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Will Trump give the familiar VP storyline a new makeover in Milwaukee?

In 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, left, and his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, celebrate after accepting the Republican nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Christopher Evans
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MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images
In 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, left, and his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, celebrate after accepting the Republican nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Over the past year, the process by which the two major political parties choose their candidates for president has unfolded with little, if any, suspense. Still, the consequences of any presidential election — not to mention the drama and portents of this particular election — compel the attention of voters and media alike.

Yet it has only been in the last few weeks that many of us have come to focus on the process for choosing the party nominees for vice president. One reason for that is simple: There is no such process. Or at least no process the public can watch.

We have dozens of primaries and caucuses and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on frantic campaigning for the “top of the ticket.” By contrast, we spend relatively little or nothing at all on the other half of that ticket.

That is because the bottom half is simply picked by the top half. The presidential nominee decides on his or her “running mate” and there is rarely any meaningful resistance to that at the party convention where the nominees become official (thereby securing ballot access in every state).

At times, the primaries have served up a winner and a runner-up who became the running mate. Such was the case when Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, chose fellow Sen. John Edwards for vice president. More often, however, if a nominee has a choice, the pick comes from among primary rivals who finished well back in the pack.

That was the case when Barack Obama chose Joe Biden in 2008. The two senators from Illinois and Delaware went on to win. But in choosing Biden, Obama passed over another senator, Hillary Clinton of New York, who had given him a long and hard fight for the nomination and nearly equaled him in primary votes.

Eight years later, Clinton herself did much the same in passing over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the choice of roughly 40% of the delegates at the convention. She chose yet another senator, Tim Kaine of Virginia, who had not entered the primaries.

Former President Donald Trump, when first nominated in 2016, ignored his primary rivals entirely and instead reached out to Mike Pence, then governor of Indiana.

We have been letting the top dog do the barking for so long now that we scarcely notice anymore. It will be the case again this year, but there is a chance more people will notice. That’s because the lone decider on the Republican side is Trump, a man we can all agree has brought a certain show business flair to politics.

Enter the showman

Trump knows his running mate choice has become the one truly suspenseful element of the campaign at this phase. And he surely knows how to milk a moment.

It is possible, if not likely, that he will milk it all the way to Milwaukee next month and have the final four (or some other number) on stage during the convention’s prime time presentation. Perhaps they would each be given a chance to speak. And then, one can imagine, there could be more suspense and dramatic lighting and Trump could lay his hands — figuratively speaking or not — on the shoulders of his anointed.

This may seem over the top or beyond the pale, a takeover of a historic event by reality TV theatrics. Until Bill Clinton showed up midweek in New York in 1992 it was considered poor form for a nominee to even come to the convention hall until the final night for an acceptance speech. Until 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt flew to Chicago to accept his first nomination, nominees did not appear at the convention at all.

But this will not be an ordinary or old-fashioned convention. This will be a Trump show. And if you take a look back at the first night of the Trump convention in Cleveland in 2016 — at the way lights and music were used to bring him on stage on the very first night — the notion of an Apprentice-like “game show” in Milwaukee seems less far-fetched.

Running mate criteria and impacts

Our system has long ago absorbed the lesson that vice presidents are chosen largely for effect, despite all the rhetoric about someone being the “most qualified person” to be “a heartbeat away.”

The very existence of the vice presidential office has often been viewed rather like an appendix, an afterthought of the Founding Fathers. If it is a kind of flaw in the system, it has most often been addressed by trusting to luck.

Why don’t Americans seem more interested in who’s in line for the second-ranking job in the federal government?

The answer has to do with power. Because the vice president of the United States, the No. 2 who would replace a departed, has almost no actual authority under any other circumstances. That’s why its very first occupant, John Adams, called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Subsequent occupants of that relatively colorless office have usually mattered only if they later became president themselves, or if they made some measurable or evident difference to the outcome in the year they were nominated.

Instances of the latter have been few and far between. John F. Kennedy would not have won the Electoral College in 1960 without the state of Texas, and it is hard to see him winning that state without its native son Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. As it was, that ticket only prevailed in the nationwide popular vote by about 100,000.

