Pundits often claim that the right vice presidential pick can make the difference in a close election, particularly in his or her home state, where the nominee maintains some sort of home field advantage. But as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight revealed back in 2012, vice presidential nominees have only produced an average home state gain of only “two percentage points” for their tickets since 1920, with most of these gains coming from candidates whose home states were not even in play. And according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the past three decades of presidential elections, overwhelming majorities of voters have told pollsters that “a candidate’s choice of running mate has no effect on their vote for president.”
But this could all change in 2016 because of one thing: favorability.
This election season is unique in many respects, but one of the principal differences between the 2016 presidential nominees and the candidates of years past is favorability. A record-breaking proportion of the national electorate dislikes each major party candidate; one poll taken this week found that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are viewed unfavorably by about three-fifths of voters. Contrast this with a 2012 survey, also conducted in mid-July, which found that 48 percent and 36 percent of voters disliked President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, respectively.
With so many voters disillusioned about the major party candidates, the vice presidential nominees may take on a special importance this year. For each presidential candidate, the V.P. will need to mitigate the flaws of their partners at the top of the ticket, excusing their missteps and generating good will which will parlay into stronger support on election day. Whoever ultimately becomes Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee will have the task of rebuilding trust between her and a deeply suspicious electorate in the aftermath of her messy email scandal. Indiana governor Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick, will seek to provide a cool and collected counterbalance to the businessman’s brash public persona and to convince voters that Mr. Trump is qualified for the presidency.
Assuming that the historic high unfavorability of each of the major party candidates persists, the vice presidential nominees could be the deciding factor for undecided voters, independents, and leaners who are unenthusiastic about both presidential candidates. A well-liked and trusted Democratic V.P. candidate could persuade voters who mistrust Mrs. Clinton to cast a reluctant vote for her. “I may not like Clinton,” one such voter might reason, “but she will have an honorable person at second-in-command.”
Similarly, the elected experience which Mr. Pence brings to the GOP ticket could persuade independents wary of Mr. Trump’s dearth of political expertise that a Trump presidency would provide stable, capable leadership. Additionally, the Indiana governor’s conservative bonafides may assure anti-Trump grassroots activists, skeptical about their nominee’s allegiance to conservative values, that they will have an advocate in the White House if Mr. Trump is elected.
As the election nears, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are unlikely to become more popular. However, their vice presidential picks will have lots of room to grow and to set the tone for their candidacies. Mr. Pence has a limited national political presence; only about a third of Americans in a recent Marist poll knew enough about him to form an opinion about him. Tim Kaine, the Virginia senator who is the current favorite in the Democratic Party veepstakes, is also largely unknown. This relative anonymity will allow the vice presidential nominees to influence how voters perceive them and, ultimately, to shape the narrative of the presidential race in their favor. And with the presidential candidates so strongly disliked by the public, the V.P. nominees may have more credibility and thus more control than ever over the outcome of the November election.
Just as easily, however, the opposite might be true. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are among the best known people in America. Just about everybody has an opinion about them, and their names are universally recognized. For many or perhaps most voters, these American icons are all that this election is about, and even a strong vice presidential nominee will not change their minds.
But in an election year which has broken nearly every convention of years past, baffling even the most seasoned political analysts, a shift in the meaning of vice presidential candidates is not out of the cards. But knowing whether this shift will occur requires us to answer the most vexing question of this election year: With historically high unfavorability ratings for both major party presidential nominees, how will voters act at the ballot box?
And no one can answer this one quite yet.