Evaluating the Impact of Vice Presidential Selection on Voter Choice
The selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate has prompted heated discussion around a perennial media topic: How much does the VP pick really matter in an election? Though there has been much loose speculation, some media analysts and political scientists have focused on more empirical aspects of the question. In any case, it is exceedingly difficult to separate out the effects of a particular candidate from the “team” with which he or she is running — to weigh precisely, for example, how a candidate might turn off independents but excite the party base — and few studies have been done in this area.
A 2010 study from scholars at the University of California, Irvine, “Evaluating the Impact of Vice Presidential Selection on Voter Choice,” provides a different lens through which to see this question. The study, published in Presidential Studies Quarterly, analyzed data from the American National Election Survey over the period 1968-2008; it examined voters’ specific preferences for both president and vice president and found that about 11% of the population on average has “conflicted” preferences — where a voter prefers the presidential candidate of one party but likes the vice presidential of the other party. Using this data, they estimate the degree to which a vice presidential candidate alone might influence the election outcome. The scholars note that this pattern of “conflicted” voting has diminished over time: only 6.9% and 6.8% of the populace had conflicted preferences in 2004 and 2008, respectively, likely the result of “increasing partisan polarization.”
The study’s findings include:
- The net effect of a vice presidential candidate is generally less than 1% in terms of getting voters to cross party lines: “Only in 1972 was more than 1% of the final vote affected by conflicted vice presidential and presidential preferences; on average, over the 1968-2008 period, the net impact of conflicted presidential and vice presidential choices is only slightly less than 0.6% of the votes shifted.”
- Though the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin is assumed to be a decisive factor in the defeat of Sen. John McCain, the study finds otherwise: The “gross impact of vice presidential selection in 2008 was very similar to (though slightly lower than) the historical average impact, and that the net impact of vice presidential selection in 2008, at about one-half of a percentage point, was also slightly lower than its historical average, may violate the common wisdom that Palin’s choice had significant electoral implications for McCain.”
- On average, the patterns of “conflicted” voting has favored Democrats, as historically there have been more registered Republicans who have preferred the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
The scholars caution that there are two important caveats to their findings: The data “may understate the impact of vice presidential selection on choice because voters modify their views of the president based on vice presidential selection, and thus the data we report may be ‘contaminated’ by unmeasured effects of vice presidential choice. Second, mobilizing effects of vice presidential choice vis-à-vis turnout or campaign contributions or campaign activism are not reflected in our measures. For example, the selection of Sarah Palin was widely credited in the media as having motivated a Republican base that did not find McCain that attractive a candidate.”
Tags: elections, presidency
Read the issue-related Washington Post blog titled "Why Do Conservatives Want Paul Ryan to Be Vice President?"
- What key insights from the blog and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover issues relating to electoral politics? What are the obvious difficulties in drawing definitive conclusions in this area?
Read the full study titled “Evaluating the Impact of Vice Presidential Selection on Voter Choice.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?