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Q&A on The Veepstakes: The Race to Be America's Number Two

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No American parent has ever looked at their son or daughter and said, "You know, I hope you one day end up being Vice President". And yet, for all the lack of glamour the vice presidency has in the public mind, speculation over who will be chosen by a presidential candidate to be a running mate is the Olympic decathlon of talking heads, political pundits, and guys posting on blogs from their basements at 2am.
But how does this process even happen? Why do people like Katherine Sebelius or Tim Pawlenty get their names mentioned as potential running mates but people like Steve Rothman or Dave Heineman get passed over like yesterday's lunchmeat? And does any of it give us an idea of how the candidate on the top of the ticket will govern?
To get some answers, we sent asked Dan Gerstein, someone who has a lot of familiarity with a vice presidential campaign. Gerstein worked with Senator Joe Lieberman for a decade and was Lieberman's national spokesman for the 2000 VP campaign. He was also the brains behind Lieberman's successful re-election in the heated 2006 Senate race in Connecticut. Gerstein was written several op-ed pieces for the Wall Street Journal (including this one on Wednesday) and appears on MSNBC, Fox News, and NY1. Gerstein now supports Barack Obama for President though Lieberman was considered to be one of the top contenders as John McCain's running mate.

Also to his credit, Gerstein typed his responses on his BlackBerry while at INVESCO Field listening to Barack Obama's acceptance speech, meeting with clients, and talking to other media all at the same time.
1. How does someone get to be chosen as the VP nominee? How does one get on the radar screen?
Dan Gerstein: "There is no one formulaic path. Sometimes they come from the primary field, having shown they are effective vote getters and/or helpful with a critical constituency. Sometimes they are rising stars within the party who add a little pizzazz to the ticket. Sometimes they are someone who is a safe choice who has a strong rapport and trust with the presidential nominee."

2. Who filters all the possible choices? Not just the final choice but the also-rans... Who does the grunt work of sorting through resumes?

DG: "Presidential campaigns usually assemble a whole team of vetters whose sole job is to pour through materials and do interviews. These folks are typically lawyers, though not always."

3. Caroline Kennedy supposedly helped pick Obama's VP pick.

Why did she get that job if she never held public office? Did she actually do the work or was it just an honorific title? Who else worked on it?
DG: "It's hard to say for sure. Divining from the outside, I would say she was chosen in part because she had Obama's trust, partly out of respect for her uncle [Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), one of Obama's earlier supporters this year], partly because she was a woman, and partly because of her universal good will within the party. She clearly worked on it, as did Eric Holder, the former deputy attorney general, who co-headed the search process."

4. How does a background check work on these potential VP nominees? Who's looking for the "dead hooker or live boy in a hotel room"? How do those guys even start tracking down those things? How much info are they gathering? Are they looking into family backgrounds, too? Where does it begin and where does it end?

DG: "The vetters go through every document they can get their hands on, track down every hint of scandal and controversy, and talk to an extremely wide circle of contacts for any prospective candidate who is seriously being considered. The whole goal is to avoid any surprises."

5. Who is doing the filtering for John McCain?

DG: "I don't know."

6. Is there a difference between the way Obama and McCain pick their running mates? Is there a general difference between the ways in which each party's nominee makes that choice?

DG: (No answer)
7. Bill Clinton famously picked Al Gore as his running mate after meeting Gore only one or two times and for just a few minutes each time. How has choosing a running mate changed over the years? What does the choice for VP say about the presidential candidate themselves?

DG: "The only universal conclusion you can reach about the VP selection process is that it is a deeply personal decision, and as such, the process each presidential nominee's uses reflects their management and decision-making style."

8. If there is too much contrast between a candidate and his running mate (think Dan Quayle versus George HW Bush), does that hurt or help a ticket?

DG: "It can create a minor distraction/irritant, but it really doesn't have much of lasting impact -- that is, unless, the presidential candidate has a history of flip-flopping and the differences with the VP candidate help advance a damaging narrative about the presidential candidate's lack of principle."

9. When Joe Biden was picked, TV pundits were saying he'd help Obama carry the religion-and-guns-clinging state of Pennsylvania as well as the crucial state of Delaware. Does anyone care anymore about what state a VP nominee is from? This is the Internet Age. Do people really look at a ticket anymore and say, "Well, I wasn't going to vote for Candidate X but since his vice presidential nominee is from my state (or my region, especially the Deep South), I HAVE to vote for him now"?

DG: "VP candidates have rarely helped deliver critical states for a winning ticket -- LBJ in Texas is the last clear example of the last half century. VP candidates can help at the margins in certain regions, but usually their most valuable appeal is to constituencies, not geographies."

