush, Bentsen, Gore, Kemp, Edwards, Biden, and Harris) had. The 16 candidates who had not previously sought the presidency include four (William Miller, 1964; Thomas F. Eagleton and R. Sargent Shriver, 1972; and Geraldine Ferraro, 1984) chosen for tickets that were substantial underdogs, which might have made the second spot less attractive to more prominent figures. Even excluding those four from the analysis, 12 of the remaining 21 (Henry Cabot Lodge, Muskie and Agnew, Mondale and Dole, Quayle, Dick Cheney and Lieberman, Sarah Palin, Ryan, and Kaine and Pence), or 57%, had not sought the presidency before their vice presidential nomination.
Presidential candidates rarely choose rumored presidential prospects who pass on the race
Sometimes modern presidential candidates do choose those who pass on presidential races after having been rumored as presidential candidates, but it’s not at all clear that is the “best” route to a vice presidential nomination. It fits the Mondale, Gore, Kemp, Ryan, and Pence selections, although it’s unlikely that the first three, at least, dreamed of the vice presidency when they opted against a presidential run. Yet, even so, that approach only explains 20% of the nominations since 1960, as many as the same-year rival approach does. And although that strategy may be more appealing to someone who prefers a short vice presidential campaign to a lengthy and uncertain slog through the presidential primaries, it presents risks, too, because it may raise questions regarding their national ambition — a hurdle Mondale had to overcome in 1976 — or leave unanswered questions regarding their ability to handle national scrutiny.
The presidential-prospects-who-forego-the-race category, of course, doesn’t account for the “same year” rivals who are picked, or many other selections, such as those of Lodge, Miller, Muskie and Agnew, Eagleton and Shriver, Dole, Ferraro, Bentsen and Quayle, Cheney and Lieberman, Palin, or Kaine — few, if any, of whom received any real presidential consideration the year they ran for vice president. And for every rumored candidate who passes and is chosen, other plausible candidates also pass on the presidential race yet are passed for VP (such as Muskie in 1976, John Glenn in 1988, Kerry and perhaps Gephardt in 2000, Evan Bayh and Pawlenty in 2008, and Christie in 2012, among others). Gov. Kristi Noem may end up on a vice presidential shortlist or even as a candidate, but history suggests it’s premature to anoint her simply because she sat this one out.
Presidential nominees rarely choose their early endorsers
Of course, Noem isn’t simply a presidential-race-passer because she is also an early endorser of Trump, the current Republican frontrunner. Notwithstanding all of the chatter about Noem based on her early endorsement, history doesn’t validate choosing sides so early as a path to the second spot because early endorsers don’t usually end up as vice presidential nominees, although some may end up on a short-list.
There aren’t many early endorsers among the 25 first-time running mates since 1960. Cheney was an early supporter of Bush and Lieberman of Gore in 2000. Kaine endorsed Clinton in 2014 for 2016. Dole endorsed Ford in 1976 before the race was resolved, but it was Reagan’s support of Dole when Ford and Reagan conferred after the presidential nomination vote that was probably crucial to his selection. Agnew endorsed and indeed nominated Nixon in 1968, but only after Rockefeller repaid Agnew’s early and prior endorsement by humiliating him by not giving him notice of his initial decision to forego the race. Paul Ryan endorsed Romney on March 30, 2012, but only after more than 30 primaries and caucuses had already occurred and Romney was the likely nominee.
Yet in addition to the five same-year rivals mentioned above, many vice presidential choices didn’t provide early support to the presidential nominee who later chose them. Mondale was associated with Humphrey, who some Democrats tried to draft to oppose Carter in 1976, Eagleton supported Muskie in the 1972 primaries, Kemp endorsed Dole rival Steve Forbes even when Dole’s nomination was inevitable, and Pence backed Cruz although he coupled his endorsement with praise of Trump. Others like Bentsen and Quayle in 1988 and Biden in 2008 remained neutral.
Many early endorsers have found that their support did not translate into a vice presidential call, losing even to a rival or opponent. Reagan chose Bush in 1980 over his close friend and campaign chair Paul Laxalt, Obama chose neutral Biden over Kaine, an early endorser. McCain selected Palin over Lieberman, who had endorsed him before the New Hampshire primary even though Lieberman was an independent associated with the Democrats in the Senate, and Pawlenty, who was an even earlier supporter. Pawlenty backed Romney after his early withdrawal in 2012 but the nod went to a much later endorser in Ryan. Trump chose Pence over Sessions, who had endorsed him in February 2016. Humphrey chose Muskie over his campaign co-chair Sen. Fred Harris, who was a much more conspicuous supporter.
One reason presidential candidates often don’t choose early endorsers is that they use the vice presidential choice to add strength to their ticket, to unify the party, or to send messages that they are open to views and factions other than their own. Although it’s an overstatement that prior to the 1970s the running mate was “almost always a political rival” to balance the ticket — think, for instance, of James Sherman, Henry Wallace, Harry Truman, Alben Barkley, Nixon, Lodge, Miller, Humphrey, Muskie, and Agnew among others who weren’t “rivals” of the nominee and sometimes not balancers — ideological ticket-balancing did occur more frequently than it now does, with parties having become more homogeneous and the presidential candidate having come to dominate the selection. However, balancing does still occur as candidates use the second spot to unify a party or reach out to voters with misgivings about the presidential nominee. That dynamic often dictates choosing someone identified with or popular with some other faction, not an endorser, as the Johnson, Eagleton, Shriver, Mondale, Dole, Bush, Bentsen, Quayle, Kemp, Palin, and Ryan selections might reflect. And sometimes other imperatives, like sending a message about a presidential candidate’s values or governing approach might incline him or her towards someone who was not an early endorser as occurred with many of the foregoing and the Ferraro, Gore, Palin, Biden, Pence, and Harris selections might reflect.
Ramaswamy’s lack of prior officeholding makes him an unprecedented choice in modern times
Ramaswamy’s status as a 2024 candidate is not the only factor that makes his selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate very unlikely. His total lack of governmental experience presents an even greater barrier based on historical patterns. Since 1940, every first-time major party vice presidential candidate has been either a sitting or former senator, governor, member of the House of Representatives, or high-ranking federal official. No such running mate in that timeframe has never held office.
Of course, the same was true of the presidency before Trump’s election in 2016. The 44 presidents who preceded Trump held some civil or military office before becoming president. So perhaps Trump would not view Ramaswamy’s inexperience as disqualifying as prior selectors have.
Vice presidential selection is more complicated than often depicted
Vice presidential selection invariably involves multiple distinctive variables (a unique selector choosing from a unique pool in unique circumstances) and presents the selector with multiple factors to weigh (ability, demography, ideology, compatibility, vetting, messages the presidential candidate wants to send by a choice, constituencies or areas where a ticket wants help and can find help in a running mate, feedback from party leaders and others the presidential nominee respects, etc.), all of which makes speculation precarious eight or nine months before the choice is made, particularly where it emphasizes a single factor as suggesting selection.
 As an aside, that both Humphrey and McCarthy were from Minnesota also would have complicated that choice, even if Humphrey had really wanted to pick McCarthy (which for a variety of reasons he probably did not) and if McCarthy had been interested in the race. The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits electors from voting for both a president and a vice president from the electors’ state. To avoid jeopardizing Texas’s electoral votes in 2000, Cheney acted to change his residence from Texas back to Wyoming right before the Texan Bush picked him as his running mate.
Author: Joel K. Goldstein