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Selecting a Vice President: Advice for Presidential Candidates

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.

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.

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