1. Thomas Eagleton
Thomas Eagleton was briefly the running mate of George McGovern in 1972. Facing a massive uphill battle to defeat Richard Nixon, many of the largest names in the Democratic Party, including cluding Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, and Birch Bayh declined to be on the ticket. As McGovern searched for a running mate, he eventually settled on Tom Eagleton, which ended up being the first of a series of disastrous mistakes made by the McGovern campaign.
Before Eagleton was selected as McGovern’s running mate, he had anonymously given a quote to Robert Novak stating “The people dont know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot.” Nevertheless, Eagleton wasn’t revealed as the source of the quote until after his death, though he knew at the time that it would be costly for his political career should the quote be revealed.
Shortly after Eagleton was selected, it was revealed that he was on Thorazine, a powerful anti-psychotic medicine, and the prescription was written under his wife’s name. Eventually, McGovern discovered that Eagleton’s records contained references to “manic depression” and “suicidal tendencies.” After initially stating his “1000 percent support” of Eagleton, he later asked Eagleton to resign from the ticket.
Despite polling that showed that most Americans would not be swayed by Eagleton’s condition, the press made frequent references to ‘shock therapy’, and McGovern felt it would distract from the platform. However, the damage had already been done. Republicans used the scandal to question McGovern’s decision making, and McGovern only carried 17 electoral votes, and suffered the largest popular vote defeat in American history. Eagleton, on the other hand, was elected to two additional terms in the United States senate before retiring.
2. John Edwards
To be fair to John Kerry, Edwards is really only a bad pick in retrospect. Recall that the Kerry campaign had tried to convince John McCain, a Republican, to come on board as Kerry’s running mate following a poll that showed a Kerry/McCain ticket with a substantial lead over Bush/Chaney. Kerry also lost Gov. Bill Richardson, who was another frontrunner for the position, and eventually settled on John Edwards.
Kerry eventually came to regret the decision, and stated he wished he had never picked Edwards. The two stopped speaking to each other after the campaign ended. Later, Edwards political career would dissolve after it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair with former campaign worker Rielle Hunter while his wife was receiving treatment for breast cancer. While he denied it at first, it was eventually revealed that Edwards had fathered a child with Hunter. Elizabeth Edwards, John’s wife, separated from him and intended to file for divorce. Elizabeth died on December 7, 2010.
3. John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun has the distinction of not only being a two-time awful running mate, but also a two-time awful Vice President. Calhoun, who had previously been a nationalist, became disillusioned when he served under John Quincy Adams. He began to actively oppose the interests of President Adams. By the end of Adams term, Calhoun had joined the ticket of Adams’ opponent, Andrew Jackson, who was elected President.
But things didn’t get any better under Jackson. Calhoun developed a rift with President Jackson shortly after taking office after a disagreement over tariff policy. Calhoun and Jackson eventually came to heads during the Petticoat affair, when Calhoun and his wife actively opposed the marriage of Peggy Timberlake to Senator John Eaton, as Peggy’s husband had very recently passed away. The scandal eventually led to the resignation of much of President Jackson’s cabinet.
Calhoun also developed the theory of nullification, which is a legal theory that a state has the right to nullify, or invalidate, any federal law which that state has deemed unconstitutional. While the theory has never been upheld, it was cited by secessionists in the South during the Civil War and remains a part of the national conversation to this very day.
4. Geraldine Ferraro
Geraldine Ferraro was the running mate of Walter Mondale in 1984 in what can only be described as the least successful Presidential campaign from a major political party in American history. Ferraro was selected after there was a considerable push from womens groups to announce a female running mate, and Mondale selected Ferraro. Ferraro was in her third term as a member of the House of Representatives, and was relatively inexperienced for the position, especially when compared to George H. W. Bush, her opponent.
Ferraro faced intense scrutiny from the media, often being asked if she was tough enough for the position. While her nomination was considered a watershed moment, women in America did not respond with the enthusiasm that the Mondale campaign had expected.
Ferraro’s inexperience on a national scale continued to harm the campaign when issues involving her tax returns being separate from her husband’s were revealed. For the first time in history, the vetting of a husband rather than a wife of a candidate was taking place, and it raised new challenges that Ferraro, in retrospect, was not ready to handle. When she announced that her husband would not be releasing his tax returns, she joked “You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it’s like,” which played to stereotypes and angered some in the Italian-American community.
