Governors need not apply

April 8, 2008
    There is a widespread expectation that one or both vice-presidential nominees will be governors. After all, both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will be senators--they could use an experienced executive on the ticket.
    There is a strong likelihood that this expectation will be met. But this belief is pushing against a major historical boulder. If there has been one recent rule of vice presidential selection it is this: "Governors Need Not Apply."
    In sharp contrast to the presidency, where four of the last five incumbents served as chief executive of their state, governors are rarely selected as running mates. In the last 60 years, then-Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, the Republican nominee in 1968, has been the only state official nominated to run for the vice presidency. Even when Gerald Ford appointed long-serving former governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president when he succeeded Nixon in 1974, he replaced him with Sen. Robert Dole on the 1976 election ticket.
    As for the Democrats, you have to go all the way back to 1924 to find their last gubernatorial choice for vice president--Nebraska's Charles Bryan, brother of "the Great Commoner," William Jennings Bryan. Edmund Muskie, also a nominee in 1968, and Joseph Robinson in 1928 served as governors, but both had established significant reputations in the Senate by the time they were tapped for the nomination.
    If they don't like governors, then who gets selected? Surprisingly, the Democrats have been strikingly conservative in their selection, while the Republicans have been willing to make the more bold decisions. Democrats love senators. Since Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace was selected in 1940, every Democratic nominee except U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sargent Shriver in 1972 were senators, and Shriver was George McGovern's second, desperate choice after Sen. Thomas Eagleton was selected and bowed out once his electro-shock therapy treatments were revealed. Perhaps the party's subsequent nominees have taken note of the fact that two of the worst Democratic defeats in history were in those two elections.
    Democrats also appear to insist that the candidate be currently holding some elected or appointed office. The last time the Democrats went to the out-of-office bench was in 1908, when William Jennings Bryan ran with former Indiana gubernatorial candidate John Kern.
    Republican selections are much different. Three of the last four Republican nominees were out of office at the time of their selection, the exception being the much-ridiculed Dan Quayle. And, as opposed to the Democrats' love of senators, none of the three had risen higher in elected life than the House of Representatives, though two of them, Jack Kemp and Dick Cheney, served in the cabinet years before their nomination.
    The preference in both parties for federal officials may be because the position gives them a broader national public profile than governors. Committee hearings and the ability to sponsor and support bills affecting a nationwide audience make many federal lawmakers household names, something most governors never achieve. Cabinet officials, similarly, operate on the national stage, and they have the additional advantage of providing a connection with the policies of the presidents they served.
    The selection of a senator can also send a pointed message to interest groups. During a typical congressional session, a lawmaker casts well-publicized votes on hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control or the environment, which may not come up during a typical governor's term. By picking as his running mate someone with a favorable record on specific issues, the presidential nominee is able to reassure wavering voters; for example, the conservatives who are concerned that John McCain is not a real conservative.
    Similarly, the desire to nominate a sitting official, especially a senator, is perfectly understandable. Those nominees are more likely to be in the public eye, and more able to hit the ground running. Someone who has already run for and won state-wide office or been appointed to the cabinet has presumably received a through vetting.
    Why Republicans have recently chosen out-of-office candidates is hard to say. Each one filled a particular need that the candidate wanted met. It appears to be just a fluke that they were out of office.
    This historical record will certainly not stop any candidate from selecting a governor as his or her running mate in 2008. And with two senators being the presumptive contestants, there is good reason to think that a running mate with executive experience would be a real asset. But the fact that so few governors have been chosen in recent years should at least give the state's chief executives some pause while they touch up their public profile.
    Joshua Spivak is a lawyer and research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.