So far, a number of Republicans have floated trial balloons over American airspace, including former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and ex-Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, both of whom left office in January after eight years. Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s governor from 2011 to 2017 followed by nearly two years as the ambassador to the United Nations, has done one better, announcing that she would run against her old boss, former President Donald Trump.
Hogan did some press, then announced that he would not be running after all. There went that trial balloon. A federal manhunt for his former chief of staff, Roy McGrath, may have played a role in Hogan’s decision.
Yet some of these candidates actually go through with it. They file the paperwork, raise the money, and work to win obscure straw polls on the way to Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary the next year, though they seemingly have little chance of grabbing their party’s nomination. Why?
They do so for a variety of reasons, of course. One of the biggest is that you can’t run directly for the vice presidential nomination. Originally the runner-up to the president, the vice president has evolved into a much-mocked but surprisingly important figure in the history of America’s government.
Joe Biden is called president No. 46, but that’s slightly misleading. Fellow Democrat Grover Cleveland is counted twice (as 22 and 24) because of a comeback that was part of his two non-consecutive White House terms: 1885-1889 and 1893-1897. That brings the total number of men who have served as president down to 45. Fifteen of those men (or one-third of them) were once vice presidents.
One time-honored way into the vice presidency is to run for president. It’s unlikely, for instance, that 2008 Democratic nominee Barack Obama would have chosen Biden, at that point a nearly 36-year senator representing Delaware, if the future president had not first stood on the debating stage with a fellow presidential hopeful, who would go on to be his understudy between 2009 and 2017.
Those same-party rivals who aren’t chosen as VP often end up leading major government agencies. It’s unlikely that the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, would have led the Department of Transportation in Biden’s administration had he not first contended for their party’s nomination. The same goes for surgeon Ben Carson, a 2016 Republican presidential primary also-ran to future President Donald Trump — Carson was Trump’s Housing and Urban Development secretary from 2017 to 2021.
Sometimes, the relationship between presidential and vice presidential nominees is an obviously collegial one. Yet that hasn’t historically been a job requirement.
President John F. Kennedy and his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, had been rivals. George H.W. Bush was a primary rival of Ronald Reagan who had attacked the 40th president’s supply-side framework on cutting taxes as “voodoo economics.”
Vice President Kamala Harris was once a rival to Biden who hit at him particularly hard in a key, early debate. Late Show host Stephen Colbert later told her, “You landed haymakers on Joe Biden,” whose teeth afterward “were like chiclets all over that stage.”
Among other things, then-California Sen. Harris had charged that Biden was buddy-buddy with segregationist politicians in Washington early in his career and opposed busing to integrate schools. Colbert asked her how it was possible to bounce back from that and support Biden wholeheartedly.
“It was a debate,” Harris said before she started to laugh, having seemingly cracked herself up. Colbert followed up, saying, “Not everybody landed punches like you did, though.” Harris stopped laughing long enough to reiterate, “It was a debate,” then picked up again with the yucks.
Colbert was talking to Harris after she had dropped out and endorsed Biden at a clutch moment in the primaries. Her appearance on his show was part of walking back her debate criticisms while Team Biden decided on a vice presidential pick.
And it worked. Harris succeeded in getting the nomination to a winning national ticket, which beat Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in 2020. That set her up with a 1-in-3 shot at the White House and gave the rest of us a candid look at the role realpolitik considerations play in nominating the vice president.