Trump’s running mate: Does his choice matter?

Speculation is heating up about former President Trump’s choice of running mate.

But the bigger question is, does it matter?

The former president is so uncommonly polarizing there will be few voters who can be shifted one way or another by a vice-presidential candidate. Trump being Trump, his eclipse of whoever is on the lower half of the ticket is likely to be total.

Still, the former president is sure to milk the search for a vice presidential candidate for all the publicity and suspense he can get. Back in January, he told Fox News’s Martha McCallum, “I know who it’s going to be” but “I can’t tell you that, really.”

On Sunday, Politico reported that Trump staff were vetting potential picks “as the former president floats an expansive list of names in private conversations.”

None of that will change the odd dynamics of 2024, where a major party is set to nominate a defeated ex-president for the first time in roughly 130 years.

An Economist/YouGov poll last week, asking about Trump’s favorability, found just 3 percent of Americans expressing no opinion. When asked whether they had “very” or merely “somewhat” favorable or unfavorable feelings about him, the overwhelming majority declared the strength of their feelings.

Forty-eight percent said they had a “very unfavorable” view of Trump, while 26 percent said they had a “very favorable” opinion. By comparison, just 9 percent categorized their feelings as “somewhat unfavorable” and only 14 percent as “somewhat favorable.”

Such statistics underline the doubts about whether there is any significant body of opinion that could be shifted by Trump’s choice of would-be vice president.

“My hot take is that it doesn’t matter,” said John ‘Mac’ Stipanovich, a longtime Florida GOP operative and Trump critic. “Everyone — every mother’s son and daughter — already has an opinion about Donald Trump and will vote accordingly.”

Stipanovich added, “I would backpack down from the Himalayas to vote against him, and there are some people who would come from equally foreign parts to vote for him. The last time, there were 7 million more people on my team than his, but we’ll see.”

Those kinds of skeptical notes won’t much mute the speculation about the possible identity of Trump’s running mate — nor the alacrity with which some people appear to be seeking the job.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has latterly proven an enthusiastic Trump supporter, even after Scott mounted his own campaign for the GOP nomination earlier this year.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) have made even more dramatic transitions from erstwhile critics of the former president to fervent supporters.

Stefanik is one of several women reportedly under consideration — a list that also includes South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) and Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R), who first claimed the national spotlight as Trump’s White House press secretary.

There are even more controversial women whom Trump could pick, though their chances are generally considered more of a long shot. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii are in this category. So, too, is Kari Lake (R), the former TV anchor who lost her bid to become Arizona’s governor in 2022. Lake has many of the qualities Trump admires but seems less likely to be chosen, in part because of her pursuit of a Senate seat this year.

There is some suggestion that a female running mate might help Trump with women in the suburbs — a voting bloc with whom he has long had electoral trouble.

But this thesis rests on several questionable assumptions. 

Firstly, a firebrand like Greene or Lake would likely turn off as many voters as she would bring in. Secondly, substantive issues, including abortion, are likely to play a bigger role in voting intentions than the mere presence of a woman on the ticket. Thirdly, it seems questionable at best to suggest that any running mate would alter the course of a second Trump presidency.

Back in 2016, Mike Pence was chosen in part to reassure evangelical voters. Trump seems to to need little help in that regard these days, judging from the exit polls during the GOP primary process.

There are, to be sure, some insiders who contend the choice of running mate will indeed be an important one. But they tend to couch that belief in terms of the usefulness of having an effective campaigner on the ticket.

“It can make a difference when you have a highly sought-after surrogate on the campaign trail who can amplify or adjust course as needed,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “That’s helpful in terms of responding to attacks, or getting out ahead of something that maybe the campaign doesn’t want Trump to deal with.”

Bonjean also argued that a candidate from a battleground state “brings a lot of advantages,” though he emphasized he was not alluding to any specific possible pick.

In fact, few of the people most often cited as on the Trump shortlist are from true battlegrounds. The one clear exception is Lake, but having already lost an election in Arizona, it’s not clear she would deliver benefits even if she did abandon her Senate bid to join Trump’s ticket. 

Vance’s Ohio has trended Republican in recent years. So, too, albeit to a lesser extent, has Florida, the base of another possible pick, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.)

Democrats give a figurative roll of the eyes about all the talk around Trump’s pick — or the suggestion that choosing a female or Black running mate would boost his fortunes with those groups.

“I don’t think it matters,” said Democratic commentator and former South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers. “It’s Trump who prevents a better image.”  

The veepstakes gossip isn’t going anywhere. Trump is likely to tease his potential choice for months to come.

But it’s tough to think of any name that would transform the race.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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