‘Quayle Factor’ Is Not So Scary

Posted September 5, 2008 at 1:34pm

In the days since Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate, discussion about her candidacy has centered on whether she is ready for the job and if she will add female voters into the GOP column — particularly disaffected backers of defeated Democratic primary candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

But an analysis of two similar episodes in U.S. history suggests that the fevered speculation may be out of place and that Palin will neither hurt the ticket through her inexperience nor do much to draw women to the Republican ticket. In each earlier case, people ignored factors related to the vice presidential selection and based their vote on the person running for president instead.

In 1988, then-Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana vaulted uneasily into the public eye when Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush selected him to join his ultimately successful quest for the presidency. From the moment a buoyant — and boyish — Quayle hopped onto an outdoor stage with Bush at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, questions were raised about whether he had the capacity to be vice president and, if need be, president. Such questions echo today about Palin, whose relative lack of experience is stirring concern about whether she has the right background to be vice president.

But according to a report from that time, Republicans who meticulously studied the “Quayle factor” after the 1988 election concluded that the Senator cost Bush no more than 2 percent of the vote.

“It didn’t change anything,” said Frank Fahrenkopf, who at the time was chairman of the Republican National Committee and was in charge of the New Orleans convention. “People voted the top of the ticket.”

One of the pivotal moments of the campaign was the debate between Quayle and his Democratic opponent for the vice presidency, then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas. The debate is remembered solely for Bentsen’s riposte to Quayle’s comparison of his experience to John F. Kennedy’s when Kennedy ran for president. “Senator,” Bentsen famously said, “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

But the forgotten remainder of the debate may have made more of an impression at the time. According to an analysis by the Gallup polling agency, the proportion of voters who said Quayle was qualified to be president actually increased after the debate.

Concerns about Quayle were perhaps even greater than those about Palin, whose performance in her acceptance speech at the convention Wednesday evening probably mitigated some doubts about her ability to handle the pressure of the presidency.

In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale chose a New York Congresswoman, Geraldine Ferraro, to run with him on a ticket challenging President Ronald Reagan and Bush. The selection was a clear play for the women’s vote and viewed in some quarters as a desperate gambit by an underdog seeking to unseat a popular incumbent.

If it was an attempt to draw the distaff vote, it didn’t work.

According to a CBS News/New York Times 1984 exit poll, Ferraro may have brought less than 1 point overall to the Democratic ticket. Reagan and Bush won resoundingly, garnering almost as many women as men, who tend to be more supportive of Republicans. The GOP ticket won the male vote by 62 percent to 38 percent over Mondale and Ferraro and took the women’s vote by 58 percent to 42 percent.

Such historical comparisons of course provide only a guide, since circumstances are different in each case. But many observers believe vice presidential selections have rarely had any effect.

Fahrenkopf noted that in Ferraro’s case, she almost immediately became damaged goods because of corruption allegations involving her husband. And he thinks the negative characterizations of Quayle were unfair.

Fahrenkopf relates a story of the day Quayle was selected by Bush, when the first impression of Quayle for millions of Americans was of the young Senator bouncing around a stage in New Orleans next to Bush as if exclaiming, “Wow, thanks pop!”

Fahrenkopf, who was also on the podium that day, said that Bush had earlier telephoned Quayle, told him he was the choice, and then directed him simply to meet at a place where a stage was set for Bush to appear. Fahrenkopf said that when Bush’s entourage arrived for the event, campaign manager James Baker approached him and told him that Quayle was the pick and that Bush wanted to announce it right away. But Baker reported that they couldn’t find Quayle.

Meanwhile, Quayle and his wife were in the middle of the crowd, trying to barge their way through to the podium as they enjoyed their last few moments of anonymity. Finally, Secret Service agents were dispatched to retrieve them and cleared a path to the stage.

When Quayle popped up onto the podium, his look of childish elation was actually that of someone overjoyed to have finally fought his way through the throng.