August Madness

Call this “August Madness.”

And much like March Madness dominates the collegiate basketball world, August Madness imposes a similar mania on American politics.

But there are differences.

March Madness is an annual affliction. August Madness is a quadrennial exercise.

The partisans of perennial basketball powerhouses like Kentucky, Georgetown, Duke, North Carolina, UConn – along with the faithful from underdog institutions like Rider and IUPUI – all crowd around the television sets for a hallowed tradition known as “Selection Sunday.”

Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s on the bubble? They drew Gonzaga? They don’t match up well against Marquette. Why do they have to play all the way out in Salt Lake City? Look down the brackets a few games for that potential Cincinnati-Ohio State matchup in the East Regional.

In fact, anyone who watches the Selection Show on CBS knows that production is nearly as fascinating at the tournament itself.

Which brings us to the drawn-out selection show now playing out on the American political scene: the pick of a vice presidential nominee.

This is August Madness. And political observers are dialed-in to a extended version of Selection Sunday as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney chooses a running mate.

Is it Pawlenty? Can you imagine a Chris Christie in a debate with Biden? He’ll never pick Condoleezza Rice. She’s pro-choice. Paul Ryan’s heading to Colorado. Why so many last-minute changes to Kelly Ayotte’s Wikipedia entry? Is Rob Portman’s hotel and restaurant haunted? Think Rubio bolsters the Latino vote?

This conjecture has gone on for weeks. And could continue for a few more.

So why all of the attention? Do vice presidential picks mean that much?

It’s kind of like March Madness. Once you get through the selection show, everyone can begin filling out their brackets. But so far, the likes of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rob Portman (R-OH), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others are still running up and down the court in the play-in game.

The NCAA always hosts the play-in games at the University of Dayton. That’s typically where teams on the bubble compete for the final tournament slots. Once those games are over, the field is set and people can begin bracketology. Perhaps its only appropriate that four years ago Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) shocked the establishment when he drafted then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and introduced her to the political world in the shadow of Dayton’s city limits.

It’s unclear if Dayton could again mirror the NCAA tournament this presidential cycle. Romney could always head to Dayton in the middle of a must-win swing state to roll out Portman just up the road from his home in the Cincinnati suburbs. And Ryan went to school about an hour’s drive from Dayton at Miami University (OH).

But regardless, no one can finish their brackets and truly evaluate the shape of the 2012 presidential sweepstakes until Romney makes his VP selection.

People study the pick of a running mate to see clues about how a candidate thinks or might govern.

A good example of this came on the Democratic side in 1992, Bill Clinton narrowed his final VP possibilities to then-Sen. Al Gore (D-TN) and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A Clinton-Gore ticket represented youth. It also demonstrated Clinton’s commitment to courting southern Democrats who had abandoned the party. With Hamilton, Clinton sought experience, particularly in the foreign policy realm. As longtime governor of Arkansas, Clinton had a limited international relations portfolio. Hamilton shored up that deficiency. In addition, the Indiana Democrat provided “balance” to the ticket as he was pro-life. Furthermore, a Hamilton selection offered inside-outside balance. Clinton was the outsider. As a Congressman for nearly 30 years at that point, Hamilton was the consummate inside-the-Beltway operator. Finally, a Hamilton selection offered an equilibrium to the ticket: a sober, veteran lawmaker to contrast with Clinton’s relative youth.

In the end, Clinton of course tapped Gore.

Some observers evaluate a vice presidential pick as the first major decision of the nominee. In 1988, many maligned George H.W. Bush for selecting then-Sen. Dan Quayle (R-IN). Quayle was a relative unknown outside of Washington and the Hoosier State. Quayle’s repeated gaffes prompted journalists and voters alike to openly question the quality of Bush’s pick and the GOP nominee’s decision-making process.

But at the end of the day, the selection of a running-mate is all about generating anticipation and buzz.

Just like Selection Sunday.

There’s been little “buzz” surrounding Romney since he dispatched his GOP rivals for the nomination in the spring. He certainly got a boost in the polls as the presumptive nominee in the spring. But Romney’s done little to move the meter since then – except perhaps in the swing state of Colorado. Plus, virtually nothing’s been decided at a political convention in more than half a century. They’re not even week-long infomercials any more as only C-SPAN televises them gavel-to-gavel. So the true focus falls not on the conventions but in choosing a running mate.

The pick of Sarah Palin four years ago was dramatic. It ultimately didn’t do much for McCain at the ballot box. But few saw the Palin selection coming. In 2008, President Obama closed the Democratic National Convention with a show stopping speech at Invesco Field in Denver. The Democrats stuck to the script for the first three days of the convention as the party’s stars spoke indoors at the Pepsi Center. But the party changed things up for the final day by filling an 80,000+ seat football stadium for Mr. Obama’s keynote.

The president delivered a spellbinding speech.

And then McCain neutralized that boost in less than 24 hours by unveiling Palin at Wright State University near Dayton.

Even then-candidate Obama sparked interest with his VP pick.

For the first time ever, the Obama campaign decided to announce the running mate via text message. The campaign encouraged people to sign up on their mobile devices. Millions did so.

And then the chase began.

Was it then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE)? Then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D)? What about then-Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN)? The speculation was rampant. TV news crews swarmed the homes of all possibilities, documenting who came and went from the properties and noting if food was delivered.

Even little-known then-Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) got some play when his name was tossed into the ring. Some thought Mr. Obama had selected a dark horse when a TV news crew in Texas caught up with Edwards packing luggage into his car to go to the airport.

Then came fake text messages. Pranksters sent out bogus text alerts declaring that Kaine or Bayh was the pick.

It was quite a roller-coaster.

But what did this process do? It ginned up attention. It energized prospective voters from both sides of the aisle. And it earned the campaign millions of phone numbers to use for grassroots organizing. The conventions are vanilla affairs bereft of news these days. But you can sure stoke the political embers with the selection of a running mate.

Most politicos are now tuned in to who Romney may ask to join him on the ticket. There’s a lot of speculation. But it sure is a lot of fun to watch. Just like the CBS selection show every March.

Call it August Madness. Pretty soon, everyone will know who’s in the tournament and they can finish making out their brackets.

Be careful when picking those games between number five versus number 12 seeded teams.

Because just like in the NCAA tournament, be ready for upsets.