Ideas. Action. Results.

Selecting a Vice President: Advice for Presidential Candidates

Friday, April 22, 2016

In the upcoming months, the presidential nominees of each political party will make one of their most consequential decisions on the campaign trail: the selection of a running mate. Of three critical moments in the presidential campaign, the vice-presidential selection is chronologically the first, followed by the convention and the debates.

Of course, politics will play a role in the selection. The vice presidential nominee may provide some electoral benefit in a particular state or with an important constituency. More concretely, the presidential and vice presidential nominees will be a team on the campaign trail, spending time together and working together to convince the American people to vote for them. And the choice of a vice presidential nominee is an important piece of information for voters who may judge the presidential candidate favorably for a good choice and unfavorably for a bad one.

The process by which a vice presidential selection is made is highly personal to the presidential candidate—and it is fair to say that it can be idiosyncratic.

But this choice is also, in effect, the first “official” decision that the presumptive nominee and the eventual president-elect makes before assuming office. Over the past forty years, vice presidents have become close advisors and confidants to presidents; they now command a large staff at the White House and have important portfolios in foreign affairs, domestic policy, and congressional relations. Their day-to-day importance in an administration is not in doubt.


And yet, the most consequential duty of a vice president is one that everyone hopes is not exercised. It is the ultimate duty of the vice president to step in if, God forbid, the president dies, leaves office, or is otherwise unable to fulfill the functions of the office. Vice presidents must be of presidential timber, able to step into the nation’s highest office. They are political partners, White House advisors and confidants, and leaders of important administration initiatives, but in the end, a vice president must be someone with the character, stature, and ability to assume the presidency if needed.

The process by which a vice presidential selection is made is highly personal to the presidential candidate—and it is fair to say that it can be idiosyncratic. The presidential candidate determines the criteria for the choice of a running mate and puts in place all elements of the decision-making process.

Could this highly individual and informal process be improved through the adoption of more standardized best practices and expectations?

This question brought our group together late last year and spurred the creation of this report. We have been advisors to presidential campaigns: legal advisors, campaign managers, communications experts, and political party representatives. We have all seen the vice presidential selection process up close. And for the past six months, we have met as a group to discuss our experiences, share insights, and agree on recommendations. We have heard from others, including scholarly experts on the vice presidency and those who were on the short list of potential nominees.

We present here a set of recommendations and best practices for the nominees of both parties:

The vice presidential selection process should be afforded adequate time and planning. At minimum, eight weeks should be allotted for the core vetting and selection portion of the process. Mistakes can be made or major problems exacerbated by an expedited and, therefore, inadequately deliberative process. We note that there may be instances in which the presidential nomination remains unsettled eight weeks prior to the convention. In those cases, the candidates still in the race should proceed with the selection and vetting process by this point. Regardless of when the next nominee is known, those in contention should begin the vetting at a minimum eight weeks prior to the convention.

The presidential nominee should know or get to know personally the potential vice presidential nominees before making the selection. Campaigns should also consider and account for this in their timetable. It is not enough to do a thorough vetting or to rely on the opinions of others. Presidential candidates who do not already know the small circle of final candidates for vice president will have to spend adequate time campaigning with them and getting to know them personally.

The vetting and final selection process is delicate. It will involve a small number of aides reviewing very sensitive information that is appropriately exposed to some but not others in the campaign hierarchy. Campaigns should plan to handle this material with care and only for as long as needed during the deliberative process. We make recommendations about the confidential structure of the process that will reflect these considerations.

The vetting process is entirely unofficial, and it is usually conducted with public record resources by teams of vetting lawyers. We make recommendations about the requirements for an effective vetting of a potential vice presidential nominee.

The notification of selection should be made to the vice presidential nominee in advance of the public announcement, but with notice of only a day or two. Careful coordination of the notification should be made with both the candidate selected and those not chosen.

The rollout of the vice presidential announcement is primarily a political event, but it should be more. It is an opportunity for a presidential candidate to explain the criteria used to make the decision and the basis for the choice that he or she has made. More generally, it provides insight into a presidential candidate’s decision-making process. At the same time, it is a chance for the vice presidential nominee to introduce himself or herself to the American public. We make recommendations about some elements of the rollout that may serve this larger purpose of educating voters, which is often undertaken in a very compressed timeframe before the convention and the formal beginning of the presidential general election campaign.

The Vice Presidential Selection Process Working Group was co-chaired by Robert F. Bauer, the general counsel of the 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama presidential campaigns, and Charles R. Black, a senior political advisor to the 2008 John McCain presidential campaign. View all working group members.


Attached files

Electoral Reform