Molly Ball defends the importance of the “veepstakes”:
You often hear high-minded political pundits declare that the veepstakes doesn’t matter, because in the end, we are assured, running mates rarely decide elections. Can we all declare a moratorium on the trope of pundits deciding what voters do and don’t care about? It’s condescending — who are they to say what voters, the vast majority of whom they have never met, care about? It’s based on a political-science fallacy — just because voters are smart enough to base their final judgments on policy fundamentals rather than relative trivia doesn’t mean they don’t welcome a wide range of information.
I enjoy speculation about VP nominees as much as anyone, and I engage in a fair bit of it myself. That said, let’s try to keep in mind that what pundits, bloggers, and journalists enjoy is quite different from what matters in determining election outcomes. While we’re at it, let’s remember that most voters do not base their final judgments on “policy fundamentals,” either. As a general rule, specific policies and policy substance are among the few things that are even less important for most voters than a presidential nominee’s running mate. The point is that there is not much evidence that running mates have a measurable effect on voters’ decisions. The selection of a running mate is important in that it tells us something about the presidential nominee, and it gives us a better idea of the sort of decision-making we could expect from him once in office. For the most part, however, it simply reconfirms things that we already knew.
Ball confirms that what we “learn” from VP speculation isn’t really new information at all:
But look what we learned from the Rubio affair on Tuesday. We learned, above all, that Mitt Romney isn’t particularly interested in putting Rubio on the ticket with him; that seems, if anything, truer today than it was yesterday: He had to be unwillingly pushed into feigning interest in his party’s favorite running-mate candidate. But we also learend that Rubio has a powerful constituency in the Republican Party that Romney realizes he cannot afford to ignore or alienate; and we learned that Romney, realizing this, is susceptible to pressure. Even with the nomination in hand, Romney apparently remains sensitive to the potential for a backlash from the base.
All the things that Ball claims that “we learned” from the Rubio-vetting episode are things that “we” (or at least some of “us”) already knew. Romney’s campaign had been telling anyone who would listen that they were inclined to favor boring, experienced politicians for the VP slot, which effectively ruled out Rubio from the beginning. We already knew that Romney is susceptible to pressure. Look at how quickly he dropped his national security spokesman at the first hint of grumbling from a small handful of activists. We can expect Romney to be sensitive to backlash from party activists because he is an egregious panderer with no firm principles. That is something that “we” have known about Romney for at least five years.
We didn’t need the Rubio-vetting episode to know that Rubio has a large constituency in the party. Rubio has less than two years of experience in national office, and he has already been the frequent subject of both presidential and vice-presidential speculation for over a year. Indeed, practically the only reason why the Rubio-vetting episode was newsworthy was that “we” all understood that he was a favorite of movement conservative activists, and so the report that Rubio was not being vetted for a position that many activists thought he should have was bound to be interesting to Rubio’s fans. Unless Romney ignores his own stated criteria for selecting a running mate (i.e., the person has to be ready to be President) and chooses Rubio, this episode has no greater significance than to draw more attention to the enthusiasm that Rubio fans have for their political idol.