10. Joe Biden was touted as a possible VP by the press the moment he stopped running for president. Was that on purpose (i.e., did someone in the Biden camp start a campaign to put him on a ticket) or was it a case of the press deciding a running mate for Obama?

DG: "It was a case of him being an obvious asset and choice for this particular candidate, both in terms of their comfort level and trust and the way Biden's experience and cultural background complement Obama's."

11. Given that Biden was an early-on favorite for VP, does this mean that Obama's campaign is playing it safe by being, well, unimaginative?

DG: "Not at all. It simply means sometimes the smart choice is the obvious one."
12. How much risk can or should John McCain take in his pick? At 2-to-1 odds, Mitt Romney is currently the favorite to get the VP pick. Do the odds-makers -- who correctly picked Biden for Obama -- know something we don't? Does McCain endanger the ticket by further painting the GOP as the party of the rich and old white guys?

DG: "McCain has few good options available to him. Pick a moderate and he deepens his issues with the base, pick a conservative and he limits his appeal to the swing voters who will decide this race. Moreover, unless he picks an out-of-the-box candidate like Lieberman or Meg Whitman, his VP pick will play little role in helping him win votes. That's why I believe McCain will most likely pick a safe, inoffensive, youngish conservative who he is personally comfortable -- Tim Pawlenty."

13. What are Joe Lieberman's chances for getting picked by McCain as VP? Is that a far-fetched bubbe meise (fairy-tale) that he's on McCain's shortlist? Would the pick of another old white guy who supported the war be a bad thing or is the pick of an old school liberal Democrat who wants to unite America in a time of general crisis a good thing?

DG: "It is highly unlikely that McCain will pick Lieberman. By most indications McCain would probably like to pick Lieberman, and Lieberman would be an asset in trumping Obama's unity message and appealing to swing voters. But the far right and the right-to-lifers would most likely blow up the convention and too many of them would refuse to show up in November."

14. Once the VP picks are chosen, what exactly do they do for the remaining two-and-a-half months? What are they expected to do? What do they actually do?

DG: "The VP candidates' job is to amplify the campaign's message and multiply its presence in key states."

15. What does a typical day for a VP candidate look like? Are they under less, equal, or more pressure than a presidential candidate?

DG: "Their schedules are very similar to the presidential candidates: do a message event in each market, at least one retail hand-shaking event, and often one fundraising event, while squeezing in as much local TV and radio as possible. And typically, the VP candidate is dispatched to carry whatever hit against the opposition the campaign decides they want to drive."

16. Does the Presidential candidate really consult with their running mate regularly or do they not care what the bottom half of the ticket thinks?

DG: "It depends on how close the two candidates are and how much the presidential candidate trusts the VP candidate's judgment. Sometimes they collaborate and consult on a regular even daily basis. Sometimes they talk only when there is a critical strategy decision to make concerning the VP's role -- or when the VP candidate needs to brought into line on something."

17. Since they have had less time to prepare for all this, who keeps the VP candidate's entourage (embarrassing members of the family, questionable friends and business associates, groupies, hangers-on, bitter in-laws, etc.) at bay? Do they get their own set of handlers? Who picks them?

DG: "The VP candidate's family typically gets staff dedicated to meeting their needs, keeping them out of trouble, and staffing them when they serve as surrogates on the campaign trail. The VP's campaign manager is usually in charge of making staffing decisions, but sometimes the candidate gets directly involved when it involves sensitive family members."

18. If a VP candidate is at odds with their running mate, how do they express it, if at all?

DG: "They complain privately and then shut up if they know what is good for them."

19. Dick Cheney was perhaps the strongest Vice President the US has ever had. Some (okay, mostly conspiracy-prone bloggers) would even say he was the real president. Will there ever be a Dick Cheney-type Vice President any time soon? Was this, in part, the result of the constant media scrutiny a Presidential candidate gets, thereby requiring a relatively squeaky-clean "spokesmodel" President to take all the heat and the real brains (i.e., the VP) to do all the actual work? Or, was this a one-time deal? Is this a good or a bad thing?

DG: "Cheney was somewhat sui generis, because of Bush's lax management style and his lack of curiosity, along with Cheney's hunger for power and his staff's control-freakish hold on the White House bureaucracy. But I would argue that Gore really redefined the role of the super VP before Cheney got into office. And because they came back to back, I suspect that there will now be an expectation that a high-powered VP will be the norm -- until we get another George HW Bush who is on the outs with the top dog."

20. Overall, how important is a VP nominee? Are we paying too much attention to it?

DG: "Absolutely the press is paying too much attention to it, but that's not surprising. The news media of today does not do policy or nuance well and laps up simple, personality-driven stories, which the veepstakes is the height of. The fact is VP choices rarely make a difference in elections, and when they do, they tend to have a marginal negative impact."


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