Teaching the 2016 Election: A High-Stakes Political Marriage

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

When we enter the voting booth on November 8 and exercise our choice at the top of the ticket, it will be framed among the leading stand-bearers, Clinton or Trump, or for those seeking none of the above, perhaps Johnson or Stein. But in so doing, we are blessing a marriage to his or her running mates.

Our Constitution made vice presidential selections for the Commander-in-Chief a consolation prize to the second-place finisher. Politics indeed made for interesting bedfellows as the President could be stuck for four years or longer with his opponent lurking a heartbeat away. The 12th Amendment forever altered this construction, acknowledging the growth of political parties with differentiated platforms, and allowing candidates to select running mates with similar stripes.

Historically, vice presidential candidates have been picked to round out the ticket, providing regional, ideological, or experiential balance.
  • Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy selected his Texas colleague Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960.
  • In 1980 the movement conservative Ronald Reagan chose the moderate, party establishment rival George H.W. Bush.
  • More recently, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama went with experienced Washington hands in Dick Cheney and Joe Biden respectively to mesh with their statehouse credentials.
Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton doubled down on Southern centrists with Tennessee Senator Al Gore in 1992, and in winning, instituted a governing partnership since replicated in succeeding administrations with Cheney and Biden. In sum, the vice presidency is now worth more than a “bucket of warm spit.”

In 2016, given the unpopularity of the two major party nominees, their vice presidential picks arguably take on additional importance.
  • Trump chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence in an apparent attempt to consolidate the conservative base of the GOP and provide a steady hand opposite a political neophyte.
  • Clinton’s selection of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine heeded Rule #1 of the Veepstakes: “Do no harm.” Not only is he proudly vanilla-flavored (honest and earnest), but he also presumably delivers his purple home state.
Pence provided a workman-like speech at last week’s Republican National Convention last weeks and it’s Kaine’s turn tonight. In announcing their engagement to assembled delegates and a national television audience, they seek the blessing of the broader electorate. Only one couple will survive come morning on November 9.

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