In the middle of every presidential election year, the establishment media wastes an inordinate amount of time engaging in speculation about who will be the running mate of each major party presidential candidate. The various talking heads discuss the potential benefits that each potential vice presidential pick could have, such as shoring up support with a certain demographic group by picking a member of that group or appealing to voters in a battleground state by running with a popular person from that state. But just how important is the Vice Presidency, and how do presidential candidates really choose a running mate?
The Original Plan
The office of the Vice Presidency is described in Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution. The most important clauses therein for the Vice Presidency are the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth, which read:
“[Clause 1]The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:
[Clause 2]Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
[Clause 3]The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner choose the President. But in choosing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice President.
[Clause 5]No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
[Clause 6]In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”
The Vice President is only given one official function besides presidential succession, by Article I, Section 3, Clause 4:
“The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”
In practice, this function is relatively unimportant in modern times, as contentious legislation that could end in a tie vote is likely to be filibustered. The ambition of most Vice Presidents to later become President also restrains them from being too active in their role as President of the Senate.
Even though they were some of the brightest men of their time, the Framers proved unable to figure out that an electoral system of first-past-the-post naturally leads to partisan politics and a two-party system. By the time of George Washington’s warning about such parties in his farewell address, it was already far too late. As such, the original system in which presidential candidates ran solo and the top two vote recipients in the Electoral College became President and Vice President, respectively, caused anomalies in 1796 and 1800. In 1796, this resulted in a Federalist Party president and a Democratic-Republican Party vice president. In a contentious political environment, such an outcome is actually assassination bait rather than assassination insurance. In 1800, this resulted in a tie vote between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr which required 36 ballots in the House of Representatives to resolve. As such, the Twelfth Amendment was ratified in 1804 to create the current system in which a ticket of a presidential candidate and vice presidential candidate run together, and the Electoral College votes for each are separated. It also specifies that if there is no majority in the Electoral College for President or Vice President, then the House of Representatives will choose from the top three electoral vote recipients, with each state getting one vote.
The Tyler Precedent
After only thirty days in office, President William Henry Harrison died on April 4, 1841. Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 is unclear as to whether the Vice President becomes President upon the death of the President or merely Acting President. John Tyler, Harrison’s vice president, asserted that he had become President. He swore the presidential oath, moved into the White House, and assumed all presidential powers. No one legally challenged Tyler’s actions and both houses of Congress passed resolutions agreeing that Tyler was President. This established the precedent which would later be codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment. This amendment was adopted in response to the Kennedy assassination, which led Congress to act for fear that the United States could be left without a President in a situation in which the Cold War escalated into open warfare.
The Importance of the Vice Presidency
At present, the primary importance of the Vice Presidency is that the officeholder becomes President if the current President dies, resigns, or becomes unable to perform the duties of the office. Thus, it is the primary consideration for a rational presidential candidate when choosing a running mate. For the presidential candidate’s agenda, one would seek to run with someone who shares that agenda and would govern in much the same way if he or she should need to ascend to the Presidency. But in politics, the most cynical view is most likely to be correct. A vice presidential pick is a way for a president to tell the American people, “If you are dissatisfied with me, do not kill me, because if you do, this person will become President, and he or she will be worse!” Considering recent vice presidents and their major challengers certainly makes this appear to be the case. Joe Biden, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, and Dan Quayle have been a heartbeat away from the Presidency in the past 25 years. Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp, and James Stockdale easily could have been. Whatever one thinks of their accompanying presidents or presidential nominees, it would be difficult to argue that any of these people would have been better presidents than the presidents with whom they served or the nominees with whom they ran.
As such, especially given the increasingly polarized contemporary political environment, a vice presidential candidate is essentially assassination insurance. Little more, and nothing less.