The Ten Most Surprising Vice Presidential Nominations From The Last 52 Years

Mitt Romney is poised to announce his VP nominee any day now, and speculation continues to swirl around his choice. The current favorites—from the media’s perspective, at least—are Tim Pawlenty, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Rob Portman, but who knows? Presidential nominees have shocked the world with their VP choices more than once in the past, and maybe Romney will choose someone surprising and exciting (probably not). As we wait to see, let’s take a look at ten of the more question-mark-worthy picks of recent memory.


10. John Kerry 2004

The might-have-beens: Well, there was the incident when the New York Post ran a front-page headline declaring Dick Gephardt as John Kerry’s VP pick. And the choice would have made sense. As the Daily Kos pointed out at the time, Gephardt might have been a suitable pick if only for the fact that, he “might not be the most exciting choice, but he gives the Republicans zero ammunition. And that fits in nicely within Kerry’s strategy.”

While Gephardt is the might-have-been that people best remember, the then-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was also in the mix. His compelling biography—orphaned at birth, abused by his alcoholic adoptive mother, only to go on to become a lawyer and then politician—played well with the American public.

Vilsack wasn’t chosen, but this vignette from reporter Jeffrey Patch made him sound appealing. “Asked loudly whether he thought Kerry would select him, Vilsack shouted ‘Pardon? Here, you want some candy?’ and threw some orange cream tootsie rolls at the media, herded together like sheep on the flatbed parade truck.”

Who got the nomination—John Edwards: To be fair, Edwards wasn’t a complete surprise. He ran second to Kerry in the primaries and was a telegenic Southerner who balanced out Kerry’s Northeastern patrician-ness. He had always been in the mix. He just wasn’t Gephardt.


9. Al Gore 2000

The might-have-beens: Gore’s (admittedly closed-door) VP selection process lurched along until Bush announced Dick Cheney as his nominee on July 25. The announcement spurred the media into speculating how Gore would react, and according to one Democratic strategist, Bush’s choice meant that, “There are a lot more people viable now. It probably improves the chances of a ‘generational’ candidate—youth, style, the future.” Along this train of thought, the eternally youthful John Edwards became an option.

But so too did a more elder statesman, George Mitchell of Maine. The 67 year old, who’d been considered by Clinton as a running mate in 1992, had the record—15 years in the Senate—to make him a qualified choice.

As a Democratic Party official said in 1992, “He’s steady as a rock—awesome! He’s who you’d want there if the world is falling apart.”

Who got the nomination—Joe Lieberman: Lieberman’s name had floated around, but as there had never been a Jewish VP nominee before, he seemed a long shot. But as one editorial said approvingly: “The first reaction beyond ‘who’s he?’ … may well be, ‘So what?’ He’s an unassuming, mild mannered, moderate senator without the star power, or baggage, that some other nominees would have carried into the race.” But those same mild qualities led another editorialist to observe: “One aspect of the Lieberman selection that I haven’t heard anyone mention is the one that would seem to be most obvious: Lieberman was the only person on Gore’s vice-presidential ‘short list’ who was more boring than Gore.”

And Lieberman recently said that he, himself, had been surprised by Gore’s choice.

On a Sunday in August, a staffer relayed to him news from inside one of the networks that Mr. Gore had selected former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his pick. So, Mr. Lieberman said, he and his family had some wine, toasted the country, and he went to bed.

The next morning, however, he woke up to the local news relaying an Associated Press report that “our very own Senator” Joe Lieberman had been selected.

“And all heck broke loose,” Mr. Lieberman said. “I thought it was a hallucinatory hangover, but it was real.”

After the announcement, the Gore-Lieberman ticket enjoyed a short burst of momentum, but one it couldn’t sustain until November.


8. John F. Kennedy 1960

The might-have-beens: Senator Stuart Symington, who made his name as an opponent of McCarthyism, was the expected pick for VP. His credentials as a savvy businessman, civil rights supporter and border state resident matched up well with Kennedy’s northerner-of-privilege image.

Who got the nomination—Lyndon Johnson: While Kennedy’s choice of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson as a running mate surprised many observers, the real mystery was why Johnson accepted. As observed in this 1960 AP analysis, “It would hardly seem sensible for a man, dressed in the tremendous robes of power worn by a Senate leader, to give up that job for the comparatively less influential post of Vice President. … Johnson, a tremendous manipulator of men, could use the Vice Presidency in a way not attempted by others …”

But speaking about the nomination later, Johnson said, “I would never reject something that hasn’t been offered to me … I have been prepared throughout my adult life to serve my country in any capacity where my country thought my services were essential.”

