VPs Are Important

Matthew Yglesias at Vox makes an excellent point in a recent post: The choice of Vice President is one of the most important that a President can make.1  I thought it might be worthwhile to summarize his argument in slightly more qualitative terms.

To date, 14 of our Presidents arrived at the job through the Vice Presidency.2 That’s almost exactly one third of the people who have been President. It’s also about 30% of the people who have been Vice President (we’ve had 47 so far). So that pretty much confirms Yglesias’s point by itself: I doubt there’s any better predictor of future Presidency than having been VP, and evidently there’s no talent pool voters like to raid more than that one.3

Also persuasive is the fact that 9 of our Presidents (about one in five) got the job automatically simply by virtue of being the VP. Eight Presidents died in office, and one resigned. This is a terrible rate of completion; 20% of the people who have held that office haven’t made it to the end of their elected terms. It’s true that no President has left office early in about 40 years, and I think you could argue that the most chaotic days are behind us (e.g., in the forty years stretching from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, three Presidents were murdered). Still, the idea that the VP is a heartbeat away from the Presidency is actually pretty well borne out in our history. And those days are not entirely behind us: Four of our Presidents have died of natural causes. Medicine is better today, but so far people still die sometimes.


Finally, Yglesias notes that even when VPs don’t ascend to the Presidency, they often become the nominees for major parties—further proving the importance of the job. Perusing the list of VPs, I only see four people who ran but failed to win: John Breckinridge served under Buchanan and lost to Lincoln, Hubert Humphrey served under LBJ and lost to Nixon, Walter Mondale served under Carter and lost to Reagan, and Al Gore served under Clinton and lost to W.4  Across all of American history, this appears to be a slightly weaker part of Yglesias’s argument, but three of the four examples are from the past fifty years, so it might be that it’s more relevant today than the raw counts suggest.

So there you have it: If history is any guide, there is a very strong chance that the VP on the winning ticket will become President later on. You could make the argument that, historically, it’s apparently about a third as important a job as the Presidency, since it eventually is the Presidency one third of the time. And that’s pretty important; unless I’m incredibly mistaken about the readership of this blog, it beats your job by a wide margin. So this gives us a rare opportunity to say, realistically, that we hope Clinton doesn’t screw up as badly as Abraham Lincoln.5


1. This is especially obvious, as Yglesias notes, in the case of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson; if anything, Yglesias understates the extent to which Johnson was a complete disaster—appointing him was the single worst decision Lincoln made as President, and one of the worst things that ever happened to Civil Rights in the United States, which is saying something.

2. The 14 are Adams I, Jefferson, Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Johnson I, Arthur, Teddy, Coolidge, Truman, Nixon, Johnson II, Ford, and Bush I. This is all from Wikipedia and other easily accessible sources (I think you could probably glean it from the Yglesias post with a little work). All I’m trying to do here is compile and summarize it.

3. As far as better predictors for becoming President, you’re pretty much limited to things that only apply to one person (e.g., “being George Washington”, or “marrying Mary Todd”). It’s actually pretty hard to think of another good smartass answer that works—I thought of “sharing at least 50% of John Adams’s DNA”, but he had six kids (and two parents), so the rate of 2/9 is actually slightly worse than for VPs. (George H.W. Bush has had 6 kids, too). Another important milestone for Hillary Clinton if she were elected would be adding “being Chelsea Clinton’s parent” to this list. 

4. It seems weird that they’re all Democrats. Supposedly conservatives like hierarchy more, which might mean they’d turn out to vote for the guy who seems like the next guy in line, but it could also be a coincidence—it is just four guys. I didn’t include George Clinton in this list; he got a few electoral votes in 1808, but it was while he was running for (and already serving as) VP. You also might double count Nixon as a losing candidate for his party and a future President, since he was both, in that order. 

5. Trump, of course, will surely pick Donald Sterling


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