It's far too easy to crash the vice presidential shortlist these days. And the secrecy of the process lends itself to an open season of VP speculation.
Many voters take the news stories of shortlisters at face value. Those more cynical know how little it takes to start a rumor and create a trending topic. "All it takes is a well-placed whisper," the Associated Press' Nancy Benac wrote recently, "to land on the veep list."
The Drudge Report, for example, claimed last month that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was at the top of Mitt Romney's shortlist for running mates. Although Rice would naturally be mentioned in most cycles, she had already taken herself out of the running this year. Moreover, her pro-choice position on abortion always made her an unlikely pick. Nevertheless, the story ricocheted around the political world, spiking in online searches above that of the consistently named and putative real-life shortlisters.
The opposite phenomenon can also occur. ABC's Jonathan Karl reported in June that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was not being vetted by Romney, according to "knowledgeable" GOP sources. The ensuing melee -- taking the report as Gospel -- forced Romney to come forward days later and announce that Rubio was in contention.
New names come from a variety of sources with differing motivations. First, in today's fast-paced media climate, the pressure to break a story may lead journalists to jump on any hint or rumor. The echoing of the recent Rice story is an example.
Sometimes, elected officials exaggerate their progress in the vice presidential process -- and it's easy to do, because they have very little chance of being disproved. They may hope to boost their re-election chances back home or parlay the attention into a future run for national office.
For example, Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., claimed in 2004 that John Kerry's team "vetted" him before he ultimately withdrew his name in order to serve out his governorship. Later reporting found that Richardson only underwent a preliminary vetting (though he surely passed an extensive investigation years earlier when he joined Bill Clinton's Cabinet). But Richardson's consideration in 2004 boosted his credentials when he sought the Democratic nomination for president four years later. Thus, the perception of being courted for the ticket is valuable politically, regardless of what occurs behind closed doors.
In other cases, a faction within a party may promote one if its favorites in hopes of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy if its choice catches fire. The campaign, meanwhile, has no incentive to squelch the story. It can mollify a constituency or interest group and stoke its enthusiasm for the nominee. In this year's race, news of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's status as plausible Romney picks has certainly resonated with the conservative base of the party.
Other times, the campaign itself can plant a story or misdirection. Karl Rove wrote in his book that he gave a "secretive leak" to the press that former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., would be George W. Bush's choice in 2000, to hide Dick Cheney's selection.
Such sleight of hand can succeed because the selection process is shrouded in secrecy. In 1992, the Chicago Tribune and other outlets reported two weeks before the Democratic convention that Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., was on Clinton's shortlist. The press had seen Kerrey at the venue where Clinton held his final interviews. Newsweek wrote after the election that Kerrey had swung by uninvited that day -- crashing the media's shortlist.
So how do we determine bogus floats? Perhaps by equal parts research, context and credibility of the story. Or maybe we just can't.
Adam Silbert, an attorney, served as a deputy field organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign.