Rise of the running mate: Once consigned to political graveyard, now they’re the heir apparent

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Rise of the running mate: Once consigned to political graveyard, now they’re the heir apparent

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Donald Trump is set to make what recent history has shown could be the single most important decision of his run – the running mate

While a Trump win would make him the oldest president ever, his advanced age is not why the pick is important. Nor is it due to its potential to turn the election – as we’ve repeatedly seen throughout history, the choice of VP has little-to-no impact on an election. 

No, the difference is that the vice president has an incredible lead for any future presidential nomination.

Some of the contenders to be former President Trump’s running mate are Ohio Sen. JD Vance, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. (Getty Images)

Starting with Richard Nixon in 1960 and excluding Kamala Harris, eight of the last 13 vice presidents went on to win their party’s nomination for the presidency.

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Only the disgraced Spiro Agnew; the unelected Nelson Rockefeller, who died before the next election; the long-ridiculed Dan Quayle; the health-challenged Dick Cheney, and Mike Pence, who lost to Trump himself, did not manage this feat. The five Democratic VPs – Johnson, Humphrey, Mondale, Gore and Biden – all managed to win their party’s nomination.

Compare this to all the other governmental positions. In that 64-year period, only seven senators, six governors or former governors, one former cabinet member and the non-elected Trump managed to capture the presidential nomination.

The rise of the VP represents a great departure from most of American history. The vice presidency was long considered a political graveyard, which Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first VP referred to, in a cleaned-up phrase, as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” 

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While three of the first eight presidents were VPs, that ended with Martin Van Buren. For 124 years, from 1836 until 1960, only seven vice presidents moved up to become accidental presidents – due to the death of a president. And of those seven, four were cast aside by the party and did not even get the nomination on their own after serving a term as president.

What explains this change? Why did the vice president go from an embarrassment to obvious heir apparent?

John Nance Garner and FDR

President Franklin Roosevelt and his first vice president, John Nance Garner. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It is no coincidence that the rise of the VP took place at the same time as parties moved to a vastly more democratic way of choosing presidents. 

When presidents were chosen in part by backroom dealings at political conventions, the VP served as a bargaining chip and consolation prize. The VP was designed to bring the party together, rather than reach out to swing voters. 

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Frequently, the selection was not handed out to the second-place finisher (who wouldn’t want to be shunted off to the sideline), but rather to a lower-rank member of that wing of the party. 

May 20, 1987: Former U.S. President Richard Nixon at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris.

Starting with Richard Nixon in 1960, many vice presidents went on to win their party’s nomination for the presidency. (Reuters)

But the primary and caucus system made the president increasingly unencumbered by fealty to party leaders. As a result, the nominee took the full ability to select a running mate. Over time, they look for more prominent political figures who could theoretically boost the ticket. This higher name recognition led to a better ability to form a political organization for a later presidential run.

Most importantly, the vice president, hand-selected by the president, is usually able to inherit the mantle of the presidency. Even if there are interpersonal disputes, the president would be seen in a bad light if their vice president was viewed as a poor selection. 

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George H.W. Bush only received 37% of the vote in his election loss, but both his sons, George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, won their party's nomination for governor two years later. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

George H.W. Bush only received 37% of the vote in his election loss, but both his sons, George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, won their party’s nomination for governor two years later. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

The mantle of the president may seem unimportant, but as we saw with Trump’s success in once again winning the GOP’s nomination, it is critical. Any president or former president retains a high popularity among the party base for years afterward. Consider that George H.W. Bush only received 37% of the vote in his election loss, but both his sons won their party’s nomination for governor two years later. The vice president taking on that mantle of the party’s last successful leader is incredibly important for the primaries.

Trump’s pick for running mate will be analyzed for its impact on the 2024 race and what it means for how Trump will run the campaign. But the impact of a VP can be far greater. Even without the age question, the next vice president is in the pole position for their party in 2028.

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