On choosing presidential running mates

Former vice-president Justin Malewezi this week jolted the country into the running mate buzz by tipping  presidential candidates to pick running mates with strengths that are the candidate’s weaknesses.

This is a sound criterion among a vast alley. Obviously, the power to choose a running mate remains with the candidate who, in making the pick, is influenced by various factors. Below are some of them.

Comfort level

Comfort levels with each other are an important consideration. Memories are still fresh of how then president Bakili Muluzi thrust the late Bingu wa Mutharika and Cassim Chilumpha on the party’s ticket.

The marriage resulted from what I can only speculate as wheel dealing, backroom negotiations, arm twisting and compromises.

What was the result? UDF had a presidential ticket comprising people who barely knew each other and could not stand each other’s sight.

That approach to presidential pairing exploded in public view when Mutharika concluded that he was uncomfortable working with Chilumpha.

What followed later between the two men is well documented elsewhere. But while Mutharika could have been forgiven for hating Chilumpha’s guts since the two were forcibly paired, what excuse did the former leader have for treating Joyce Banda like a leper, yet he voluntarily picked her as running mate?

Soon after the Mutharika-Banda ticket cruised to a landslide in 2009, it became increasingly clear that the duo had not gelled. Again, what happened after the pair’s fallout is well recorded history.

This is why personal chemistry matters on the ticket—it is important for the candidate to settle for someone with whom he or she is comfortable with; including—apart from just governing as one—playing golf together, enjoying each other’s company and, heck, share a drink without either of them worrying about deadly substances being thrown into the glass as the other looks away absent-mindedly. After all, the two are supposed to be ‘mates’.

Regional balance

Let’s face it, before you think of how to govern, it is important to first think about how to win a presidential race. As such, you may not like the fellow to share the same space on the ballot but by jove, you do like the votes he may bring from his or her political region.

In Malawi’s political landscape today, it is pragmatic to expect votes along regional or tribal lines. It is usually not politically correct to have a South-South, or Central-Central or indeed North-North ticket.

Even in the United States (US), we have had cases where a presidential nominee is well regarded, say in the Northeast; chances are that the same may not be the case for him or her in the US’ Southern States. So, a candidate picked a popular Southerner as running mate.

Ideological balance

Ideological balance is as critical as regional balance. It has been known that some conservative candidates—mostly found to the right of the political divide—would choose, say, a centre-left politician so that the running mate’s moderate views soothe independent voters and win some liberal votes from leftists.

For example, I look at MCP leader Lazarus Chakwera—an evangelical—as a politician with moderate views who maybe sympathetic to condom use, contraceptives, abortion and even homosexuality.

That could please moderates and liberals, but how does he improve his standing among conservatives? To achieve that Chakwera may decide to pick a respected Catholic to balance the ideological equation.

Joyce Banda is a free-market crusader of the neo-conservative mode when it comes to economic policy. If the economy is the number one issue among voters, she may wish to pick someone with progressive views on the economy; someone who believes in, say, redistribution, pro-poor or what I like to call pro-social policy making. Political junkies would remember how the staunch conservative Ronald Reagan picked the centric George H. W. Bush as running mate in the 1980s to win over moderate voters. It worked.

Game changer

A struggling candidate may bring a bit of buzz to his or her campaign by bringing on the ticket someone who may give the campaign a little momentum. For example, Peter Mutharika may decide to have a highly regarded woman as running mate. Whether that would work is another question, but it may jolt a fragile campaign and be a factor.

Is the running mate ready for office?

Remember how Senator John McCain goofed when he brought in the uninformed Sarah Palin—then Alaska Governor—on the ticket as a game-changing tactic in 2008 White House battle against then Senator Barack Obama? Sure, at first, the move jolted the campaign and motivated the Republican conservative base.

The McCain campaign also thought that disenchanted Hilary Clinton’s democratic supporters would embrace Palin, a fellow woman. But the optimism died when Palin started opening her mouth in unscripted settings such as sit-downs with television hosts.

Her empty head was bared for all to see and Americans started wondering: At more than 70 and with a history of cancer, it was possible for McCain to die in office. Should that happen—God forbid—would Palin be entrusted with the office of the President of the United States? Most polls consistently showed that they could not let Palin near the Oval office. The ticket crumbled in an embarrassing fashion.

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