Trump vs. Clinton: Here's who has the advantage in the VP race

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro introduces presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton at a 'Latinos for Hillary' grassroots event October 15, 2015 in San Antonio, Texas.
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Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro introduces presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton at a 'Latinos for Hillary' grassroots event October 15, 2015 in San Antonio, Texas.

With the release of a shocking NY Times/CBS Poll showing the race for the White House now tied at 40 percent for each candidate, who Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump choose for VP just became a lot more significant. So, with just hours before Trump's potential VP announcement, and less than a week before Clinton's, these are the five things to look for over the coming days that will help decide which campaign has the advantage, and whether Clinton's and Trump's VP choices are political "winners" or "losers."

First: What’s their Message?

For Hillary Clinton, it's fair to assume that her "VP message" will stress experience, competence, and unity. No need to be uber-bold, so don't expect a progressive liberal, like a Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont or Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, as VP. Message-wise, she can afford to play it safer – she's ahead. But what does Donald Trump do? For Trump, the stakes of getting this "message" wrong are very high. Does he double-down on his brashness, or does he try to unify his party with a more conservative choice (think Indiana Gov. Mike Pence)? If Trump chooses brashness, former House speaker Newt Gingrich is the choice, and if Clinton focuses on unity or competence, expect Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro or Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Advantage: Clinton.

Second: Are they spotlight ready?

For candidates who have never been exposed to the national spotlight, it's not the kick-off the speech that will define them, it's the first series of national interviews. The VP will not only have to display competence, but must effectively defend everything their running mate has ever done or said. For candidates like a Gov. Chris Christie from New Jersey or a Vilsack, they may have the background to handle this pressure. But if the candidate is fairly new to the coming political maelstrom, such as a Castro or retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, one wrong answer can quickly overtake a campaign. And, if anyone doesn't think that matters they should just ask Sarah Palin.

Advantage: Trump, but could be a tie: If Trump chooses Gingrich or Christie, they're more spotlight ready on paper than if Clinton chooses Castro or Perez. Less so if she goes with Kaine or Warner.

Third: Who wins the media war?

Now, historically, this really doesn't matter. It's not as if Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, or George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were charismatic dynamic duos. But this is a different media age. Voters' preferences are influenced and shaped by the social media and earned media they consume. If your ticket doesn't look or feel right, tweeted social memes will expose every awkward handshake, hug, and smile in a millisecond. While earned media is all but guaranteed, voters will watch, for good and bad, a ticket that attracts more earned media attention. Which leads to the question – which ticket will garner more media attention? Well, if you haven't been watching the last year, it will be Trump, and that suggests he picks Gingrich or Christie, not Pence. For Hillary, it's not as clear. If the idea is to generate more excitement, via a new face, Castro seems a more likely choice, or maybe there is a dark horse no one sees coming.

Advantage: Trump, big time (if he picks Christie or Gingrich). Hillary can come close, if she picks Castro.

Fourth: Do they help in November?

If the first electoral rule of VP selection is "do no harm," the second rule is can they win some votes.

For Trump, among the top names being floated for VP, their value, demographically or electoral-college vote wise, seems limited. Christie can't help in New Jersey, he is disliked by much of the conservative elite base, and it's not clear what demographic he helps win over. Others, like Pence may help with some conservative red-states, but if Trump really needs help there, this race is already over. Gingrich doesn't expand the map or help make inroads with any key demographic group. The smarter option would be for Trump to choose a candidate, like Sen. Joni Ernst, from Iowa, or Gov. Mary Fallin from Oklahoma, who could help Trump win back some women voters, or disaffected Republicans.

Hillary, in contrast, is swimming in good choices. Vilsack, as a former governor, helps in Iowa and the Midwest. Tim Kaine or Mark Warner helps in Virginia and among moderates. In comparison, Perez or Castro will help mobilize and reach Hispanic voters in key states, like Nevada and Florida.

Advantage: Clinton (unless Trump stuns with a pick that appeals to a key demographic).

Fifth: When to announce

Because the Republican convention is first, Trump must announce his VP first, and that gives Clinton a big advantage. Imagine, Clinton announcing the VP selection on Thursday, July 19th, the very day Trump is supposed to give his acceptance speech. It's fair to say that Trump would be, at a minimum, distracted. More likely, it would enrage him. But, it could get worse for Trump. If Clinton and her VP were to hold their first public events the very morning following the GOP convention, it would shift media coverage away from Trump. And, if the event were to be historically significant, such as Castro or Perez, it would not only take Trump's media coverage away, it could lead to his head exploding.

Advantage: Clinton, big time!

One thing is clear, regardless of who Trump or Clinton pick, Hillary Clinton has an advantage in the VP race, for now. And, if that stands, Trump's ability to win the White House just became more difficult than it already was.

Commentary by Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and CEO of Park Street Strategies. Follow him on Twitter @chriskofinis.

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