With Pence Pick, Trump Defies VP Traditions

Governors seem like obvious vice presidential candidates. But Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is only the second governor to run for VP since 1972.

Trump Pence
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence campaigned with Donald Trump earlier this week.
AP/Michael Conroy
In an election year in which none of the old rules seem to apply, Donald Trump’s announcement of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate on the Republican ticket challenges yet one more rule: Modern presidential nominees very rarely pick governors as vice presidential candidates.

Pence is only the second governor to be picked as a VP nominee since 1972. Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew ran with Richard Nixon on that ticket. The only other governor picked to run in the second slot since then has been Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008. If Trump wins, Pence would be the first governor in the vice presidency since 1974, when Nelson Rockefeller of New York was appointed by Gerald Ford to fill the absence left by the resignations of Nixon and Agnew.

On the surface, governors might seem to be an ideal VP pick: They’ve got proven executive experience, know politics well enough to get elected statewide and theoretically could boost the regional appeal of the presidential nominee. But those ideas may well be outdated.

In fact, the selection of Pence may illustrate why governors so seldom end up in the No. 2 slot.

First, Pence isn't particularly well-loved at home. As Governing’s Alan Greeblatt pointed out, Trump could be doing Indiana Republicans a favor by plucking Pence out of the state, giving the party a chance to pick a more popular candidate in this year’s gubernatorial election. And Trump shouldn’t need Pence’s help to carry Indiana, a reliably Republican state, in November.

No, the value of Pence at Trump’s right hand is more about his experience in Congress than in the Indiana Statehouse. Before he became governor, Pence was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives who led the Republican Study Committee, a group of die-hard conservatives. Later, he joined the House leadership team. In other words, he is someone who knows Washington and could reach out to his former colleagues to help advance Trump’s agenda, much as Vice President Joe Biden has done for President Barack Obama.

Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, says the reason governors aren't picked more frequently as running mates is because the job description of VP has changed. In the last few decades, presidents have viewed the No. 2 slot as a place for someone who can help them govern once they get into office, rather than someone who helps them get to the White House in the first place.

According to Jacobs, the shift started when President Jimmy Carter elevated the profile of his vice president, Walter Mondale.

“The vice president got an office in the West Wing, got all the papers the president saw, was invited to all of the meetings. The vice president became the chief aide and troubleshooter for the president,” he said, noting that that's continued with vice presidents George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden.

If governors are too heavily involved in their own state’s politics, they may not be ready to help a new president navigate Capitol Hill.

There's another danger of having governors play second fiddle on a national campaign: They’re used to being the center of attention. It’s not easy for them to take a step back, said David Andersen, a professor and co-author of a short study on governors who became vice president.

"When you pick a popular governor," said Andersen, "presidential candidates know they risk being overshown."

Certainly, that was the case in 2008 when Sen. John McCain picked Palin as his running mate. "Hockey mom" Palin enamored conservatives when she was first picked, memorably leading chants of “Drill, baby, drill” at the Republican National Convention. But she chafed at the limited role the McCain campaign wanted her to play after embarrassing TV interviews and controversies over her party-funded wardrobe. McCain adviser Steve Schmidt, who pushed for her selection, later publicly regretted supporting Palin. 

McCain’s experience with Palin shows why picking a governor can be a “gamble,” said John Weingart, the associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “A governor, no matter how popular he or she may be in their home state, you don’t know how that’s going to play nationally unless you try it out.” 

Weingart, who wrote the report with Andersen, also noted that unless the VP has to take over for the president, their jobs can be far different -- and governors may actually be more qualified for the presidency.

“The job of governor is the closest that anybody can come to imagining the executive function at a high level,” said Weingart. “The job of vice president, and maybe more importantly the job of a vice presidential candidate, doesn’t tend to require those skills. The presidential nominee doesn’t want a vice president who is going to run things."

It's unsurprising, then, that Americans have often promoted governors to the White House in recent decades.

Despite the historical trends, though, it’s possible both vice presidential candidates this year could have gubernatorial experience. Among the candidates rumored to be on presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s shortlist is U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who, before joining the Senate, served as governor of Virginia.