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The Republican Veepstakes 2024, Part Two: What History Suggests About Trump’s Options

A Commentary By Joel K. Goldstein


— If he sticks to history—and he very well may not—Donald Trump’s eventual vice presidential selection will be someone with high governmental experience.

— While Democratic VP nominees have very often come from the Senate, the backgrounds of Republican running mates have been more diverse in terms of previous government experience.

— The VP slot may be seen as particularly valuable on the Republican side because anyone elected with Trump knows that the Constitution prevents him from seeking a third term in 2028, meaning that the VP could run in four years instead of having to wait the customary eight for a presidential ticket headed by someone who has not previously been president.

— On the other hand, Mike Pence’s experience with Trump may deter some from making themselves available.

— Trump, a Florida resident, would be unlikely to pick someone else from Florida as his running mate because of the 12th Amendment.

Trump’s pool of candidates

Although many factors affect the pool of available vice presidential candidates, the two primary filters relate to party identification and past governmental experience. In particular, major party presidential nominees invariably choose a running mate who shares their party identification and who presently holds or previously held a small group of high governmental offices signifying political experience. These are discussed below in turn.

Not since President Abraham Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864 has a major party presidential candidate paired with a running mate from a different party. To be sure, presidential candidates have occasionally, even recently, given serious consideration to potential running mates associated with the opposing side. Prominent recent examples include John McCain in 2008 (Independent/Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut), John Kerry in 2004 (McCain), Bill Clinton in 1992 (Gen. Colin Powell), and Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968 (New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller). Generally, the cross-party prospect has opted out (McCain, Powell, and Rockefeller) although it is by no means certain any would have been selected had they entertained the idea. Lieberman apparently was willing to run with McCain in 2008, yet the latter was convinced that choosing Al Gore’s 2000 running mate would have risked an unseemly floor fight at the convention and would not produce victory in November. A couple of former Democrats—former Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and current independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. —have received some mentions as possible Trump running mates, but both seem inconceivable choices. It is hard to imagine any credible Democrat joining Trump.

For more than three-quarters of a century, vice presidential nominees have been past or present officeholders who have served as senators, governors, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, or in some other high federal executive position. Not since Frank Knox in 1936 has a vice presidential candidate lacked any such experience, a pattern that would make someone like 2024 Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, Kennedy, or former Arizona gubernatorial nominee and current Senate candidate Kari Lake very unlikely choices. First-time major party running mates since 1976 have averaged about 13.5 years in those four categories, ranging from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (two years) to Joe Biden (36). During that time period, only four—then-New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (six), Palin (two), former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (six), and current Vice President Kamala Harris (four)—had six years or less experience in those posts (and Harris had also been twice elected and served six years as California’s attorney general before being elected to the Senate in 2016).

Recent vice presidential candidates also have almost invariably previously sought and been elected to high office, generally more than once. R. Sargent Shriver was the only vice presidential candidate who had not previously been elected to some high office since Henry Wallace in 1940, who was the last vice president never to have previously won an election (Shriver had served as the first director of the Peace Corps, as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and as U.S. ambassador to France, while Wallace had been U.S. Secretary of Agriculture). Presidential candidates often consider out-of-the-box candidates, including mayors, business executives, or journalists, but such figures have rarely made it off the longest lists, which is among the reasons to doubt that former Fox News host Tucker Carlson will be Trump’s running mate.

As the first president never to have served in any office, military or civilian, Trump might view the inexperience of Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, Ramaswamy, and others as less disqualifying than other selectors would have judged them. On the other hand, Trump’s age—he and Biden are only about 3.5 years apart and Trump would be the third-oldest major party candidate in history (after Biden and former Sen. Henry Gassaway Davis, a vice presidential candidate in 1904)—might lead him to choose a running mate whose past service made him or her a more plausible president.