This caused a media firestorm, as there was now intense scrutiny onto Ferraro’s finances, and the right viewed the issue as something they could attack Ferraro on without accusations of sexism. A week later they released her husband’s tax returns, but the damage was already done. In the end, Reagan won 55% of women voters and also achieved the highest number of Catholic voters for a Republican candidate at that time, despite Ferraro’s faith.
5. Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr was selected as Thomas Jefferson’s running mate in the first American election where the President and the Vice President were linked on a ticket. In the first three elections the top two candidates would be named President and Vice President, respectively. However, this caused some problems as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson disagreed on just about everything. As such, for the 1800 elections, it was determined that the parties would nominate two candidates, one a main candidate (Jefferson) and one a backup candidate (Burr).
This caused issues as the two men eventually tied for the office of President. Burr did not remove his name, and the House of Representatives entered a stalemate in voting, as each vote ended with the two men at a tie. It was eventually solved after 36 votes that Jefferson would become the next President of the United States when several federalists left their ballots blank. Despite the fact that Burr never left Albany, New York during the stalemate, Jefferson never trusted Burr, and his first term was spent largely during his time in the U.S. Senate.
It became clear that Burr would be dropped from the ticket, and he instead chose to run for Governor of New York. This would lead to opposition from Alexander Hamilton (who was instrumental in assuring that Burr was not voted President by the House of Representatives in the first place), and tensions flared between the two. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, and while both men shot, Hamilton missed, while Burr fatally wounded Hamilton. Despite the fact that the duel was illegal, Burr was never convicted for the crime.
After Burr was dropped from the ticket and his duel with Hamilton ended in his opponent’s death, Burr’s political stock plummeted. He eventually moved west, where his actions would lead him to be charged with treason (he was acquitted) and a massive pile of debt. He would move to Europe for a few years before returning to New York to practice law until his death.
6. William E. Miller
Bill Miller wasn’t a bad choice for a running mate. He had prosecuted Nazis during the Nuremberg trials. He was a former New York State Attorney General, a U.S. Congressman and was head of the Republican National Committee when he was selected as Barry Goldwater’s running mate. Miller’s main contribution to the ticket was he was extremely disliked by President Johnson.
Miller, while not being a drag on the ticket (as Goldwater proved to be drag enough), did not provide much of anything positive to the ticket, and went largely ignored during the campaign. This led to his appearance in one of American Express’ “Do you know who I am?” advertisements, after he had campaigned as Goldwater’s VP nominee. Miller was a completely forgettable part of Goldwater’s failed 1964 White House bid.
7. Dan Quayle
Dan Quayle has what is perhaps the most well known gaffe in American history, when he erroneously corrected a child’s spelling of “potato” in a school spelling bee to “potatoe”. This was in the midst of the 1992 election season, and seriously hurt Quayle’s ability to be viewed as a serious candidate, as it reinforced already growing concerns about Quayle’s viability as a Vice President.
Quayle was selected by George H. W. Bush in 1988. Quayle was selected after two dominating victories in Senate races in Indiana, including a victory over longtime Democrat stalwart Birch Bayh. However, his nomination was met with some unease among Republicans, namely because of concerns about Quayle’s military service and his lack of experience. Quayle was creamed in the Vice Presidential debate against Lloyd Bentsen. When questioned about his inexperience, Quayle attempted to cite John F. Kennedy as an example of inexperience paying off. This led Bensten to famously quip “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Despite Quayle’s missteps, the Bush/Quayle ticket was elected.
That said, Quayle did himself no favors as Vice President, frequently making confused, meandering, or otherwise impossible or incorrect statements, such as stating “I have made good judgments in the future”, misstating the mission statement of the United Negro College Fund, and suggesting there were canals on Mars.
This came to a head during the 1992 campaign. Shortly before his “potatoe” gaffe, Quayle gave a speech during the L.A. Race Riots. In the speech, Quayle blamed what he called “the decay of American society” for some of the problems, and cited the television program Murphy Brown as an example of such decay. Quayle took specific objection to the portrayal of the lead character as a single mother with no need for a father.
8. Adm. James Stockdale
As bad as Quayle’s performance was in 1992, it was nothing compared to the debate performance of James Stockdale, who was running as a third party candidate with Ross Perot. Perot had, at one point, suspended his campaign which led to Stockdale being unaware he was going to be in the Vice Presidential Debate until a week before it was held. Stockdale had no formal preparation for the debate and did not discuss political issues with Perot beforehand.
