Balancing the ticket

Ticket balance

In United States politics, balancing the ticket is when a political candidate chooses a running mate with the goal of bringing more widespread appeal to the campaign. It is most prominently used to describe the selection of the U.S. Vice Presidential candidate.

There are several means by which ticket may be balanced. Someone who is from a different region than the candidate may be chosen as a running mate to provide geographic balance to the ticket. If the candidate is associated with a specific faction of the party, a running mate from a competing faction may be chosen so as to unify the party. Similarly, running mates may be chosen to provide ideological, age, or demographic balance.

In U.S. presidential elections, balancing the ticket was traditionally associated with the smoke-filled room cliché, but this changed in 1970 with reforms in the primary system resulting from the McGovern-Fraser Commission. According to Douglas Kriner of Boston University, the McGovern-Fraser reforms brought an end to traditional ticket balancing practices. Now presidential candidates are less concerned with regional and ideological balance, says Kriner, and are more inclined to pick compatible running mates with extensive government experience.


In the earliest days of American presidential elections, the President and Vice-President were technically elected on the same ballot with the person receiving the most votes becoming the President and the person with the second most votes becoming the Vice-President. When this system proved unwieldy, the Twelfth Amendment was passed in 1804 providing that the President and Vice-President run on the same ticket but be elected on different ballots.

Most elections before the American Civil War featured a northerner paired with a southerner or vice versa.

After the Civil War, geographical balance between north and south became less critical but would remain a factor well into the 20th century, especially in the Democratic Party. In the 20th Century an increased interest in the electoral college lead many presidential candidates to choose vice-presidential candidates from populous states with large numbers of electoral votes. It was hoped that voters in this state could be swayed by having a favorite son on the ticket.

Later in the 20th century, ideological balance became more prominent with a more liberal presidential candidate often paired with a more moderate or conservative vice presidential candidate or vice versa to bring more widespread appeal. Other factors came to prominence in the late 20th century such as gender, religion, age and other issues.

The trend has continued in recent times, although it is less of a predictable science. In 1992, Bill Clinton, seen as a more moderate southern Democrat, chose the more liberal southerner Al Gore as his running mate. However, they were both white Protestant southerners from the baby boom generation, and most political analysts saw them as similar in political ideology. This brought little in the way of ticket balancing.

In 2000, Al Gore chose the centrist Joseph Lieberman, a northeastern Jewish Democrat who had been one of the first people to criticize President Clinton for his scandal with Monica Lewinsky. John Kerry's choice of John Edwards in the 2004 presidential election was widely seen as an appeal to southern voters who traditionally would not have supported a northeasterner such as Kerry without the geographic balance that Edwards could bring. Also, Edwards, still serving his first term in the Senate, was regarded by many as an "outsider" with a youthful appeal; two characteristics that Kerry, a 60 year old four term Senator, was unable to acquire.

Geographic balance

Geographic balance has played an important part of politics since the beginning. Before the civil war, a northern candidate was almost always paired with a southern running mate or vice-versa. Since the civil war, this level of geographical balancing is less critical, but still plays a big role. In modern times, voters in the south, midwest, and Rocky mountain region of America are less inclined to support northeasterners and Californians without some sort of geographic balance and vice versa.

For example, in 1960, Richard Nixon of California chose Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. of Massachusetts as his running mate to blunt Kennedy's strength in New England. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts chose Texan Lyndon Johnson to appeal to southern voters.

The United States Constitution itself demands some balance, as Electoral College voters cannot vote for two people from their state. For example, if Dick Cheney had not moved back to his home state of Wyoming before the 2000 election the Electoral College voters from Texas would not have been able to vote for him as vice-president and thus the Senate would have picked one.

Ideological balance

Ideological balance is achieved when a candidate chooses a running mate from a different ideological strain to provide more widespread appeal. For example, a liberal candidate might want to chose a moderate or even a conservative running mate rather than another liberal in order to appeal to a broader base of the electorate.

Ronald Reagan, a conservative, chose more moderate George H. W. Bush as his running mate in 1980. When liberal Democrat Michael Dukakis ran for president in 1988 he chose Lloyd Bentsen, a moderate, as his running mate.

