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The Republican Veepstakes, Part One: Picking an Apprentice, Donald Trump’s Way

A Commentary By Joel K. Goldstein


— Vice presidential selection season is upon us, and the early apparent resolution of the Republican presidential nomination and the fact that former President Donald Trump will be orchestrating the 2024 Veepstakes promises to make the process a long and unique episode of that quadrennial event.

— Trump is an anomalous selector, having chosen a running mate once before. If his 2016 approach is a guide, and it may not be, the conventional wisdom that he will choose one of those who is publicly most obsequious may not be accurate.

Assessing Trump’s Veepstakes

Former President Donald Trump’s success in the early caucus and primary states, which he then replicated on Super Tuesday, convinced most observers that he will be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. Accordingly, attention shifted—as it always does when the presidential nomination seems resolved—to the vice presidential sweepstakes. The early perceived determination of the presidential nomination and the fact that it is Trump who apparently will be the nominee should make this year’s vice presidential selection obsession period history’s longest and most unconventional. It’s already shaping up that way.

The process

Until the mid-1970s, vice presidential nominations were considered, decided, and announced at the end of presidential nominating conventions only after a presidential candidate was nominated. An exhausted and jubilant nominee gathered with some of his campaign team and party leaders on the convention’s final morning to discuss the ticket’s second spot. The increased importance and visibility of the vice presidency, initially during the Cold War and especially from the mid-1970s, encouraged greater attention to running mate selection. The system of primaries and caucuses that developed in the 1970s almost always accelerated the effective presidential nomination decision to sometime before the convention and enabled presidential standard-bearers to conduct a more diligent pre-convention vice presidential selection process. They soon realized that a pre-convention running mate announcement made better sense than allowing that decision to dominate the convention. Walter F. Mondale was the first to disclose a new running mate before the convention, with his 1984 selection of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York four days before it opened. Republicans followed suit in 1996 when Bob Dole announced former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp a day before. Since the shift to pre-convention announcements, vice presidential rollouts have occurred between 1 and 20 days before the convention begins. Because the Republican convention opens July 15, 2024, this vice presidential season, which has already started, may effectively run five months or more, a record or near-record.

Vice presidential selection in modern times turns on three variables—the presidential candidate who orchestrates the process and makes the decision; the pool of available selectees; and the political context. In each decision, a selector considers a distinctive set of options in a unique setting and makes strategic choices. Continuities shape vice presidential choice but every selection has idiosyncratic aspects because of the variation in decision-makers, pool, and historical setting as well as the interaction of those variables.

It’s useful examining familiar patterns, as is done below and in Part Two, but with Trump dictating this year’s Republican selection process, it’s certain to be unique. It already is. Trump is the unparalleled norms-disrupter of American political history—from refusing to disclose his tax returns to attempting to subvert the Jan. 6, 2021 constitutional processes certifying the 2020 electoral vote to campaigning from court and on and on and on—so it would be naïve to assume this year’s vice presidential process will follow conventional patterns even if some similarities appear. Trump’s marketing orientation—what presidential candidate has ever raised money selling items bearing his mugshot?—and his tendency to humiliate supporters and foes suggest that this vice presidential selection process will involve unique behavior.

Some vice presidential selection processes, especially in the immediate post-Watergate period, involved publicized interviews with contenders in order to promote transparency. In 1976, Jimmy Carter interviewed Sens. Edmund S. Muskie, Mondale, and John Glenn in Carter’s home base of Plains, Georgia and met with four other members of Congress at the Democratic convention before announcing his choice of Mondale on the convention’s final day. The interviews were announced in advance and followed by a press session. In 1984, Mondale followed that basic process eight years later with interviews at his Minnesota home but decided and announced his choice before the convention. Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful public courtship of former President Gerald R. Ford to be his running mate hijacked the 1980 Republican convention. Nominees like Michael Dukakis and Mitt Romney campaigned with various vice presidential candidates but in a respectful fashion, and they and other presidential candidates have been fairly complimentary about prospects and not revealed their thinking until they were ready to announce their selection.

Most candidates tried to avoid making a spectacle of the process or embarrassing co-partisan political figures. There typically is much public discussion of those thought to be in contention, sometimes from leaks from the selector’s team, but the speculation generally is just that, mostly uninformed where those who talk don’t know and those who know keep pretty quiet. Presidential campaigns have taken pains to keep candidate interviews secret and presidential candidates have said little about their inclinations until the end.

This year’s VP selection process has followed a very different pattern, even as Trump continued to campaign against former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who suspended her campaign Wednesday morning. Start with Trump’s proclivity to throw out public teasers: During the first half of January, he said on Fox News that he knew who he would pick, although his campaign later said there’d been little discussion of the topic. About 10 days later, he said there was a 25% chance he’d choose the person he had in mind, either suggesting slippage in his confidence level or that he misspoke or most likely that he’s playing with everyone. He’s revealed some he claims to be considering (e.g., South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem) and some who he’s not ( Haley). In a recent conversation with Fox’s Laura Ingraham, Trump praised Scott but when Ingraham mentioned Noem, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, 2024 Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, and former Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Trump said all were on his short list. Most seem rather implausible picks. The next day DeSantis said on a call with supporters that he didn’t want to be Trump’s running mate and criticized Trump’s presidency and his rumored VP selection orientation towards “identity politics.” Trump aides fired back that DeSantis was “a sad little man” who had “failed miserably” in his presidential campaign and would have no voice in VP selection. So much for DeSantis’s place on the shortlist. Trump also floated Texas Gov. Greg Abbott late last week, although Abbott disclaimed any interest in being Trump’s running mate.

Meanwhile, vice presidential wannabes like Noem, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, and Sens. Scott and J.D. Vance of Ohio, among others, have raced to campaign for Trump in Iowa, New Hampshire, or elsewhere, presumably to ingratiate themselves to him. Noem criticized Haley in unusually personal terms as someone who goes “whichever way the political winds blow” and does “whatever works for her political agenda.” Stefanik’s target was Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, whom she criticized for his Jan. 6 actions when he followed the Constitution and Electoral Count Act of 1887 in performing the limited role of the Senate president during that ceremony. Stefanik herself voted against accepting the Pennsylvania electoral votes but voted to certify Joe Biden’s Arizona slate. Vance, who has morphed from an outspoken Trump critic to an enthusiastic surrogate, recently went even further than Stefanik on the Jan. 6 question, not only saying Pence was wrong but that Vance “would have told the states, like Pennsylvania, Georgia, and so many others, that we needed to have multiple slates of electors,” a position that would have exceeded the Senate president’s ministerial role in unprecedented ways.

Perhaps because Scott was one of the vast majority of Republican senators who did not vote against certifying any of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential electoral votes (he had announced on Jan. 5, 2021 that there was “no constitutionally viable means” for Congress to “overturn an election” when the states had certified and transmitted their electors) and had said during an August 2023 presidential debate that Pence had “absolutely” done the right thing, Scott tried to avoid answering the Jan. 6 question by attacking Biden before finally acknowledging that his position hadn’t changed. Scott had previously been panned in some circles for his behavior during Trump’s New Hampshire victory. Trump put Scott in an awkward position, turning to him to observe that Scott must really “hate” Haley because he had not endorsed her even though she initially appointed him to the Senate. A smiling Scott then took the microphone to profess to Trump, “I just love you.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—who some have mentioned as a possible running mate this time even though in 2016 he and Trump both made clear that they were not interested in such an association and Rubio like some others (see Part Two) has a Florida problem—refused to criticize Trump for his comments about the absence of Haley’s husband from the campaign (he’s deployed overseas with his National Guard unit), terming them just “part of these campaign cycles.”

By identifying a number of vice presidential prospects, many of whom seem rather unlikely choices, Trump has given certain surrogates enhanced visibility as they attacked his rivals, Haley and Biden, and has given them added incentive to make his case against his opponents and for his candidacy. These VP sweepstakes moments from January, February, and the first days of March suggest the spectacle already unfolding, and there’s four months or so to go.

