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Commentary: Why Picking The Right Running Mate Is More Important Than Usual

Might former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown be Donald Trump's vice presidential pick? (Matt Rourke/AP)
Might former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown be Donald Trump's vice presidential pick? (Matt Rourke/AP)
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Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld surprised the political world with the announcement that he’d be a running mate for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, assuming Johnson wins his party’s nomination.

We’ve had two presidents named Johnson -- Andrew, impeached, and Lyndon, a one-termer -- but this Johnson is not likely to join them in the history books. However, many voters, unhappy with a Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton choice, like the idea of a third party option. Johnson got 10 percent in a poll match-up with Clinton and Trump, and if a Johnson-Weld ticket managed to get to 15 percent support in polls they’d qualify for the September presidential debate. That debate could be a game-changer (with or without Johnson).

Johnson is the former governor of New Mexico, and “low energy,” as Trump would put it. He only won only 1 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election and it's improbable that his popularity will explode like Ross Perot’s in 1992; he ended up with an impressive 19 percent of the vote. But crazier things have happened in this race, like the success of a reality TV star and the success of a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont.

Weld gives Johnson a boost in credibility. The ticket would have two former two-term governors, and both are far more knowledgeable than, say, Trump, in talking about the real issues of governing.

Picking the right running mate is unusually important for the presumptive Democratic and Republican nominees, as well.

Trump released a list of 11 possible Supreme Court justices, meant to assure doubtful conservatives that he’d pick “constitutionalist” judges if elected. He’s backed off the idea that he was truly committing to nominating only one of the judges on his list, but announcing the names generated publicity and made him seem more “presidential” -- at least by contrast with tweeting insults.

Trump advisers have indicated that he won’t be naming his running mate in advance of the Republican convention since that surprise will help build drama in what Trump wants to be an entertaining convention. He undoubtedly wants to set a new record for TV ratings for a national convention.

Regardless of when Trump announces his pick for VP, his choice will be scrutinized and considered a sign of things to come. Trump has said that he wants someone who is politically experienced, someone capable of persuading senators and official Washington to go along with his agenda. Beyond that kind of balance, political analysts wonder if he’ll try to pick someone who could offset Trump’s high negatives with women, minorities and young voters. I’ve written before about the problem Trump would have picking someone who has the agility to explain and defend Trump on questions about his ever-changing positions, controversial statements and past questionable conduct.

In the past, running mates weren’t ordinarily expected to balance a candidate’s personality, inexperience or lack of character – merely provide geographical balance, like carrying a home state.

Clinton also needs balance on her ticket, but in her case it’s mostly ideology and passion that matters. She needs a running mate who will appeal to Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Those voters can’t be taken for granted; polls show that some of them are inclined to vote for Trump. Many might just decide to stay home. Clinton needs not just their votes, but their activism and contributions.

Some have suggested Sen. Elizabeth Warren for her running mate. She has the credibility, as an anti-Wall Street warrior, to appeal to Sanders voters. And having an all-female ticket might send a powerful message to women voters that this would be an historic choice.

Others have mentioned former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick as a possible veep pick, someone who could help boost African-American turnout for the Democratic ticket and whose liberal credentials would appeal to Sanders supporters.

Trump might be considering as a running mate the senator who lost to Warren then moved to New Hampshire to try again -- Scott Brown. He was an early Trump supporter in New Hampshire, and a populist who has demonstrated that he can appeal to both Tea Party conservatives and establishment moderates.

Just imagine, all three of the vice presidential candidates could be politicians from Massachusetts: Warren or Patrick, Brown and Weld.

Surely that would be historic. Ohio and Virginia could continue to boast about how many presidents they’ve produced. But Massachusetts could say that it’s the new home of running mates. Granted, that’s not as good a draw for tourism, but hey, it’d be a claim to fame.

Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker. He tweets @ToddDomke.

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Todd Domke Twitter Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.

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