By Patrick Murray
Looking at it from a number of ways, it’s difficult to see how the selection of Paul Ryan as vice presidential nominee makes Mitt Romney’s path to 270 Electoral College votes any easier.
This has nothing to do with Congressman Ryan’s qualifications to be vice president. He’s smart, thoughtful and policy driven. He clearly passes the primary hurdle: Can this person step in if something happens to the president. By that measure, Mitt Romney made a solid pick that reflects well on his decision-making ability as a potential chief executive – which is after all how voters really assess the meaning of the VP selection.
Moreover, Paul Ryan has the potential – albeit untested – to be good on the stump. His personable demeanor and command of the issues should serve him well in that capacity.
The primary reason for rating this pick as a net negative is how it changes the narrative in a way that likely makes it easier for Barack Obama’s campaign to pick up voters who matter most.
As with other recent presidential contests, this race comes down to just 20 percent of the potential electorate in about a dozen swing states. Most states are too “red” or “blue” to be in play. And even in the few competitive states, about 4-in-5 voters have already locked in their choice.
Many proponents of the choice point out that Paul Ryan should play well among voters in those states. And I fully expect that polls from now through the Tampa convention will give Romney a bounce. But it’s important to look past the ephemeral horse race numbers and examine the underlying dynamic on the issue that may now drive this race – namely, who is better positioned to use Medicare to their advantage?
While polls show that voters tend to side with Ryan on debt reduction, past history shows that national debt and federal budget deficits take a back seat to other issues for undecided voters.
Here’s my initial take on why the pick was made and why it may be a net negative.
Some say Romney needed to energize his base. That’s baloney. As the GOP primary exit polls indicated – supporters of Romney’s more conservative opponents would eventually get in line. He might have some trouble with the Ron Paul crowd, but they lack an alternative in November.
By election day, antipathy toward Obama would make the GOP electorate a sure bet to turn out. Furthermore, Romney’s stellar fundraising numbers suggest that any lack of enthusiasm his campaign is hearing from conservative activists is out of proportion to its practical impact.
Some also say a “boring” pick would have dragged down the ticket. Wrong. That news “story” would have lasted a week. It would have taken a back seat by Tampa specifically because of its lack of controversy. Some say Romney needed to take control of the narrative. This part is true. But the Ryan pick doesn’t do that. And here’s where the risk lies.
Up until now the election was about jobs and the economy. Paul Ryan charged in his first appearance as the putative nominee that President Obama was able to get every item on his agenda passed in his first two years and things still didn’t get better. The Romney campaign has not been able to focus undecided voters fully on this message.
However, rather than changing the narrative, the Ryan pick actually amplifies the trajectory of the current one.
To date, the Obama camp has nullified the Romney attacks by basically making a tacit admission that they haven’t been successful in sparking job growth, but they have tried. The underlying message is that at least they care about it, whereas Mitt Romney is, at best out of touch and at worst contemptuous of the middle class.
Mitt Romney now has to answer for the Ryan budget plan, despite his claim that he has his own plan. And that doesn’t change the narrative, but amplifies the current one. The Obama line now will be: “Not only does Romney want to kill jobs, he wants to take away your safety net too.”
Those attacks can be characterized as distortions and perhaps outright lies. But it doesn’t matter when you understand what best motivates the 20 percent of voters up for grabs in those swing states. And that is fear.
These are people who, for the most part, have been able to hold on to their jobs and muddle through the economic doldrums. But they aren’t enthused about the incumbent’s performance.
A good number of these potential voters were Obama supporters in 2008. They won’t vote for a Republican, but were likely to sit this one out. They are doing OK and don’t see Romney as a threat to their current well-being. However, they are counting on Medicare coverage because they won’t have enough money to pay for private health care when they retire. These are the sleeping dogs that the Ryan pick now threatens to waken.
Other voters in that 20 percent block are typical undecided voters. They don’t pay close attention to policy and tend to vote with their gut. It’s much easier to make someone afraid of the unknown than the known. And that probably means that Florida, where the current polling average has the race at 1 or 2 point margin, is probably now off the table.
On the face of it, the Ryan pick should have been a boon to voters. It took an esoteric debate about management style and potentially raises it to a dialogue about clearly different visions on government’s role in society.
Unfortunately, that conversation will be drowned out by what will probably be the nastiest presidential campaign of the media age.
Patrick Murray is the founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.