The selector

Trump is an anomalous vice presidential selector in multiple respects, a fact that impacts the three variables in distinct ways. Unlike other recent presidential nominees, he previously chose a running mate, Pence. No former president since Grover Cleveland in 1892 has paired up a second time on a major party ticket with a first-time running mate, but Cleveland is not an apt comparison because presidential candidates didn’t pick their running mates in his day. Franklin D. Roosevelt had three running mates but the first, Speaker of the House John Nance Garner, achieved the position as part of a deal to secure FDR’s first nomination and FDR’s role in the third, Harry S. Truman, was somewhat ambiguous as Truman secured the second spot on the Democratic National Convention’s second ballot. And FDR, of course, never selected as a former president.

Defeated presidential nominees don’t often get another chance to choose a running mate. Of the 22 men and one woman who as major party presidential nominees have chosen running mates since 1960, Trump will be the only one other than Richard M. Nixon to choose a second first-time running mate: Nixon chose Henry Cabot Lodge in 1960 and then Spiro T. Agnew in 1968.[1] As such, Trump has a vice presidential selection track record that may provide hints, although he chose in 2016 from a different pool in different circumstances.

Conventional wisdom sees Trump as insistent on abject loyalty and accordingly likely to choose someone who has demonstrated uncritical support. Sone campaign surrogates/VP wannabes behave consistently with this expectation. Perhaps that’s a correct read, but Trump’s 2016 process might counsel some caution in forecasting that Trump will select the biggest sycophant. Before Trump chose Pence from a relatively shallow pool, Trump’s camp apparently approached then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a rival and critic, to join his ticket. Kasich reportedly declined these overtures but that data point might suggest some willingness to reach out in search of electoral advantage. Trump’s success in converting former critics into subordinated supporters (think Vance, Rubio, and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, among others.) might encourage him to expect similar success with another politically ambitious critic.

Pence turned out to be perhaps the most publicly sycophantic vice president in recent times until Jan. 6, 2021, but his selection also reflected a degree of outreach. Trump’s other finalists, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, supported Trump before Pence did (he endorsed Cruz in late April before Indiana’s primary while praising Trump). Moreover, selecting Pence reflected a balancing of sorts given his ties to the religious right, and avoided baggage-laden options Christie and Gingrich.

Trump’s also anomalous in that, having run twice before, served as president, and been so polarizing, one might expect him to be less able than others to use his choice to reshape his public image. Presidential nominees send messages about themselves through their vice presidential picks. A new face like a Carter, a George W. Bush, or a Barack Obama can choose a Mondale, a Dick Cheney, or a Joe Biden to reassure the public that he’ll surround himself with experienced D.C. hands. A Dole, a John McCain, or a Mitt Romney can choose someone popular with the party’s conservative base to communicate openness to their views. Having dominated the public stage for the last eight years in a polarizing way, it’s hard to imagine that Trump has much room to use his choice to present himself as something different than his visible public behavior even before his 2016 run would suggest.

In Part Two next week, we’ll go over the kinds of candidates who typically are picked as running mates, and how some of this year’s rumored contenders fit (or do not fit) that history.


[1] Thomas Dewey (Ohio Gov. John Bricker in 1944 and California Gov, Earl Warren in 1948) and Adlai E. Stevenson (Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama in 1952 and Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee in 1956) had two running mates but Stevenson let the 1956 Democratic convention choose. Reagan chose twice (Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania in 1976 and 1980 nomination rival George H.W. Bush four years later) but the first time as a ploy to attract delegate support for the nomination, not as a nominee. George S. McGovern chose twice (Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri and former Amb. R. Sargent Shriver) but both came in 1972, the only year he was nominated. Gerald R. Ford nominated former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller to be vice president pursuant to the 25th Amendment but later asked him to withdraw from consideration for the 1976 ticket and chose Dole as his only running mate.

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.

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