Editor’s note: With the 2012 election just around the corner, we want our readers to stay informed regarding our nation’s future, as well as its past. This is why our Social Studies team will craft various weekly blogs around the history of elections and the importance of participation. These posts are co-authored by Nora O’Leary-Roseberry and George Rislov.
While some might conclude that the choice for second-in-command of the nation merits attention, others might be of the mindset that the office is, in the words of the nation’s first Vice President, John Adams, “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” So, what gives?
The origins of the office might show us why there is some disagreement. The position wasn’t even considered until the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when its proposal grew from a fear that candidates would gain too much advantage from their home states – that there would be no chance for a “national” candidate. In fact, some feared that delegates would only vote for candidates from their own states. This issue, known as the “favorite-son problem,” inspired the founders to mandate that delegates cast two votes: one for their first choice for president and another for a presidential candidate from another state. And, to keep delegates from fully throwing away their second vote, the founders mandated that the second-runner-up would become Vice President. The “favorite-son fear” arose from the notion that it was difficult to become familiar with people of other states, because of communication constraints of the time.
And so, in the first United States presidential election of 1788-1789, George Washington became president by winning the popular vote, and John Adams became Vice President by coming in second.
“Ugh! I don’t think this is going to work…”
This process understandably led to some conflict, as members of opposing parties and platforms ended up in office together and so, in 1804, the 12th Amendment was enacted to change the process for electing the Vice President.
The nominating process for Vice President is not constitutionally prescribed. It is written in party rules. The process is technically no different than the one by which the presidential candidates are chosen. Convention delegates nominate candidates who are then voted on by the delegates at the convention. But presidential candidates really have the most to do with the decision. Beginning in the 20th century the decided-on presidential nominee selects a preferred running mate, who is then nominated and accepted at the convention. The primary process has changed things even more in recent years. The presidential nomination is now usually a foregone conclusion (in the language of the media, the “presumptive” nominee), and the vice presidential candidate is often announced before the actual balloting for the presidential candidate, and sometimes before the convention itself—as was the case with the Ryan announcement last week. In other words, the convention delegates essentially ratify a VP decision already made by the presidential candidate and his staff.
Many say that the last VP candidate to matter was Lyndon Johnson, who helped Kennedy sweep the south, and clearly the importance of the VP is now more about the election rather than the office itself. Candidates struggle for “balance,” broader regional representation on the ticket, complementary experience, or age or gender differences, hoping to use the VP nominee to increase the appeal of the Presidential candidate. In an age of instantaneous communication the “favorite son” problem no longer exists– it’s now easier than ever to get information about anyone you’re interested in. So we could say that the problem the VP solves now is the “favorite alter-ego” problem- the need to augment the presidential candidate, and secure the election.
Teachers: How do you clarify the nomination process and the office of the Vice President for your students? We want to know! Please leave your comments in the section below the title of this blog.