In 1972, Democratic nominee George McGovern, a senator from South Dakota and leading critic of the Vietnam War, was probably never going to dislodge incumbent President Richard Nixon that fall. But what chance he had was badly damaged when his running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, left the ticket after revelations about his electro-shock therapy for depression.

There have been vice presidential nominees who both helped and hurt. Sarah Palin, then the governor of Alaska, was the first woman on the national ticket in the GOP. She fired up the 2008 convention and drew huge crowds that fall, often upstaging the presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But in the end, Palin’s lack of experience and problematic media interviews seemed to cost the ticket ground among swing voters.

There was also substantial excitement in 1984 when a Democratic member of Congress from New York, Geraldine Ferraro, became the first woman named to a national ticket by a major party. But here again, the skyrocket seemed to come to Earth as the summer stretched into fall. And the difficulty of overcoming a popular incumbent, in this case Republican Ronald Reagan, was far too great. The Democrats that year lost 49 states, just as they had in 1972.

In 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic presidential nominee, and Sen. Kamala Harris, Democratic vice presidential nominee, wear protective masks while holding hands next to Jill Biden, left, outside the Chase Center during the Democratic National Convention in Wilmington, Del.
Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
In 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic presidential nominee, and Sen. Kamala Harris, Democratic vice presidential nominee, wear protective masks while holding hands next to Jill Biden, left, outside the Chase Center during the Democratic National Convention in Wilmington, Del.

Who will it be? And when?

Trump has narrowed his plethora of possibilities to half a dozen — or a dozen, or eight, depending on which news tease you believe. He says he has a “pretty good idea” who the winner will be. But he also says he will probably wait until the convention for the Big Reveal, telling TV host Phil McGraw: ”I think that’s pretty normal.”

Well, yes and no. The No. 2 nominee has usually been known for at least a few news cycles before the convention. It has become almost a tradition for a non-incumbent presidential nominee to use the “one big question” to pique interest in a party gathering that has no other suspense. But it is considered necessary to prepare the media and the delegates a least a little before the event.

This was the case for current Vice President Kamala Harris in 2020 and for Trump’s No. 2 Pence in 2016, both announced a few days before their debuts on the national ticket. Trump was seen as reaching out to elements of the party that had, like Pence, supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (who had yet to endorse Trump at the convention).

Biden announced Harris just his party began its virtual convention in the COVID summer of August 2020. Biden had the nomination amid party peace, but months earlier, Biden had committed to naming a woman to the ticket and shown strong leanings toward a woman of color.

There is always some speculation about replacing the running mate for a reelection campaign, but there was no serious effort to dislodge either Pence or Harris in their reelection cycle. (Pence, however, fell out with Trump over the certifying of the 2020 election results and, after ending his own bid for the 2024 nomination, has said he would not vote for Trump this fall.)

The last time a sitting vice president was replaced on the national ticket after a term in office was in 1944. (Franklin Roosevelt, on track to win a fourth term that fall, had a liberal vice president at the time named Henry Wallace. Conservative Southern senators, concerned about FDR’s fragile health, engineered his ouster and replaced him with Sen. Harry Truman of Missouri.)

In the 80 years and 20 presidential cycles since then, we have seen quite a few vice presidents become the party’s new man at the top of the ticket. That happened while some were still serving as vice president: in 1960 (Richard Nixon), 1968 (Hubert Humphrey), 1988 (George H.W. Bush) and 2000 (Al Gore). And we have also seen vice presidents step up to the presidency in mid-term and run as the incumbent, as the presidential candidate, as happened in 1964 (Johnson) and 1976 (Gerald Ford).

Several vice presidents have left that office and become private citizens and later mounted successful campaigns for the party’s nomination for president, as Joe Biden did in 2020. Walter Mondale did this in 1984 and Nixon did in 1968.

Overall, 15 of the 45 people who have served as president were vice presidents first. Nine went straight to the top job due to the death or resignation of the preceding president, and four of those nine went on to be elected to a term on their own.

Several of those who ascended to the Oval Office in the 20th century have been among the most memorable White House leaders of the period, including Truman, Johnson and Theodore Roosevelt.

So whether vice presidential choices seem marginal or turn out to be monumental, they are undeniably among the most consequential decisions ever made in American politics.

Which makes it all the more surprising that we leave such decisions up to the deliberations and mental gymnastics of a single politician.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.