For conventional presidential candidates, the running-mate selection ritual has grown familiar: The media floats prospects, prospects deny interest, prospects accept the offer if it comes.
But Donald Trump is not conventional. Influential Republicans have labeled him dishonest, demagogic, dangerous, even racist. So if he secures the nomination, running as his partner brings unusually high risks.
The ones you would want, you’re going to have to sell them a little bit.
Tom Cole, a congressman from Oklahoma and a veteran Republican strategist
Just about every vice presidential nominee rises in stature. Trump’s running mate will have to weigh the traditional benefits against the potential costs to their future prospects.
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“The ones you would want, you’re going to have to sell them a little bit,” said Tom Cole, a congressman from Oklahoma and a veteran Republican strategist. “They have to think long and hard.”
Cole has seen campaigns from every possible angle. He won election to the Oklahoma Legislature before moving up to Congress, was chairman of the state Republican Party as well as the national campaign arm of congressional Republicans, and served as executive director of the Republican National Committee.
He has neither endorsed a presidential candidate nor joined “stop Trump” efforts; a consummate loyalist, Cole vows to back any Republican nominee. He shrugs off predictions that Trump will permanently damage the party, cracking, “I’ve lived through the death of the Republican Party about five times.”
Yet Trump’s emergence, he says, introduces an element of uncertainty into a process that normally requires little thought.
A vice-presidential nomination vaults a politician into the small circle with near-universal familiarity. If the ticket wins, the vice president sits a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
Trump has alienated large swaths of the national electorate, notably Hispanics and women. That instantly becomes political baggage for anyone joining his ticket
Recent presidents have conferred more power on their vice presidents than earlier in United States history. Should Trump win the White House, his lack of government experience and small inner circle would magnify the potential for vice presidential influence.
“There’s not going to be near the competition for the new president’s ear,” Cole observed.
The hazards are just as obvious. Trump has alienated large swaths of the national electorate, notably Hispanics and women. That instantly becomes political baggage for anyone joining his ticket.
Trump already trails Hillary Clinton in the polls. Some Republicans fear he could lose badly enough in November to hand Democrats control of Congress.
No politician profits by association with epic defeat. William Miller, Sargent Shriver and Geraldine Ferraro, vice presidential nominees on the wrong end of landslides in 1964, 1972 and 1984, never won an election afterward.
For younger Republicans on the rise – including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina – that represents a sobering track record.
The consequences would be a smaller consideration for the likes of John Kasich, the twice-elected Ohio governor who served in the House and is now on his second presidential run, or Chris Christie, whose wounds from two terms as New Jersey governor hobbled his unsuccessful nomination bid this year.
“It’s easier to take risks at the end of your career than at the beginning or the peak,” Cole said.
One wild card in assessing that risk is whether Trump could evolve into a different candidate, with broader appeal, this fall. His new campaign strategist Paul Manafort, an experienced Republican hand, suggests he will temper his rhetoric and tone.
The candidate himself has sent mixed signals. Since the last 10 months represent Trump’s entire political track record, potential partners can only guess.
“Do you see him as a finished product, or a work in progress?” Cole asked. “How much risk are you willing to take?”