Presidential running mates are often chosen not for their leadership or grasp of issues, but as a way to “complete” the candidate’s image to voters, either by complementing their better qualities or ameliorating their weaknesses.
As a result, voters forget that the VP has the very real responsibility to lead the country if the president dies, is removed from office or is otherwise unable to carry out the duties of the office. One in five presidents has failed to complete his term due to natural death, assassination or the threat of impeachment. Each time, their vice presidents found themselves in charge of, well, everything. This could happen again.
Consider Sen. Barack Obama, a 47-year-old male. Actuaries tell us that your average 47-year-old man today has a 5 percent chance of dying before Inauguration Day 2017, the date that would mark the end of a two-term presidency. However, in addition to natural death, one in 10 presidents have been assassinated, and there always exists a tiny risk of impeachment. Accounting for those risks, if elected for two terms, Obama has an estimated 16 percent chance of not finishing his eight years in office — a 1-in-6 shot that Sen. Joe Biden will be called on to complete Obama’s presidency.
The odds for his counterpart, Sen. John McCain, are significantly greater — and in fact, a lot higher than the roughly 1-in-3 chances reported by most media outlets.
True, your average 72-year-old man has about a 35 percent chance of dying before 2017, according to the actuaries. Factor in the assassination and impeachment risks, however, and that number increases to about 45 percent. Additionally, approximately a quarter of people in their late 70s suffer some cognitive difficulties, according to a March 1995 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine; the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Mayo Clinic Study of Aging report approximately a 9 percent chance that a sharp-witted 72-year-old man will develop moderate to severe cognitive impairment by the time he turns 80.
Add it all up, and you can make the statistical argument that if McCain tries for two full terms, there is only about a 50 percent chance he will make it through all eight years alive, unimpeached and with most of his faculties intact. That gives McCain running mate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, roughly a 50 percent chance — the proverbial flip of the coin — of becoming the next-next president of the United States.
This is not to say voters should make their decisions based on the possibility that either candidate may for some reason be unable to fulfill his duties. However, given the chances that Biden or Palin could become president, Americans have to take a good look at them and ask: “Do I want this person running this country?”