Numerous accounts of the Kennedy White House have been written in the 52 years since the election, and almost all speak of the sour relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, who reportedly tried to convince LBJ to reject the VP nomination. From Robert A. Caro’s monumental The Passage of Power: “Years later, back on his ranch after his presidency, not long before he died, he would seize visitors’ lapels and bend his face into theirs in the intensity of his effort to make sure the visitor understood that it hadn’t been Jack Kennedy but Bobby who had wanted him to withdraw from the vice presidential nomination.”


7. Bill Clinton 1992

The might-have-beens: Bob Kerrey and Harris Wofford (who began his political career as an advisor on John Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960) were both on Clinton’s short list for the position.

Lee Hamilton from the House of Representatives was also an option thanks to his time as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and as chair of the Iran-Contra panel. In a Tribune article, journalist Steve Daley noted that Hamilton was “probably the best choice in Clinton’s narrow range. He can take a frisk from the press and, unlike Gore and Kerrey, hasn’t proven he’s a poor campaigner.”

Who got the nomination—Al Gore: Gore was always reported to be a possibility, but the announcement, when it came in July 92, nonetheless came as a shock to many, thanks in part to Gore’s young age (44 to Clinton’s 45, eventually making them the youngest team to win the White House) and his status as a Southerner like Clinton, an overlap that earned the campaign the nickname the “Double Bubba ticket.”


6. Ronald Reagan 1980

The might-have-beens: Reagan wanted former President Gerald Ford as his VP candidate, but, after negotiations went nowhere, relented and began pursuing other options.

Other than Ford, Howard Henry Baker Jr., who was then Senate Minority Leader and had fared well in his own bid for the presidential nomination, looked to be the most serious candidate for the VP nominee. But Baker’s perceived moderate politics didn’t play well with Reagan’s decidedly conservative support, and as politicians go, he was fairly charisma-free. As J. Lee Annis Jr. put it in his book on Baker, “While Baker captured the hearts of few ideologues, Republicans and Democrats alike saw him as eminently electable, if he could only win his party’s nomination. Some say his problem was a moderate posture in a conservative party, even though his voting record was demonstrably conservative.”

Who got the nomination—George H.W. Bush: Though Bush had won the 1980 Iowa Caucus with 32 percent of the vote, his name had never been in significant contention for the VP slot—in part because of continued interest in former President Ford.

But a last-minute push to get Gerald Ford to accept the vice-presidential nomination failed at the 1980 Republican National Convention, leaving Reagan to tell a surprised delegation that George H.W. Bush had accepted the offer instead. As The Times reported, nominee Reagan announced quickly with a taut smile on his face that Bush was “a man we all know and a man who was a candidate, a man who has great experience in government, and a man who told me that he can enthusiastically support the platform across the board.”


5. George W. Bush 2000

The might-have-beens: John Engler, Bill Frist, Chuck Hagel, Jon Kyl, Frank Keating, Connie Mack and Colin Powell were all tossed around as possible candidates, but Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge was the most seriously considered option, due in part to his state’s 23 electoral votes. Ridge’s popularity and respectable record of military service were strong arguments for the VP nomination, but his pro-choice stance on abortion proved to be too great a hurdle.

As Thomas M. DeFrank wrote in The Daily News in June 2000, “He is attractive, articulate and likable. He grew up in public housing and was decorated for valor as an infantry sergeant in Vietnam. ‘If it weren’t for abortion,’ said one Team Bush admirer, ‘the risk-reward ratio would favor Ridge overwhelmingly.'”

Who got the nomination—Dick Cheney: Two days before the announcement came down, Karl Rove, who suspected a leak in the Bush campaign, lied to a staffer and claimed John Danforth, the former senator from Missouri, was the VP pick. Multiple networks went on to report Danforth as the likely VP nominee.

Cheney, who had been tapped as a one-man vice presidential search committee for Bush, was never taken seriously as a nominee thanks to poor health (three heart attacks before the age of 48), his arrest record, the paltry three electoral votes offered by his home state of Wyoming, and an extremely conservative voting record in Congress. Nonetheless, Bush announced Cheney as his choice for VP on Aug. 25, 2000.

Immediately speculation surrounding Cheney’s nomination began, but as Stephen F. Hayes writes in Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President: “Looking back, Cheney says he is aware of the conspiracy theories that suggest he and Bush had struck a deal long before he was asked to run the search process. ‘A lot of people don’t believe it,’ he says, ‘but I really did not enter into the effort with the notion that somehow I was going to get the job.'”


4. George H.W. Bush 1988

The might-have-beens: An Aug. 3, 1988 poll of delegates to the Republican National Convention, conducted by The New York Times, showed Bob Dole and Jack Kemp as favorites for the 1988 Republican VP nomination. Indeed, Dan Quayle’s name was not even included among the 14 possible nominees in the poll—which was performed only 14 days before Bush announced Quayle as his running mate.

