Sabatos Crystal Ball

Veep! Veep! The Wiley Crystal Ball Wonders Who Will Be Kerry’s Road Runner

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics April 28th, 2004


We are a little stubborn at the Crystal Ball. With only a couple of exceptions, we liked our original Vice-presidential picks from earlier in the year.

Look, no one – not even your Crystal Ball using a ouiji board at a séance – can get into John Kerry’s head, where the decision will ultimately be made, with advice from his VEEP guru, Jim Johnson – a super-discreet guy who, unlike Dick Cheney, will not choose himself for the honor.

So all we can do is say which candidates make the most sense for Kerry. Our ultimate, fundamental criterion is that Kerry wants to win above all and therefore he will select the person best able to help him do that. Sure, there will be talk about how he put political considerations aside and just picked the individual best able to be president if need be. Uh huh…that’s what they all say.

The name of the game is the Electoral College, and the VEEP Lotto winner surely will be someone who can bring a chunk of electoral votes to the Democratic column, right? Yes, if the process is rational.

Right away, this filter eliminates loads of great candidates, whose states are already a lock for the Democrats or whose states will probably go Republican even with them on the ticket. On this list, we’d alphabetically put these fine politicians who probably bring no electoral votes with them.

So who does that leave in the critical ELECTORAL VOTES-PLUS CLUB? Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Now comes the toughest part. Of this list of ELECTORAL VOTES-PLUS CLUB finalists, which ones are the leaders of the club? Wesley Clark is a big risk, given his lack of political experience and long list of military enemies. Max Cleland just lost his Senate seat in Georgia – not a propitious sign for an upset in a strongly pro-Bush state. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson are live possibilities, but unless Kerry wins by a healthy margin nationally, our sense is that Florida will be a tougher nut to crack in 2004 then in 2000 (though picking one of them forces Bush to spend millions to keep the Sunshine State in his column.) Blanche Lincoln is running for reelection to her Senate seat in Arizona, and a GOP governor would get to pick the replacement. And John McCain, we do not believe, is truly a candidate – he’s in the “Tom Brokaw” category. How would he ever convincingly explain the hypocrisy of a party switch? How would Kerry reconcile two very different Senate voting records? How would the voters know which one is running for president? The news media’s long-running love affair with McCain would likely make him a daily, nay hourly presence on almost every network. Kerry would never be able to compete!

Therefore, in the Crystal Ball’s totally independent view, Kerry is best left with five strong VEEP candidates, plus a wild-card choice:

  1. Evan Bayh
  2. John Breaux
  3. Dick Gephardt
  4. Jay Rockefeller
  5. Bill Richardson
  6. Sam Nunn (WILD CARD)

Sophisticated polling is needed to determine which ones have the best chance to guarantee a Kerry victory in their states. Richardson is a sure bet for New Mexico, but the prize is small and would likely go Democratic anyway. Could he also carry Arizona? Jay Rockefeller, we’d bet, could tip West Virginia to Kerry. John Breaux in Louisiana and Evan Bayh in Indiana have tougher tasks in their very pro-Bush states – but what a prize either state would be! How would Bush recover? Dick Gephardt has never run statewide in a Missouri election, so Kerry would be right to demand some Show-Me evidence that the congressman could perform the trick. If Gephardt can pass the test, he would be golden for this ticket.

The wild card would make for a fascinating race in the Peach State. At one time the king of Georgia’s political mountain, Nunn has been out of the news since leaving the Senate in early 1997. Does he still have the old magic? Could he force Bush to spend real money in a dark-Red state? Would his encyclopedic knowledge of foreign and domestic policy – not to mention the national security issue – outweigh his vote against the 1991 Persian Gulf War (reinforcing Kerry’s own anti-war vote)?

So many questions, so little time for the Kerry campaign to answer. Yet the choice of Kerry’s VEEP is more critical than many would concede. It will significantly help to fill in the many blank spaces Americans have in their portrait of the Democrat who would be president.