When asked for an opening statement by debate moderator Hal Bruno, Stockdale responded with “Who am I? Why am I here?” The self-deprecating joke at his own expense was well received initially by the crowd, but would later become infamous. Later in the debate Stockdale needed a question repeated because he had turned off his hearing aid, and the informal nature of the debate hurt the woefully under-prepared Stockdale.
A week later, Saturday Night Live parodied the events, with Phil Hartman, one of the shows best talents, portrayed Stockdale as aloof and slow-witted. His public perception never recovered and, while Perot and Stockdale performed admirably for a independent Presidential campaign, they failed to carry a single state in the election.
9. Spiro Agnew
Spiro Agnew was selected to be Richard Nixon’s running mate to complete Nixon’s southern strategy. He was largely selected because he was from Maryland, and could identify with Southerners without scaring away Northerners. That didn’t stop Agnew regularly using racial slurs on the campaign trail (calling one photographer a “Fat Jap”) or lambasting what he called the “nattering nabobs” of the media and “effete snobs.”
Still, Agnew was remarkably popular among his base, Southern Republicans, so much so that Nixon declined to replace him on the ticket in 1972, fearing an uprising from members of his own party. Still, Nixon had all but frozen Agnew out of the White House, closing him out from important decisions and reducing his influence in general. When asked by staffer John Ehrlichman why he left Agnew on the ticket, Nixon responded that, with Agnew as Vice President No assassin in his right mind would kill me.”
In the early days of the Watergate Scandal, it was revealed that Agnew had accepted bribes while Governor of Maryland. Agnew was forced to resign as Vice President, and was replaced by Gerald Ford. He was also subsequently disbarred by the State of Maryland. Agnew’s resignation would be the first of many to come during the second term of the Nixon administration. Nixon and Agnew never spoke after his resignation, though Agnew did attend Nixon’s funeral at the request of Nixon’s daughters.
10. Sarah Palin
The half-term Governor from Alaska is widely recognized as the single most glaring reason for John McCain’s defeat in 2008. She has sparked thousands of jokes and parodies, and, while remaining a largely comic figure among the public as a whole, remains a popular figure inside of the Republican party.
Palin was selected after very little vetting by the McCain camp, who was facing an insurgent Barack Obama who had historical context on his side. Palin, at the time a little known figure, was shown to be either unable or unwilling to answer simple questions during debates or interviews, often whiffing at even softball questions like “what newspapers do you read.” Much like Admiral Stockdale, a Saturday Night Live parody image of her emerged (former President Gerald Ford also suffered this fate) that she was unable to overcome, and was largely viewed as unready for the office of Vice President. This was compounded by McCain’s age when compared to Obama, as many viewed it more likely that Palin would be thrust into the Presidency, should McCain become elected.
These issues were compounded by the fact that, before her selection, the most effective attacks the McCain campaign had on Barack Obama were his relative inexperience. The selection of Palin severely neutered those attacks, as she was views as having much less experience and credentials than Obama. In contrast, Obama selected Joe Biden, a six-term Senator and the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as his running mate, widening the perceived gap between the two campaigns.
The McCain staff became increasingly frustrated with Palin, and sheltered her from unscripted encounters from the press, an action that was eventually criticized by Mitt Romney and Bill Kristol. In late September, conservative commentator Kathleen Parker suggested that Palin should resign from the ticket, while former Bush speechwriter David Frum said she had proven she was not qualified for the office. The McCain campaign quickly came to resent Palin, and eventually blamed her for the loss to Obama.
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Palin gave McCain a big bump. It was only when his aides advised him to ‘suspend’ his campaign to go to DC to solve the financial meltdown that his campaign plummeted and never recovered. He only has Schmidt and Wallace to blame. They ran a terrible campaign and then managed to blame it all on Palin. Palin will prevail.
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I’d question the inclusion of the innocuous William E. Miller on this list. While he might not have been memorable, he was hardly one of the 10 Worst. How about including Nixon in ‘52? The “Checkers” speech is a masterpiece of unintentional low comedy. With Agnew, Quayle, and Palin, the GOP does seem to show an increasing fondness for nominating dimwits and buffoons for the VP spot. Which means we may not have heard the last of Rick Perry.
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