Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, has two options in his hunt for a partner on the Democratic ticket. He can double down on strengths or he can compensate for weaknesses. If he mimics the last Democratic president and chooses the former (Bill Clinton selected another young Southerner, Al Gore, in 1992), the decision-making process is relatively easy: Find someone youthful and energetic with a devotion to reform, a foreign policy approach that rejects conventional wisdom, and a short or nonexistent Washington resume. If Obama chooses the latter, however, things are decidedly more complex. Does he choose a VP who bolsters the ticket on foreign policy or on executive experience? Is there anyone with foreign policy expertise who isn't a creature of Washington? Does he find someone with appeal to working-class voters in Appalachia or white women nationwide? What about Jews in Florida and Latinos in the Southwest? And hanging over all of this is the geographic question—does Obama pick someone who hails from a swing state that he or she can deliver?
There is not a lot of evidence that suggests vice presidential candidates make a serious difference (good or bad) for the ticket. Two words: Dan Quayle. One study showed that a veep pick can increase a ticket's performance by less than one half of one percent in the VP's home state. Presidential candidates do not assume the assets (or race, or gender) of their running mates, and voters generally focus on the top of the ticket. The most important questions for Obama may be the simplest. Which potential VP can be president should the unthinkable happen, and whom can Obama spend four (or eight) harmonious years with in the White House?
With these caveats in mind, let's look at the contenders. Hillary Clinton isn't on this list—not because she is an unlikely pick, but because the merits of adding her to the ticket have been debated ad nauseam.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kan.), 60
Sebelius is frequently mentioned because she is a living embodiment of Obama's message. She won the governorship of deep red Kansas in 2002 and 2006. In both campaigns, she convinced a Republican to switch to the Democratic Party in order to become her lieutenant governor. In 2006, Sebelius also recruited the then-Republican district attorney in Johnson County to run as a Democrat for attorney general against a Republican incumbent. He did, and he won.
Sebelius is also on the list because it is assumed she will strengthen Obama's support among female voters. But is that really true? Will women who are devoted to Hillary Clinton warm to Sebelius simply because she is a woman? That would be a fairly patronizing assumption for Obama and his strategists to make. And hardcore Clinton supporters may by angered if Obama selects a female running mate who isn't Hillary Clinton. A final consideration on the topic of gender is whether putting an African American and a woman on the same ticket is too much of a political risk in a country that has elected neither to the top office.
Sebelius has other advantages. Because she has worked with a Republican legislature, she has been forced to issue bold vetoes of abortion restrictions, a harsh voter identification measure, and the creation of new coal plants. She is also anti-death penalty. In sum, Sebelius is a strong and successful progressive in a state where one doesn't expect to find them.
Her lack of foreign policy credentials and Kansas' paltry six electoral votes are liabilities. And no discussion of Sebelius is complete without a mention of her soporific response to Bush's 2008 State of the Union address. Given the opportunity to showcase her talents, Sebelius came off as wooden and uninspiring. For one speech at least, she was the anti-Obama.
Gov. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), 66
Governors and senators from Ohio are always going to be considered (Strickland isn't the only Buckeye State lawmaker on this list), but Strickland brings more than just pull with the swingiest of states. The son of a steelworker, and a former Methodist minister who promised to follow "biblical principles" when he ran for governor in 2006, Strickland can probably appeal to those fabled working-class whites, if anyone can.
Though Strickland has only been governor since 2007 (he won 20 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents in his fight against then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell), he did represent Ohio for six terms in the House before moving to the mansion. During that time, Strickland was instrumental in creating SCHIP, the federal government's leading program providing health care for underprivileged children. In fact, it was during the genesis of SCHIP that Strickland came to know then-first lady Hillary Clinton, whose presidential candidacy he endorsed. That fact alone wouldn't make Strickland a thorny pick, but he did parrot some of the Clinton campaign's harshest criticisms of Obama.
Age is a factor with Strickland. Of concern to the Democratic Party, though perhaps not to Obama, is whether the VP pick will be able to carry its flag eight years down the line. Initiating an era of long-term progressive governance requires someone who is young, energetic, and inoffensive to most or all of the factions within the party. In that case, Strickland, who will be 74 in 2016, most certainly isn't their guy.