Jonathan Haidt is always telling us that conservatives value loyalty more than liberals. Are there other political forces at work here too? Why do the VP picks tend to differ by party?
VP picks tend to differ by party partly because the criteria for selecting running mates differ between the parties. The Republican Party has a tendency to nominate the relative moderate in any given presidential field. That has been the rule since 1988. Republican VP selections have so often been “base-pleasing moves to the right” because many conservatives are usually uninspired or even disappointed by the nominee. Republican VP nominees are usually expected to balance the ticket mostly in the sense that they are supposed to compensate for the nominee’s perceived ideological liabilities.
The principal reason that 1980 was the last time there was a moderate VP nominee on the Republican ticket is that 1980 was also the last time that a relatively more conservative contender prevailed in an open nominating contest. In every open Republican nominating contest since then, the relative moderate has prevailed over a number of conservative challengers. In every case, the relative moderate was considered the early front-runner or heir apparent, very conservative rank-and-file voters and activists were dissatisfied that the party had “settled” for the relative moderate, and the nominee sought to appease them by choosing a running mate that would satisfy them.
Bush had to choose someone to make up for his past moderate record if he was going to present himself as the heir of Reagan, Dole the “tax collector for the welfare state” had to choose Kemp, and the younger Bush chose Cheney to satisfy those unhappy with his “compassionate” conservative claptrap. The funny thing about this is that Republican VP nominees tend to be to the right of the presidential nominee because once Reagan was no longer a contender conservatives have been remarkably bad at getting one of their own nominated for the Presidency. What so many people keep interpreting as evidence of the conservative movement’s enormous influence (i.e., VP nominees designed to satisfy conservatives) is really evidence of its failure to get the presidential nominee its members prefer. The VP nomination has become the consolation prize for conservatives after they lose in the primaries. Conservatives consistently field too many presidential candidates and end up sabotaging the chances of selecting a more conservative nominee, and so the Vice Presidency is the best they can do.
This has not created a tradition of making former Vice Presidents and VP nominees the natural heirs apparent in future elections. Ever since 1988, Republican VP nominees and Vice Presidents have had an impressive track record of not seeking the presidential nomination later or seeking it with no success. Quayle didn’t even try in 1996, and his tentative efforts in 1999 quickly went nowhere. Kemp didn’t run in 2000, Cheney was never going to try, and Palin likewise stayed out. Many people seem to see Ryan’s selection as the beginning of a path to Ryan’s preeminence in the party later on, but that may not happen. The Republican ticket could win, and Ryan’s career might still hit a dead end after four or eight years. The later political success of Republican VP nominees since Quayle has been elusive. Part of this is a result of the perceived and real failures of the administrations to which they belonged (Quayle, Cheney), and some of this is the result of failed general election campaigns (Kemp, Palin).
One reason that Democratic nominees tend to choose even more “centrist” running mates is that they are portrayed and eventually perceived as too liberal for the general electorate. It doesn’t matter how exaggerated this portrayal may be. Because the Democratic nominee is typically portrayed (by conservative and other media) as an ideological liberal, he is compelled to “tack to the center” in a way that his opponent usually is not. Even though Obama ran the most “centrist” campaign of the three leading Democratic competitors and campaigned as a hawk on virtually everything except Iraq, he felt compelled to choose an even more hawkish running mate with a long career in Washington to offset the impression that he was both too inexperienced and too liberal.