In the later episodes of The West Wing, Matt Santos, a Democratic congressman from Texas and a former Mayor of Houston took on Arnold Vinick, a veteran Republican senator from California for the presidency.
Santos had just a few years in national politics. Three congressional terms, to be exact, amounting to six years. Vinick, on the other hand, had decades of experience navigating the byzantine customs of the Capitol.
Jimmy Smits played Santos. Alan Alda played Vinick. Each wanted to succeed President Jed Bartlet, the former Governor of New Hampshire with a Nobel Prize in Economics. Bartlet had also served as a congressman. Former Bartlet Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford, sees the congressman’s incredible intuition for all things politics.
Consequently, he persuades Santos to abandon a plan to retire from politics. Lyman, with his own political intuition backed by eagerness, believes that Santos can be a viable contender for the presidency. A novice at politics on a presidential scale, Santos proves himself a quick learner.
Vinick, though, triggers fear in the Democratic party because of his moderate leanings that may attract independent voters plus some democrats. President Bartlet’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry emphasizes Vinick’s ability to ignite enthusiasm in front of crowds. Combined with his deep political experience, Vinick has a brand name quality in politics.
For his running mate, Vinick chooses Ray Sullivan, the Governor of West Virginia. Sullivan has strong conservative credentials, which will allow Vinick to maintain, and perhaps strengthen, his base. Santos chooses McGarry, a terrific administrator with unparalleled political instinct. Among his credentials, McGarry once served as Secretary of Labor.
This fictional presidential election featured one debate and a Democratic National Convention with ballots, contrasting the present day elections where three or four debates are standard operating procedure and the candidates are already known before the conventions. Santos wins the Democratic nomination after an inspiring speech to the delegates.
John Spencer’s death in December 2005 left a void that the writers of The West Wing incorporated into the show. They constructed a story about McGarry dying of a heart attack on election night. It was not a terrific stretch in the show’s universe because McGarry suffered from major heart problems, including a heart attack in a prior season.
Santos wins the election. His choice for a new Vice President is the Governor of Pennsylvania, himself a former candidate for the White House. Simply, Santos wants a Vice President with executive experience. Reflecting his practical approach, Santos asks Vinick to be his Secretary of State because Vinick has valuable relationships with the diplomatic corps.
A 2006 article in The New York Times by Jacques Steinberg highlighted the original plan for Vinick’s victory. “At the time of Mr. Spencer’s death, the plot for last night’s episode had been set: the election was to be won by Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick, a maverick Republican (modeled a bit on Senator John McCain), whom many Democrats (including the Democrats who write the show) could learn to love.”
Spencer’s death caused the change because the writers believed that a loss of a presidential election plus his running mate would be an emotional burden for the viewers to carry.
Vinick hailed from Santa Paula, the Citrus Capital of the World. Santa Paula has been a location for several popular culture offerings, including the music video for Desert Moon.