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Evaluating the Paul Ryan Pick

Evaluating the Paul Ryan Pick

By Sean Trende - August 11, 2012


About a month ago, I wrote a piece evaluating Mitt Romney's possible running mate selections. Part of my thinking was that it would be good to lock myself in on the various picks. I rated Paul Ryan in the middle of the pack. Here's what I wrote about him:

The Wisconsin congressman might not have unusually conservative social views, but his economic stance is terrible for a Republican Party that wants to attract blue-collar whites. Romney has endorsed the Ryan budget plan, so maybe his negatives are already built in, and maybe it would be good to have a vice president who could explain that plan well. I doubt that, though; in this case the “no harm” category should probably be a “negative-one.”

Overall, I gave Ryan pluses for being a social conservative (but not over the top), representing a swing state (and a swing area of a swing state, at that), not having Bush ties, and having sufficient experience. I gave him minuses for not representing a swing demographic, not having gubernatorial experience, not having endorsed Romney early, and for being otherwise controversial.

Having had about three hours and four cups of coffee to digest the Ryan pick, I’m still of the same mind. I think this is overall a middling-to-poor choice. But it isn’t a middling pick in the sense that there are a bunch of mushy pros and cons. The pluses and minuses are pretty stark.

Here are some additional thoughts on this (trying to avoid that which has already been said 500 times by others). First, the “not a bad pick” thoughts:

1) This is about Romney picking a veep he’s comfortable with. Ezra Klein writes that this “is an admission of fear from the Romney campaign. You don’t make a risky pick like Paul Ryan if you think the fundamentals favor your candidate.”

This is an easy answer, and it might be correct -- only a handful of people know what is going on in Romney’s inner circle, and what their polling is showing. But I don’t think so. Ryan is a risky pick, but not a panicked pick.

Perhaps most obviously, there wasn’t much evidence that Romney needed to panic. Unlike 2008, the Republican base is pretty well ginned up to vote this time around -- almost all the polling finds GOP enthusiasm outstripping Democratic enthusiasm -- and it has consolidated around Romney. The tracking polls have been stable for three months, as have the swing state polls, as have most of the polls of likely voters.

Indeed, if you were really worried about the Obama campaign’s efforts to tar you as an out-of-touch plutocrat who wanted to destroy the middle class, Paul Ryan would probably be your last choice for veep. Instead, I actually think a candidate like Marco Rubio would have been more of a “Hail Mary” than Ryan: Let’s take a relatively untested candidate from a state that we’ll only lose if we’re losing anyway, to try to win over an unfriendly demographic.

The simplest answer is this: Campaign analysts always say that vice presidential picks don’t matter, and the truth is, they don’t. Even Sarah Palin was something of a wash in 2008, according to the exit polls. The advice given is usually “just pick someone you’re comfortable with.” I really starting thinking seriously about Ryan a few days ago when someone commented that the Wisconsin congressman was the type of guy Romney would have hired at Bain Capital: young, smart, and energetic. It probably isn’t any more complex than that.

In fact, it could just as easily be that Team Romney is convinced that they have an excellent chance of winning, and that Ryan gives them an argument for a mandate to get things done (see No. 3 below) if they win. I don’t see this as the most likely scenario, but I think it’s about as likely as the “panic/fear” scenario.

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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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