Coming Up After the Break: Trump Picks a Running Mate


His nomination assured, Donald Trump is turning to what will almost assuredly be a drawn-out, orchestrated process to select his running mate. The former president, who knows a thing or two about televised drama, is dropping hints about who is in and who is out, juicing up interest in his rematch with Joe Biden.

“The V.P. selection process is the one time Trump is fully in charge, and watch him work it hard, right up to the announcement,” said Scott Reed, who was the campaign manager for Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign for president.

Yet, for all the hoopla ahead, it’s hardly guaranteed that the vice-presidential choice will significantly alter the contours of the presidential campaign. It rarely does. Considering how Trump dominates the stage, it seems fair to wonder if any running mate can break through.

“The vice-presidential pick is something that generates a massive amount of press coverage but has the most minimal of impacts on the election,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a White House communications director under Barack Obama.

Over the past 50 years, there has been no shortage of examples when the vice-presidential selections arguably made no discernible difference: Hillary Clinton turning to Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia in 2016, for example.

And for every time the choice of a running mate appeared to provide a boost to the ticket — such as when Bill Clinton, the 1992 Democratic nominee for president, picked Senator Al Gore of Tennessee — there are cases in which it hurt more than it helped. (Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008, came to regret tapping Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, for example.)

Trump’s choice of Mike Pence, the Indiana governor, in 2016 fell into the helps-more-than-it-hurts category. Pence’s selection calmed conservatives and evangelists wary of the playboy New York developer turned presidential candidate.

The vice president’s job has famously been belittled as “not worth a warm bucket of spit,” to quote John Nance Garner, who held the position under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While it might not be the most exciting job in Washington, it is not all ribbon-cuttings and state funerals: Pence made a choice on Jan. 6, 2021, that had real consequences. And considering that Trump is 77, and Biden is 81, their running mates could matter for actuarial reasons in the minds of some voters.

For all that, in a race this close, what happens in the margins might matter. Here are a few variables that could play a role in Trump’s decision:

His gut: Trump may well go for the candidate in whom he sees himself, and Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio probably leads that list. Choosing Vance might help Trump energize his base of supporters, but it is debatable whether it would do much to broaden Trump’s own appeal.

It is reminiscent of Clinton’s reaching out to another Southern baby boomer, Gore, to join his ticket. The creation of a two-of-a-kind ticket drew a good deal of skepticism in political circles, similar to the kind of skepticism that a Vance pick might engender. But it worked, as became clear when Clinton and Gore set out on their first bus tour out of the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden.

Race: With polls suggesting that Biden is losing support among some minority voters, it might be smart for Trump to pick a Black or Latino running mate. Tim Scott, the senator from South Carolina, is often mentioned among potential Black candidates.

There are fewer obvious Latino candidates. One of the most high-profile, Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, has said he has no interest in being the No. 2 on a Trump ticket.

“The question for Trump’s team is, do they want to play offense or defense?” Pfeiffer said. “In other words, do they want to make a play for some of Biden’s voters or do they want to help keep Republicans uncomfortable with Trump’s chaos and criminality in the fold?”

Gender: There are many politically compelling reasons for Trump to choose a woman. He has struggled to get support from female voters, and it would be a way to undercut any gender appeal Kamala Harris brings to the Biden ticket.

“Trump has a reptilian political sense about where his political weaknesses are, which is why I have a strong suspicion that Trump will pick a woman,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican analyst and Trump critic. “And that has a lot to do with the fact that he has been struggling with women as a voting category, but also his morality with women being front and center and reproductive rights being front and center.”

Among the possibilities: Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota (more on her below), Representative Elise Stefanik of New York or Senator Katie Britt of Alabama — though Britt’s stock might have dropped after her bumpy turn giving the Republican rebuttal to Biden’s State of the Union address.

The long shot: “I think Trump is going to take a good, hard look at Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,” Reed said. “He’s polling at 15 percent, and more comes out of Biden than Trump.”

Kennedy has said that he has no interest in being the No. 2 on a ticket, and such a move could be the final rupture in his already strained relationship with his prominent family. But if Kennedy struggles to get on the ballot as an independent candidate, he may find a vice-presidential nomination hard to resist. “He’s very Trumpian,” Reed said of Kennedy. “And what better way to cement the Trump-Camelot-Palm Beach connection than picking a Kennedy?”

Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, is readying for her national close-up. How else to interpret her recent controversial trip to Texas to “fix” her smile, documented in a lengthy video?

As the race to be Donald Trump’s running mate heats up, Noem’s new smile reflects a tactical move that has as much to do with politics and psychology as it does with appearance.

“It’s all about her appeal to an audience of one,” Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist, said. “The whole teeth thing almost looks like it was done for Trump to see. She is showing him she works well in front of the camera, that she has that star power he wants onstage with him, while fitting into the mode of women in the Trump universe.”

Trump was, after all, the president who often identified his staff members, especially members of the military, as coming from “central casting.”

Noem’s dental upgrade is simply the most recent step in what appears to be a yearslong makeover that has transformed her, more than any other woman on Trump’s shortlist, into what Samantha Sheppard, a professor of cinema and media studies at Cornell University, called “the perfect ornament for Trump.”

Even beyond her popularity and credentials as a governor, and her MAGA platform, she offers an example of a certain kind of “Miss America-like white femininity,” Sheppard said, also reflected in Fox News anchors and that involves cascading hair, extensive eyelashes and a blinding smile.

This approach to political image-making has its roots in the pantomimed femininity of Phyllis Schlafly and Sarah Palin, where the promise of a powerful woman was defanged by her participation in the pageantry of traditional gender cosplay.

The teeth simply finish the picture, as does the fact that Noem used the opportunity to talk up the dentist who did the procedure. If anyone would recognize the value of using power to push product it is Trump himself. And perhaps, in doing so, recognize a kindred spirit.

Vanessa Friedman

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