The first set of Gallup polls following the suspension of Rick Santorum’s campaign declared the race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to be virtually even: one survey had Obama slightly ahead; another had Romney ahead by one point. In such a tight race, 2012 could embody that rare situation when the choice of a running mate actually decides the outcome.
Most 20th century elections were not close enough for the vice presidential candidates to be much of a factor. John Kennedy’s 1960 selection of Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson kept Texas and a majority of Southern states in the Democratic column; this was probably the last time a running mate swung the race.
The late Bill Cavala was perhaps the most successful California Democratic political consultant ever. He directed winning campaigns for six decades, from the 1960s until his death in 2009. Per Cavala: when there was a 50-50 split in the national popular vote, the presidential election would be a “chess game” in the Electoral College. Besides the obvious qualification question, the key factor could be picking a running mate who brings over a state you normally might not win. (Cavala advised Al Gore in 2000 to pick Florida Senator Bob Graham or Indiana Senator Evan Bayh; victory in either of those states would have put Gore in the White House.)
However, the late Chris Collins — a conservative activist from Virginia — always referenced Hippocrates regarding VP selection: “First, do no harm.” While a decent running mate is no guarantee of winning, a bad choice can doom a campaign before it begins (see Tom Eagleton in 1972 and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984: the men who chose them both lost 49 states).
Romney has plenty of qualified options: Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, Jeb Bush, and Tim Pawlenty must be on the list. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is only a freshman, but he has tremendous talent and represents perhaps the ultimate battleground state. Indeed, Florida helped decide the last three elections.
The 22 states John McCain won against Obama in 2008 now pack 179 electoral votes (270 are needed to win). Since President Obama is weaker in the Gallup Poll compared to four years ago, the McCain states are almost certainly safe for Romney. So to win, Romney will need to gain states summing at least 91 electoral votes. Obama winning Indiana’s 11 votes seems like a fluke; the Hoosier State will likely return to its GOP roots (especially if Daniels is on the ticket). Obama also carried North Carolina with less than 50% — the state will likely go to Romney.
Romney probably needs 65 more electoral votes to win. The key targets for both parties will be Florida (29 votes), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), New Mexico (5), and New Hampshire (4). If Romney carries Florida plus two of the next three largest targets, he’s going to the White House — period.
Marco Rubio’s personal popularity could probably win Florida’s crucial votes (likely Jeb Bush would as well) and his Cuban background could help attract the sizable Latino votes in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. (Even if he is considered too young this year, these facts likely indicate a bright national future for Mr. Rubio.)
Since the Civil War era, no Republican nominee has been elected president without carrying Ohio. (Had George W. Bush lost Ohio in either 2000 or 2004, he would have been defeated.) Sen. Rob Portman may be nationally unknown, but he has served in the House, the Bush cabinet (as U.S. Trade Representative and budget director), and the Senate while leading the GOP ticket in their 2010 sweep of Ohio.
Romney may also consider Ohio Governor John Kasich, who was a favorite among “deficit hawks” when he served in the House during the 1990s. But Portman ran ahead of Kasich in 2010, and Gov. Kasich has feuded bitterly with labor in Ohio.
Chris Christie would definitely put New Jersey’s 15 votes in play, plus he could appeal to suburbanites in other states. But his outspoken personality would overshadow Romney. Tim Pawlenty is well-known in the Midwest, but he showed little national promise during his brief 2011 presidential effort.
Republicans currently don’t have a governor or senator from Colorado to choose from. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has certainly become a national figure with his anti-labor fight. The new Hispanic governors of Nevada (Brian Sandoval) and New Mexico (Susana Martinez) represent swing states and would bolster Romney’s ethnic appeal, but they are only in their first terms. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett are in their first terms as well.
In the “chess match” scenario, the leading contenders at this early stage must be Ohio’s Portman and Florida’s Rubio.