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Evaluating the Paul Ryan Pick

By Sean Trende - August 11, 2012

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2) The most commonly discussed negatives here are probably already baked in. I think this is the most important thing for people who are scratching their heads and wondering why Romney would do this. Romney was going to run on the Ryan budget plan no matter what -- in fact, many on the left argue that the entire point of the anti-Bain campaign was to soften Romney up for the Ryan-plan campaign in the fall. In other words, there actually might not have been a downside here.

3) There is ample reason for Democrats to be worried here. Unlike 2008, when the cupboard was so bare that McCain was actively looking at Democrats, there was something of an embarrassment of riches on the Republican side this year. One imagines that the Romney team anticipated the exact downsides that Democrats are chortling about this morning, and for whatever reason, is convinced that they are overstated. There’s something in the focus groups that has them pretty well convinced they can win this election with Paul Ryan on the ticket.

As for the “not a good pick” thoughts:

1) This is probably a missed opportunity for the Romney campaign. There are really two things that a vice president can do: Move the needle a few points in a key state (LBJ in 1960, Lieberman in 2000) or reinforce a message (Gore ’92). With a choice like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio or Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, Romney really could have made a difference in a swing state that could have put him over the top against Obama. Maybe Ryan will reinforce a positive message for Romney that allows him to win, but I’m still skeptical.

2) This probably improves Obama’s chances of winning. The Ryan plan doesn’t exactly have a great track record winning elections: It played a large role in the Republicans’ defeat in a special election in upstate New York in early 2011. Romney’s path to victory involves winning an outsized share of downscale white voters, and this plan presumably makes that task more difficult. Again, maybe the focus-group testing shows that opposition to the president is so strong among these voters that it just doesn’t matter, but I don’t think I’d bet the farm on this.

3) In fact, it opens up an Obama landslide scenario for the first time. I’ve always thought that Obama wouldn’t be able to win more than a two-to-three-point re-election victory, mainly because a president almost never wins the votes of people who disapprove of the job that he is doing, and Obama’s approval rating is unlikely to be much above 50 percent on Election Day. But, while I don’t think it’s guaranteed, this really does give Democrats an opportunity to make Romney so radioactive that people who don’t like the president nevertheless vote for him. If the white working class revolts at the prospect of the Ryan plan, Obama really could match, or even exceed, his 2008 showing.

4) These types of picks rarely end well. When we think back on the “bold” or “unexpected” picks in history, they rarely have good outcomes. Agnew in ’68, Eagleton in ’72, Ferraro in ’84, Quayle in ’88, Kemp in ’96, Palin in ’08 are all looked back on with disfavor. The “good” choices were almost always “safe” choices.

So while I say that something in the focus groups convinced Team Romney that it can win with Ryan, that doesn’t mean that Ryan is somehow bullet-proof. Far from it. Remember, something also convinced Walter Mondale that Geraldine Ferraro was the right choice.

As a final, overarching thought: Democrats should be careful what they wish for here. While I think it is tougher for Romney to win this election with Ryan on the ticket than without, the truth is that vice presidential picks rarely matter, and this race will always have the configuration of a referendum on the incumbent. Ronald Reagan didn’t exactly offer a mushy concoction of focus-group-tested platitudes, and yet he was still able to frame the election by asking people if they were better off than they were four years ago.

Democrats rubbed their hands gleefully at the prospect of facing Reagan in the general election, and the truth is that Reagan probably offered them more targets than, say, Gerald Ford would have. But the result was that the national conversation moved rightward for the following 30 years.

If the Romney-Ryan ticket wins, the message will be that you cannot only touch the third rail of politics and win, but that you can douse yourself in water, put steel boots on, and jump repeatedly on the track. A lot of Republican fears from the 1995-96 debacle will dissipate, and the prospect that Romney will have a consequential presidency will increase dramatically. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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