Ethnic or business interest balancing

A tactic originated by New York's Tammany Hall and refined by Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak in Chicago machine politics, this involves nominating a slate of candidates for local offices based on their varied ethnic origins or business or labor union interests, in order to appeal to all possible ethnic or financial interests in a community. Eg: a slate of candidates of judges, might include candidates from all ethnic communities in a district, and include a labor lawyer and a member of the local Chamber of commerce. In cases where there is not enough offices appeal to all, multi-ethnic candidates may be chosen, eg: "Maria O'Hara Constantine" a name calculated to appeal to Hispanic, Irish and Greek constituencies.

Electoral College strategy

In elections which are expected to be close, great concern is placed an a running mate's ability to appeal to voters in key states with critical numbers of votes in the Electoral College. In modern times, America is generally split along red state/blue state lines, but these lines are not absolute. Key "blue states" like Pennsylvania and Michigan could be swayed to shift support toward a Republican candidate under the right conditions. Likewise, key "red states" such as Virginia and Ohio may shift allegiances for the right ticket.

A favorite son on the ticket from one of these states could garner enough support to swing it from one column to another.

Other factors

Sometimes candidates will try to appeal to a particular demographic group or will try to make up for a perceived weakness by choosing a particular running mate.

Walter Mondale's selection of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 was widely seen as an appeal to female voters.

Older presidential candidates will sometimes chose younger, more vigorous men as their running mates. George H. W. Bush was in his mid 60s when he chose the young and photogenic Dan Quayle in 1988. Bob Dole, who was in his 70s, chose former professional athlete Jack Kemp in 1996.

George W. Bush was considered a political novice and outsider when he chose Dick Cheney, a consummate Washington insider, as his running mate in 2000.

Synergy of traits

Most ticket balancing is not limited to a single issue but is a factor of the overall strength that the running mate brings to a campaign. Lyndon Johnson was chosen by Kennedy not only because he was a southerner, but for other reasons as well. Johnson was perceived at the time as being more conservative than Kennedy which balanced the ticket ideologically. Johnson was likely to deliver Texas and its critical electoral votes to the Democrats, something that Kennedy and a non Texan might not be able to accomplish. Kennedy was a Catholic and his religion was a subtle but important issue, especially in the largely Protestant Southern states. The fact that Johnson was a Protestant helped the ticket’s appeal in the south. Kennedy was the son of a multi-millionaire Boston banker while Johnson came from more humble and rural beginnings.

Even in circumstances where ticket balancing is not overt, there are subtle components that are brought to the ticket. Even though Bill Clinton and Al Gore were both white Protestant southerners, Al Gore was a veteran of the Vietnam conflict while Clinton was heavily criticized by Republicans because he "dodged" the Vietnam area draft. Gore’s military record helped soften some of the criticism about Clinton’s ability to lead the military.

Other political races

In some states, the governor and the lieutenant governor are elected on the same ticket. In states that allow the governor to choose his running mate, he/she may choose a candidate that provides balance within the state just as in presidential politics.

Although the concept of a running-mate is relatively specific to the United States, analogous patterns could be found in other countries. For example, in proportional representation with party lists, parties will tend to make sure that a variety of factions within the party are represented in the list candidates. Some countries (such as Iraq) enforce balance by legally requiring that a list contain a minimum number of female or ethnic minority candidates, or by requiring (such as Lebanon) that vice presidents or prime ministers be of a different ethnic group than the president.

Balancing the ticket also refers to when a political organization such as the Chicago political machine balances the interests of local business and ethnic groups by selecting nominees on its slate of candidates based on their ethnic origin or commercial interests.

Consequences of the death of a president

Elections have acquired much of the mass media publicity system used for entertainment, but a ticket is not a "buddy picture." Although the vice presidency has only rarely been an office with real political significance, several times American presidents have died in office, either through assassinations or natural causes. It is under these conditions that the merits or failures of having a running mate to balance the ticket instead of calling a snap election as other countries do are revealed. A president really cannot fire the running mate and then pick someone who will carry on afterwards to the letter.

Perhaps the worst result of all American history was that Abraham Lincoln's running mate, Andrew Johnson, was a southerner who did not at all hold his values, so Reconstruction started without Lincoln's point of view getting maintained. Sometimes the opposite occurs: the old politician William McKinley had the young, energetic Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate, so when he was assassinated America got its most dynamic president in history. Twice in the twentieth century there were vice presidents who followed the heritage of their departed presidents as well as one could expect. Harry S. Truman continued Franklin Delano Roosevelt's policies, and Lyndon Baines Johnson accomplished more in the same general areas than John Fitzgerald Kennedy.


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