Selection patterns differ dramatically on the Republican and Democratic sides. Whereas Democratic vice presidential candidates almost always come from the Senate—14 of the 16 first-time Democratic running mates since 1952 (and 16 of 19 since 1940) were sitting senators, with Shriver, Wallace, and Ferraro being the only exceptions—Republican first-time picks since 1952 vary among the four sources, with three having most recently been senators (Richard Nixon in 1952, Bob Dole in 1976, and Dan Quayle in 1988), four last holding high executive positions (then-Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1960, former Ambassador to the U.N. and CIA Director George H.W. Bush in 1980, former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp in 1996, and former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in 2000), three having been governors (Spiro T. Agnew in 1968, Palin in 2008, and Mike Pence in 2016), and two coming from the House (William Miller in 1964 and Paul Ryan in 2012). Extending the lookback to 1940 adds one senator (Charles McNary in 1940) and two governors (John Bricker in 1944 and Earl Warren in 1948) Although 9 of the 12 most recent Republican running mates (all but Lodge, Agnew, and Palin) and 6 of the 16 Democratic vice presidential candidates (John Sparkman in 1952, Estes Kefauver in 1956, Lyndon Johnson in 1960, Ferraro in 1984, Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, and Gore in 1992) had served in the House, only three vice presidential candidates (Miller, Ferraro, and Ryan) came directly from the House, and two of those—Miller and Ferraro—were chosen for tickets facing steep, uphill races. In Ferraro’s case, almost no Democratic women had then been senators, governors, or high executive officials.

Prior presidential candidates have not viewed service in the House as providing as weighty a level of experience as the other three areas. John Nance Garner in 1932 was the last House member elected vice president (Gerald R. Ford became vice president in 1973 through the 25th Amendment). Garner was Speaker of the House and a 30-year member when chosen (and Ford a 25-year member and House minority leader). The fact that only a little more than 10% of first-time running mates since 1952 came directly from the House suggests that such service is perceived to be a lesser credential for national office than the other three categories. Although House members have accounted for as many selections as governors since 1952, there are many more members of the House than governors, and ticket-balancing considerations have often discouraged presidential candidates who themselves are governors (eight since 1952, counting Adlai E. Stevenson twice) from choosing a governor as running mate, whereas no House member has won a presidential nomination during that time. The bias against House members would tend to minimize the chances of New York Rep. Elise Stefanik and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as Donalds, Gabbard, and others, many of whom are implausible for other reasons.

Trump is unique in two other ways that may affect the potential pool. Because Trump was already elected president in 2016, if elected in 2024, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution would prevent him from running for reelection in 2028: The amendment precludes anyone from being elected president more than twice. Every first-time running mate since 1952 other than Dole ran with a president who could seek reelection (because Ford had served more than two years of Nixon’s term, the amendment limited him to being elected once), so the common assumption was that if the ticket prevailed, the vice president’s chance to seek the presidency would come in eight years. Win or lose, Trump’s running mate could run for president in four years, which might make running with Trump more attractive. Trump’s age, legal problems, and past impeachments might also suggest a greater likelihood of presidential succession than under normal circumstances.

On the other hand, Trump’s track record with Pence presents a cautionary tale that might dissuade some prospective running mates. Pence was widely seen as going to great lengths to support Trump until Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump essentially urged a course that would have required Pence to violate the Constitution and Electoral Count Act of 1887, and publicly turned on Pence when he refused. Pence became a target of the mob that invaded the Capitol. Even though a Trump 2024 running mate would not have occasion to preside over an electoral count in which Trump was a presidential candidate, the unprecedented mistreatment of Pence might predict Trump’s expectations of and behavior towards any vice presidential candidate. Moreover, Trump’s administration experienced an unusually high degree of turnover in important White House and Cabinet positions relative to other presidents, suggesting that working for Trump may not be a good career move for a politically ambitious politician. The coming weeks or months will reveal whether prominent Republican figures seek or avoid the second spot on a Trump ticket.

In 2016, several prominent Republican politicians disclaimed interest in running with Trump including then-Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Joni Ernst of Iowa, and then-Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Although Trump’s pool includes some eager politicians, few of those mentioned reflect the experience characteristic of many recent selections. I have long written that the most important consideration in vice presidential selection is choosing a running mate who is presidential. To some extent, that quality is in the eye of the beholder, and most will rate at least some kindred spirits as better suited for the Oval Office than those with whom they disagree. Nonetheless, most can apply filters other than their own partisanship and recognize some cross-partisans as plausible presidents and some co-partisans as not.

