After the Palin Fiasco, Will Romney Risk a Woman VP?
Policy + Politics

After the Palin Fiasco, Will Romney Risk a Woman VP?

REUTERS/The Fiscal Times

For months there’s been intriguing talk that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney might pick a prominent woman as his running mate to help give his campaign a kick – and layer on some luster to a plain vanilla, hyper-cautious and meticulously run campaign.

Among the potential picks, four women – more than any others – have consistently been mentioned as possibilities in the Republican vice presidential sweepstakes:

• Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, 44, the former state attorney general and relative political newcomer, who just spent a sweltering July 4 campaigning with Romney; 
• South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, 40, a Tea Party favorite and one of Romney’s early supporters, who recently ducked ethics violations charges related to campaign lobbying;
• Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, 52, the first female Hispanic governor in the U.S.,  who could potentially give Romney a boost with a constituency he sorely needs; 
• Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, 57, who served in the Bush administration and would bring the foreign policy bona fides that Romney lacks. 

Just this week, Romney’s wife, Ann, said that her husband is thinking about picking a woman to be on his ticket this fall. “We’ve been looking at that and I love that option as well,” Ann Romney told CBS News, as her husband looked on beside her. She said the person selected for the No. 2 spot on the ticket should be “someone that obviously can do the job but will be able to carry through with some of the other responsibilities.”

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Even so, the combination of Romney’s extreme political caution and the curse of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s disastrous performance as the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee have just about ruled out the possibility that any of those women will end up on the Romney ticket this summer, according to a number of political experts and analysts interviewed this week by The Fiscal Times.

“It’s very difficult, just one election cycle out, not to compare a female candidate to Sarah Palin,” said Jennifer L. Lawless, a political science professor at American University and expert on women in politics.  “So even if you were to identify somebody who was incredibly well credentialed, the likelihood of both voters and the media assessing that woman relative to Sarah Palin would be a liability for Romney.”

Chris Ellis, a political scientist at Bucknell University, noted, “Certainly Sarah Palin didn’t do potential women vice presidential candidates any favors.”

Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor, was even more emphatic: “I think it would be only slightly more likely Romney would choose a woman than he would choose a gay running mate. I just don’t see it happening.”

Romney needs all the help he can get in attracting women voters.  While President Obama currently maintains a single-digit lead over Romney in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll – 51 percent to 44 percent among registered voters – Obama leads the former Massachusetts governor by 19 points among all adults in terms of handling “women’s issues,” his single largest advantage among a dozen issues surveyed. Obama’s 50 percent approval rating overall rests on positive views among 56 percent of women, compared to 43 percent of men.

But regardless of how strong or accomplished the female VP contenders may be, they’ll likely suffer from the residual hangover from the debacle of the 2008 campaign, when John McCain plucked Palin from relative obscurity to energize his long-shot bid for the White House. Palin took the Republican national convention in St. Paul by storm and gave the GOP ticket an early shot in the arm. But her mercurial temperament and woeful ignorance of national and international issues soon made her a target of media ridicule and a drag on the McCain campaign – from which it never fully recovered.

Steve Schmidt, a senior strategist with the McCain presidential campaign who was instrumental in recruiting Palin, has been widely quoted as saying that the McCain-Palin ticket was a testament to an inadequate, hasty review of Palin. “The vetting process did not disclose what would become obvious afterward,” Schmidt told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “We had a person who fundamentally lacked the knowledge and basis – at a very, very deep level – to be a plausible commander in chief.” 

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor, said that McCain and Romney “couldn’t be more different as human beings in how they approach decisions,” and that compared with McCain’s seat-of-the-pants approach, Romney’s vice presidential vetting process “is microscopic, if not proctoscopic.”

“The Palin legacy is that a Republican nominee for president isn’t going to pick a woman who has been in high office for a short period of time and is unfamiliar with many of the key issues,” Sabato told The Fiscal Times. “Ayotte, Martinez, Haley and others have been in their current positions for exactly the same length of time Palin was. That’s a strike against them. It isn’t their gender as much as experience that may be holding them back. Romney wants people to look at his VP and say, ‘This person is qualified to be president if called upon.’ Palin never passed that test. Some women and men being mentioned today may not qualify either.”

“I don’t think she [Palin] necessarily ruined it for a woman as a choice, but I don’t think she made the concept of gambling on a pick a very attractive one,” Michael Traugott, a University of Michigan political scientist, told The Fiscal Times. “From what we know of him, I don’t think Romney’s the gambling type. I would expect him to make a very risk-averse and conservative choice – conservative with a small ‘c’.
That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t pick a woman, adds Traugott, noting that a woman, Beth Myers, is running the selection process. “But I think the Republican Party’s policy positions vis-à-vis women only mean he’d have to select a very conservative woman, and this would just sharpen the contrast between the two campaigns. Since women are such a critical part of the electorate, this would probably work to his disadvantage.”

Jennifer Lawless,  director of American University’s Women and Politics Institute, said Romney’s   presumed aversion to picking a woman for the ticket has nothing to do with sexism or bias – and everything to do with the methodical, analytical modus operandi he’s followed throughout his political and business careers. “Given his record, his strengths and the fact that he’s trying to run a campaign that is about righting the economy and not generating drama, I think the kind of people he’s looking at are people with relatively long records in their states, either as governors or senators. And those people with those experiences that mirror his own are men.”

This would explain at least partially why the focus has shifted recently to Tim Pawlenty, a former two-term governor of Minnesota, and to Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a veteran lawmaker and one-time head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, who would also presumably help Romney in attracting votes in a key swing state. Others who continue to get serious mention are men as well, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.  

“Mitt Romney, during his entire career, surrounded himself with men, with the exception of Ann,” said Baker, the Rutgers political expert. “Name one prominent woman who was associated with Baine Capital…  I think he’s a guy who likes to play it safe, and playing it safe tells me it’s going to be someone like Rob Portman or, on the outside, someone like Chris Christie, even. But I think even Christie would be a little edgy as far as Romney was concerned. Edgy is not Romney.”

Some insist Romney hasn’t completely closed the door to a female VP pick. Ron Bonjean, a Washington political strategist, said he doesn’t think McCain’s experience with Palin would preclude Romney from choosing a woman if he thought she was the strongest choice. “Every situation is different, depending on the circumstances,” he said. “Man or woman, the campaign will likely pick the best candidate to help Romney win.”

Michigan’s Traugott adds that any discussion of the strengths of various female picks – Condi Rice, Susana Martinez, and  even business executive Carly Fiorina and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who have both been mentioned as outside choices – “would have to be done in the abstract. I don’t believe a woman will be selected.”

“Assuming we’re going to have a very close election, somebody from a battleground state would make the most sense, at the margins – somebody like Rob Portman of Ohio or Marco Rubio of Florida,” said Traugott. But overall, “I think Romney will make a safe choice – and that will include picking a man.”