The Folly of “Home State Advantage”: How history shows us that a VP choice isn’t a way to win swing states

In the perennial stampede of speculation that precedes a Presidential candidate selecting his running mate, much is always made of a potential VP candidate’s ability to help the ticket win key swing states. Many claim that having a “native son” on the ballot will make the difference and deliver a key state on election day. This year, Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Governor Bob MacDonnell of Virginia are all names that have been floated as Mitt Romney’s Vice-Presidential choice, in a large part due to their home states being among the most hotly contested. But it is doubtful that having any of these men on the ballot will lock down these states for Romney. Because the home state of a VP candidate almost never matters—an argument supported by history. The last time it did matter? Look back over 50 years to 1960, when Lyndon Johnson delivered Texas to the Democrats, essential to JFK’s razor-thin victory.

In total, 24 men and women have run for the Vice Presidency in the 12 elections since 1960. A chart below illustrates the success of each VP candidate from 1960 to 2008. On election day, 18 of them have succeeded in having the ticket carry their home state (nine Democrats and nine Republicans). However, this number is deceptive. Closer examination reveals that many of these states were either already safely in their party’s column regardless of the VP choice, or carried little electoral value and were therefore inconsequential to the outcome of the election. In 1980, the GOP didn’t need George H. W. Bush to win Texas, nor did the Democrats require Joe Lieberman to take Connecticut in 2000. Similarly, it’s not as if Wyoming’s three electoral votes were the reason Dick Cheney was on the ballot in 2000 and 2004, nor were Maine’s four the motive for choosing Ed Muskie in 1968. In fact, in 2008, both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin came from states with the bare minimum number of electoral votes.

So when safe or insignificant states are removed, there are three cases in which a ticket has won the home state of the VP candidate that it lost in the preceding election. All three of these states also happen to be worth more than 10 electoral votes. They are Tennessee (Al Gore) in 1992, Minnesota (Walter Mondale) in 1976 and Maryland (Spiro Agnew) in 1972. However, these are again not what they seem. In the landslide that was 1972, Richard Nixon won all but one state—it was close to inevitable the Republicans would take Maryland, it really didn’t matter where the Vice Presidential candidate was from. The post-Watergate election in 1976 is seen by many as another electoral anomaly. Finally in 1992, having Southerner Bill Clinton at the top of the ticket in 1992 would likely have been enough for the Democrats to take Tennessee without Gore (he lost it running for President himself in 2000).

This is not to say that any of the aforementioned men would be unfit to be Romney’s VP choice. Ironically, all of them have over double the political experience that he does. It’s just that a ticket is top heavy. A Vice Presidential candidate isn’t supposed to necessarily help, meaning it’s not expected to pick up states. It’s much more important that it simply does no harm. In 2008, how many people voted Obama because of Joe Biden? On the other side, how many didn’t vote McCain due to Sarah Palin?

The fact remains that the Presidential candidate is picked by his party by an exhaustive nomination process. The VP candidate is picked by a phone call. The choice a voter makes on who to vote for is based on the party and the Presidential candidate, with the VP candidate a distant third. Portman, Rubio,  McDonnell and Ryan all have many virtues. However, the ability to deliver a swing state is not among them.

VP Choices and Home States, 1960-2008

2008 Biden (Delaware-3) vs. Palin (Alaska-3)
2004 Edwards (North Carolina-15) vs. Cheney (Wyoming-3)
2000 Lieberman (Connecticut-8) vs. Cheney (Wyoming-3)
1996 Gore (Tennessee-11) vs. Kemp (New York-33)
1992 Gore (Tennessee-11*) vs. Quale (Indiana-12)
1988 Bentson (Texas-29) vs. Quale (Indiana-12)
1984 Ferraro (New York-36) vs. Bush (Texas-29)
1980 Mondale (Minnesota-10) vs. Bush (Texas-26)
1976 Mondale (Minnesota-10*) vs. Dole (Kansas-7)
1972 Shriver (Maryland-10) vs. Agnew (Maryland-10*)
1968 Muskie (Maine-4) vs. Agnew (Maryland-10)
1964 Humphrey (Minnesota-10) vs. Miller (New York-43)
1960 Johnson (Texas-24) vs. Lodge (Massachusetts-16)

Numbers signify the number of electoral votes each state had
States in bold signify ones the ticket carried
States with an asterisk are ones the ticket carried, which the preceding one lost

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