John McCain probably lost whatever chance he had to become president on August 28, the day he invited Sarah Palin to be his running mate. In making that decision, McCain ignored a lesson of recent vice-presidential selection: presidential candidates run a huge risk if they choose a running mate who is not presidential caliber.
The candidates' vice-presidential choices, both their quality and the process leading to those choices, have become measures of presidential candidates themselves. Barack Obama recognized the importance of the vice-presidential choice. McCain did not. Their different decisions affected the outcome.
The vice-presidential choices this year presented dramatic contrasts. Obama chose the most presidential candidate on his short list, Joe Biden. Biden has been a distinguished and able Senate leader who has performed well in the national spotlight. Obama's carefully considered selection process reflected well on his decision-making ability.
McCain's approach could not have been more different. He chose the least qualified vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket in modern times. Palin had slight experience in high governmental positions and she quickly demonstrated that she possessed little knowledge of national and international issues.
Even conservative columnists criticized the Palin selection and some prominent Republicans cited it as a reason they supported Obama. McCain chose Palin after minimal acquaintance with her. A more deliberate and thoughtful process might have exposed some of the problems which hurt her, and thus his, campaign.
McCain might well have considered lessons from our recent history of vice- presidential selection. As the vice presidency has become more important, most recent presidential nominees have chosen running mates whom the public could visualize occupying the Oval Office if that became necessary.
Surely Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Dick Cheney were among the most able political leaders of their time. Most running mates in recent times had either distinguished themselves by their prior service, by their success in presidential nominating politics or by their performance in party leadership positions.
Past presidential nominees did not choose able running mates simply because that was the responsible thing to do. They recognized that choosing an able running mate was politically prudent in an age in which vice presidents had become more visibly important and in which the advent of vice-presidential debates guaranteed their choices some campaign exposure.
Past presidential candidates, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, understood that the public would view their vice-presidential choice as a test of their values and decision-making ability.
When both presidential candidates choose well, the vice presidential candidates may have little impact on the election. And on some occasions, a ticket may even be elected despite an unpopular vice-presidential candidate. Richard Nixon won with Spiro Agnew on his ticket in 1968, and George H. W. Bush did so with Dan Quayle 20 years later.
Those outcomes do not prove that Agnew and Quayle were not drags on the ticket. They only suggest that the vice-presidential choice was not the only factor voters weighed in casting their ballots.
On the other hand, Jimmy Carter's careful process and Walter Mondale's popularity were probably decisive in shifting votes to the Democratic ticket in 1976.
Sarah Palin helped John McCain rally Republican loyalists but ultimately her presence made it impossible for him to attract the independent voters he needed to prevail. She was the only national candidate whom more voters viewed unfavorably than favorably. Some 60 percent of the electorate did not consider her qualified to be president, a particularly damaging verdict given concerns over McCain's age and health history.
The selection of Palin raised doubts about McCain's judgment. His choice suggested an impulsive decision-maker and undermined McCain's promise that he would put America first.
Thus, whereas Obama's choice of Biden made voters more confident of his judgment by a 56- to 31-percent margin, the Palin selection made 52 percent of voters less confident of McCain and only 38 percent more so.
Voters preferred Biden to Palin by wide margins. That disparity alone would not have influenced voters if they were not comfortable with Obama as president. But Obama's impressive performance attracted the support of voters who had misgivings about Palin.
The 2008 election should serve as a powerful reminder that choosing a vice-presidential running mate of presidential stature is good politics. Voters need to be willing to entrust that candidate with the responsibility to provide leadership in addressing national and global problems should an elected president not be able to perform the duties of his or her office.
That is not the most important message of this historic election, but it is one worth remembering.
This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.