In addition to presidential plausibility to reachable voters, vice presidential candidates must pass a rigorous vetting screen. Although Trump’s own past behavior would disqualify him from vice presidential consideration, it is reasonable to assume that his pool and choice will also be affected by what vetting shows regarding prospective candidates’ associations, conflicts of interest, and other information gleaned from tax returns and other financial records. Such information will largely be unknown to vice presidential speculators. Vetting considerations at various stages often narrows the real pool by causing some seemingly plausible contenders to decide not to make themselves available or causing the presidential candidate to eliminate them.

The 12th Amendment imposes another pool-constraining limit. It prohibits electors from voting for a president and vice president from the elector’s state. Because Trump now resides in Florida, if he chose Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rubio, Donalds, or any other Florida resident, either Trump or his running mate would need to change his or her domicile or forfeit some or all of Florida’s electoral votes. In 2000, Dick Cheney changed his residence from Texas to Wyoming, where he owned a home and which he had represented in the House for 10 years, in order to facilitate his vice presidential candidacy with George W. Bush, who was then the governor of Texas. Because Trump (like Cheney) doesn’t hold a current political office, he would seem the more likely mover under such a scenario, yet a return to New York would seem unlikely given his legal problems there.


Ultimately, Trump will choose among his available options to try to maximize his electoral prospects. The course he takes will depend on how he assesses his options and their ability to respond to the context as it presents itself at the time of decision.

Vice presidential selection often involves attempting to energize or expand a candidate’s base. Dole, McCain, and Mitt Romney tried to strengthen their standing with the Republican right by choosing Kemp, Palin, and Ryan respectively, and Trump in 2016 saw Pence as a bridge to the religious right. Alternatively, Trump might try to reach discordant Republican voters who supported his top nomination rival, Nikki Haley, through his vice presidential pick. Trump loyalists may resist this path, as evident by earlier efforts to prevent talk of Haley for the second spot (as described in Part One).

Campaigning skill and particular issues sometimes affect vice presidential selection. Trump’s legal problems and controversial presidency might cause him to assign priority to selecting a running mate who is willing and able to defend him against attacks in a manner similar to that Trump adopts and who is adept at attack politics.

Many of those prominently mentioned in VP speculation are women, Black Republican officeholders, or members of different ethnic minorities, which DeSantis disparaged as “identity politics.” Presumably, Trump may consider whether such a choice would reduce the usual Democratic strength with those demographic groups. McCain’s selection of Palin represents the only recent Republican effort at such an approach.

Although some observers have emphasized choosing a running mate from a competitive state as a likely selection strategy, presidential candidates have not considered that approach seriously for some time. Vice presidential candidates frequently come from safe states (including Walter Mondale, Sparkman, Humphrey, Dole, Quayle, Cheney, Lieberman, Biden, Palin, Pence, and Harris) or small states (Ed Muskie, Dole, Cheney, Lieberman, Palin, and Biden). Vice presidential candidates who come from large states are almost always chosen for some other reason (e.g., Lyndon Johnson was selected to help in the South, not just in Texas; Lodge was not going to carry Massachusetts against John F. Kennedy; Mondale and Dole didn’t pick Ferraro and Kemp to help in New York, nor did Reagan choose Bush to help in Texas, etc.).

Presidential candidates, especially on the Republican side, often make choices that would not have been predicted five months or even five days before they were made. In the last half century, the surprises, for different reasons, have included the selections of Dole (1976), Quayle (1988), Kemp (1996), Cheney (2000), and Palin (2008). Many were experienced people who had impressive careers. Some, like Kemp, Cheney and Palin, were not known to be under consideration until shortly before announced. Although Trump made a fairly predictable choice in 2016, no one should be surprised if this most unorthodox figure makes a selection that smashes norms of vice presidential selection.

Joel K. Goldstein is the author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016) and other works on the American vice presidency.

See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Joel K. Goldstein.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author or syndicate

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