I've always believed that as a strategic concern for elections, the real-world drama of the vice-presidential nomination is even more irrelevant than most vice-presidents. The media burns a lot of calories speculating on who it will be, governors burn even more calories pandering in an attempt to be the nominee, and in the end of the day it could hardly matter less in terms of election results. All the ink being spilled and gigabytes being transferred on the latest "VP Power Rankings!!!!!!!!" are nothing more than reporters and pundits trying to fill up column inches and get views on their websites. This has never been more true than in the case of Mitt Romney. Yet Mitt Romney's VP nomination will decide whether he has any chance of beating President Obama in November.
OK, maybe that was an exaggeration. But it will act as a crucial signal to the electorate as to whether he truly believes he can beat Mr. Obama, and I'm offering my readers the secret decoder ring to decipher this signal. It's easy and counterintuitive at the same time: if he picks a young, dynamic, up-and-coming star of the party he will almost certainly lose. If he picks a boring, milquetoast candidate then the election will at least come down to the wire.
Like I said, this is counterintuitive, but let me explain. All of the big names in the Republican Party sat this round out. Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and to a lesser extent Bobby Jindal passed on running in a Republican primary that any of them would have potentially walked through with very little resistance. I can promise you that they were anticipating a comfortable Obama win and were holding out until 2016 when they would either run against Vice President Biden or would be able to run without a Democratic incumbent in the race. If the Republican Party still believes this is the case, they will want to groom one of them for the 2016 nomination and give them a national stage as Romney's VP nominee.
But if they believe that Mitt Romney can win, they'll go the opposite direction and pick someone with less vibrance and excitement and will pick someone who is more stable and who has greater gravitas for the role. Someone like Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman out of Ohio won't excite the masses, but they will provide a solid backup for Romney and, in Portman's case, will help out in a crucial swing state. This is the safer, more reliable choice, and is one that won't make voters wish that the ticket was switched. Someone like Pawlenty or Portman can run with full-throated support of the Republican nominee without having to simultaneously worry about their own political future. Their future will be tied to Romney.
The old axiom in the social sciences is "correlation does not equal causation." I don't believe for one minute that Romney's vice-presidential choice will make any difference in the final outcome of this election. But I do believe it will be a way for those of us who are interested in politics to learn more about how competitive this election will be.