VP Impact: Up For Debate

Ann Basu, Liam Finnerty, Sophie Meyers, and Brian Thompson

How much do VP candidates influence the election?



According to Christopher Devine and Kyle Kopko, authors of the book The VP Advantage, there is none. Though it’s often assumed that vice presidential candidates can add votes in their home states, and subsequently possibly swing elections, that’s essentially untrue. Devine and Kopko analyzed 128 years of state-level election return data (from 1884-2012) and individualized survey responses from 1952-2008, and found that while the geographic advantage of presidential candidates to affect their home states (by 3 to 7 percentage points0 exists, there is no equivalent advantage for vice presidential candidates. As such, we shouldn’t expect any significant bump in polling from either Kaine’s or Pence’s home states of Virginia and Indiana.

That being said, while the specific locals of each VP candidate might not be impacted, that’s not to say the VP pick is purely nominal. The 2016 election is unlike any America has ever seen: a career politician is running against a candidate who has never before held political office, and the two are perhaps the least popular choices in recent history. For example, take this year’s Republican ticket: Donald Trump is an incredibly atypical candidate with no political experience. Oft-criticized by both sides, Trump manages to ostracize even his own party. The Trump campaign looks to their VP candidate Mike Pence Governor of Indiana and career politician, to change that. Pence is Trump’s “bridge to the GOP”, and will likely garner Trump some support among Republicans who are wary of his lack of experience. Though perhaps not geographically, there are still plenty of ways the VP nominee can impact the election and, ultimately, the presidency. As a result, the vice presidential candidates are more important than ever before. Pence and Kaine, both career politicians, are more likely to dig into the issues and highlight their clear policy differences than Clinton and Trump did in last week’s chaotic first debate.

Candidates reportedly spend exorbitant amount of time and money in the search for running mates. They often view their pick as a matter of strategy; short lists often consist of individuals who will be able to help candidates pick up some ground either in swing states or among particular groups of voters who may otherwise be wavering in their support. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain reportedly chose Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska to appeal to both social conservative and disaffected women voters who previously supported Hillary Clinton. This election has proven no different. Many view Trump’s choice of Pence as a connection to the candidate’s own party. In his political career, Pence has often supported conservative causes – religious freedom, anti-abortion legislation, etc. – and is seen as a sage choice for a Republican running mate that may render Trump acceptable for Republican voters. Similarly, Clinton’s choice of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine – a moderate Democrat from a swing state who has historically fought for rights of minority communities – is strategic in its own right.


What’s at stake in the VP debate?

Logically, the vice presidential debates would give candidates the opportunity to put their influence into effect. With the spotlight on them, the VP picks can influence those undecided voters who may be swayed by what they have to say. However, studies on previous presidential elections sho that vice presidential debates do not have a significant effect on the overall outcomes of presidential elections. in his book “Do Campaigns Matter?” Thomas Holbrook conducted a study of past presidential elections to examine the effects of vice presidential debates through polling. He found that in both the 1984 and 1988 presidential elections, polling numbers one week after the debate had been restored to the pre-debate levels. This sort of ‘short-run’ bump in polls following vice presidential debates is typical and often does not last.

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It will be interesting to see how the Vice Presidential debate impacts the favorability ratings of each VP candidate. On October 4th, the day of the debate, Huffington Post reported Mike Pence having “a net positive rating of 6 percent, with a 37/31 percent favorable/unfavorable score” and Tim Kaine with “a net favorable rating of just over 1 percent.” Both candidates have a significant portion of voters, 31.5% for Pence and 31.7% for Kaine, reported as undecided. These Huffington Post graphs illustrate how much less volatile vice presidential candidates favorability is compared to the presidential candidates. In this election, and associated media circus, it will be interesting to see if post-debate shifts occur after the spotlight is put exclusively on Pence and Kaine.


Was this year’s VP debate any different?

Immediate reactions to the debate seem to hold that Mike Pence outperformed Kaine. He appeared more respectful and less scripted than Kaine, who came off as abrasive and mildly smug. While it is too early to see the results of scientific polling, a CNN poll conducted shortly after the debate – notably with a Democrat-lenaing sample – had Pence ahead of Kaine by 6 points in debate performance. Only time will tell how the VPs performance may affect the polling success of their ticket.



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