Who got the nomination—Dan Quayle: The 42-year-old Quayle came as a surprise nominee when Bush asked him to be his running mate. Quayle had held public office in Indiana for eleven years prior to his VP nomination—seven of them as a senator—yet was perceived to be a political lightweight unfit for presidential responsibilities. He was also accused of having used his family’s influence to evade the Vietnam War by joining the National Guard. But, as William Safire wrote: “Conservatives cannot publicly gripe. Quayle is a staunch and outspoken man of the right, passing all litmus tests with flying colors. The general reaction to him by right-wingers is (Gulp!) He’ll be fine.”

During his time as vice president he became notorious for his often illogical quotes, such as “I have made good judgments in the past, I have made good judgments in the future” (more here, here and here) and his misspelling of “potato.”


3. John McCain 2008

The might-have-beens: Mitt Romney, Joe Lieberman, Charlie Crist, Tim Pawlenty, Tom Ridge and David H. Patraeus were all named as possibilities, but speculation on Romney as VP seemed to be the most promising. A report from Time’s Mark Halperin even went so far as to declare Romney the VP nominee on Aug. 22, 2008. The post has since been deleted, but this screen capture shows the impetus for Halperin’s report: two GOP sources leaked, incorrectly, that McCain had made his decision, and that the VP nominee was Romney.

Who got the nomination—Sarah Palin: Of course, the now ubiquitous Sarah Palin received the surprise nomination on Aug. 29, 2008. The 44-year-old governor from Alaska was seen as a risky pick, but one that would surely shore up the conservative and evangelical vote for McCain.

But by Sept. 2, as The New York Times noted in an editorial, “In the mainstream media—and even more emphatically in the blogosphere—questions are being raised on an almost minute-by-minute basis about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s suitability for the job of Vice President.” The other week, of course, Dick Cheney called the choice “a mistake.”


2. George McGovern 1972

The might-have-beens: The 1972 Democratic vice-presidential nomination is one of the oddest and most cited to this day. The Democratic party was unlikely to win the White House against incumbent Richard Nixon. As a result, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie, Birch Bayh and Ted Kennedy (who said he’d consider the VP nominee if it would “make a difference between success and failure of the ticket”) all refused offers to be on the ticket with George McGovern.

Who got the nomination—Tom Eagleton, replaced by Sargent Shriver: After a reportedly hour-long vetting process and brief conversation between the two, McGovern finally found a running mate in Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton. Unbeknownst to McGovern and his aides was Eagleton’s history of depression, for which he had been hospitalized three times and received electroshock therapy twice. The media played up Eagleton’s mental health record to the extent that 18 days after his nomination, Eagleton stepped down as the 1972 VP nominee. Only days after his resignation Eagleton gave shockingly open (for 1972) accounts of his battles with depression to the Associated Press.

Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law to Ted Kennedy, would go on to be the proper VP candidate on the Democratic ticket for 1972, an election in which the Democrats would carry only Massachusetts and Washington D.C.


1. Barry Goldwater 1964

The might-have-beens: Mitt’s father, George Romney, was discussed in some circles for the role, but his reform-minded stance on civil rights wasn’t a match for Goldwater’s staunchly conservative platform. Gov. Jim Rhodes of Ohio was also in the mix, but he firmly rejected the idea of the vice presidency, saying, “I’ve never been a candidate (for vice president), am not now a candidate, and will not be a candidate. I would not accept it if it is offered.”

Who got the nomination—William E. Miller: A member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York’s 40th district, the 51-year-old William Miller was a virtual unknown on the national political scene. But his rough and aggressive campaign style made him an appealing ally. As this 1964 report took note of: “A gut fighter is one who campaigns not merely to upset but to destroy his enemy. A gut fighter must be a very tough fellow, indeed, because he is likely to become embroiled in the bitterest kind of argument as he develops his campaign theme that his opponent is no good whatsoever.”

While Miller’s campaign style meshed with Goldwater’s, his absolute anonymity proved an insurmountable hurdle. As the News-Dispatch wrote: “Goldwater is not so divorced from reality as to believe that Miller is truly a national figure. Nor is Miller a representative New Yorker with local prestige and a hold on the imagination of that great state.”

The Goldwater-Miller ticket would go on to lose the election by the sixth largest margin in U.S. presidential election history. And though it didn’t help in his run as VP nominee, Miller would eventually capitalize on his anonymity by starring in the first “Do You Know Me?” American Express commercial, saying, “Do you know me? I ran for vice president of the United States. I shouldn’t have trouble charging a meal, should I? Well, I do.”


Nic Turiciano is an Awl summer reporter. You can follow him on Twitter. Top photo by Pimkie.