The Republican Party has found a near fool-proof plan to avoid nominating a Sarah Palin redux as vice president, a high-risk candidate with the potential to alienate voters: It chose Mitt Romney for the top of the ticket.
People who lived through the 2008 campaign from the inside say the differences between Romney and John McCain, the man who bet big on a controversial candidate who often overshadowed him, mean anything even remotely Palinesque is off the menu.
“John McCain and Mitt Romney are completely different animals,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist in Florida who worked on McCain’s campaign in 2008 (and Jon Huntsman’s in 2012). “John McCain is and will always be a risk-taking Navy pilot. Mitt Romney is a finance guy who looks at balance sheets and studies his decisions in a different way.”
Who Romney will pick is the source of ritualistically intense speculation. But Palin aside, it’s not very often that a VP pick is truly earth-shattering; Palin is one of the few choices who actually turned the campaign upside down.
But there are still important lessons to be learned from Palin that Team Romney will take forward into its own selection process. The positive lessons drawn from McCain’s campaign have to do with the energy, particularly among the base, that Palin brought to the table. Coming out of a primary tougher than anyone predicted and still working on shoring up the base, Romney is in need of someone conservative and exciting like Palin.
“Like the McCain campaign, he might be looking for someone who brings a level of enthusiasm — [invigorates] the campaign — that hasn’t been there before,” says Christian Ferry, a Republican strategist who served as deputy campaign manager on the McCain campaign, “having come through a rough primary season, might be something the Romney campaign is looking at.”
Polls show Romney’s brought the base around, even as it remains skeptical of him as a conservative standard-bearer. With Obama on the Democratic ticket, Romney probably doesn’t have to worry much about keeping Republicans in line. It’s the independents (and the women and the Latinos) who seem to be the real problem now.
But trying to wow them with a VP is the wrong lesson from 2008, according to other observers. Wesley Donehue, a political operative in South Carolina who worked on Romney’s 2008 campaign in his state, told TPM Palin is “a case study on what not to do.” Unlike Ferry, Donehue believes Romney should adhere to a better safe than sorry philosophy.
“The McCain campaign really screwed up by going in and picking someone who was just gonna shake up the ticket when they should have picked someone who’s safe,” he said.
And that’s much more Romney’s speed.
“The Palin pick seems to have been more about reinforcing McCain’s ‘maverick’ brand than anything else,” Republican strategist Gentry Collins told TPM in an email. Collins, who worked on Romney’s presidential bid four years ago and McCain’s 2008 campaign, expects Romney will pick someone whose primary strengths are on economic issues and who is “ready to become president if required.”
“My view is Romney will be thorough and methodical because that’s his management style,” Collins said, “not because of lessons from the Palin selection process.”
To head up his selection, Romney picked Beth Myers, a trusted aide hailed by Romney confidantes for her “meticulousness and intensity” and “attention to detail.”
Myers told the New York Times the vice presidential selection will be “very comprehensive and very thorough,” and that the process will take into account lessons from both George W. Bush’s process (which ended with the man who led it, Dick Cheney, becoming the nominee) and McCain’s. But the final process will be all Romney.
“Once a preliminary list of names is compiled, [Myers] said, she and Mr. Romney will look for insight from within their own orbit —close friends, donors with business expertise and other politicians,” according to the Times.
Navarro said that devotion to methodical process means the final pick will likely be very anticlimactic.
“If by June or July he hasn’t picked a running mate and his numbers are still in tank with Latinos and he’s running behind in Florida, [Sen. Marco] Rubio becomes that much more attractive,” she said. “If he’s making some headway with those groups, probably somebody like a [Sen. Rob] Portman becomes most appealing.”
For a Republican Party that watched its last VP nominee run away with the show, that’s probably a welcome scenario.