In my view, there are a number of misconceptions regarding the implications of the Ryan pick for the presidential election that are being exacerbated by the twitter-driven, echo-chamber nature of what passes for political discourse these days.
Misconception one is that this suddenly changes this election from being a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy into a choice between competing visions about the role of government. It does not – because this election has always been both a referendum and a choice. The notion that campaigns are either one or the other is wrong; political scientists (at least in recent decades) have argued that there are elements of both retrospective and prospective voting in presidential elections. That’s why party affiliation rates, while largely stable, nonetheless do change from election to election. Voters are, in effect, keeping a running tally regarding the relative merits of the two parties, and that evaluation is affected both by assessments of the current party’s performance but also by how voters feel the out-party has performed in the past. The Ryan pick does nothing to change this general calculus.
The second misconception is that voters will carefully consider the details of the Ryan budget plan as part of their vote calculus, and that this assessment will determine whether they can support Romney. It is true that pundits have gotten deep into the weeds of Ryan’s budget proposal during the past 48 hours, with both sides trotting out studies showing how it will save/wreck Medicare, help/hurt seniors, increase/decrease the budget and lower/raise middle class taxes. But for most voters these details don’t and won’t matter for two simple reasons. First, because Romney is at the top of the ticket, he has the luxury of selectively incorporating elements of the Ryan plan into the Romney plan, which is what he will run on. Second, like all presidential candidates, Romney will paint his campaign using broad thematic strokes, not pointillist policy proclamations. Remember Nixon’s “secret plan” to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam? Or how Reagan would bolster defense spending, cut taxes and balance the budget? The reasons these campaigns frames worked is because enough voters were dissatisfied with the status quo to take a flier on an alternative, if poorly specified, vision. Romney didn’t choose Ryan because he embraced Ryan’s budget – he chose him to reinforce his preferred campaign frame that the economy is in trouble, and that Romney is a problem-solver. Ryan’s reputation, deserved or not, as a policy wonk complements this frame.
The third misconception is that by choosing Ryan, who is a movement conservative, Romney missed his chance to appeal to independents, particularly low-income and middle-class whites, and seniors in key battleground states who may still be undecided. Instead, this pick appeals more to the Republican party base, but because they already back Romney, Ryan adds little to ticket. The reality is that Ryan is largely a blank slate to most voters, as are the details of his budget. This provides some flexibility for Romney and Ryan to begin filling in that slate with their preferred spin, including amending or even disavowing portions of the Ryan budget. (Keep in mind that when the Ryan budget was described to a focus group, using Ryan’s own words, a slim majority of those surveyed actually supported it.) Of course, Democrats will be doing the same. Critics contend that once Democrats point out the implications of the Ryan budget for programs such as Medicare, the Ryan budget will become a drag on the ticket, detracting from efforts to make this election about the economy. I think that may be true for some voters. But I also think that when confronted with competing frames, there will be little net movement among voters based solely on their assessment of the Ryan budget – or on Ryan himself.
There is always a tendency for the media, particularly in the news-starved period that is August, to overreact to these types of political events. Pundits have been quick to analyze what the Ryan pick tells us about Romney’s campaign strategy, and to assert that this high risk-high reward type of pick is destined to shake up the race. But we should not let the sheer volume of media analyses blind us to a third potential outcome: that the pick will be largely inconsequential. Romney, after all, still heads the Republican ticket and the economic fundamentals will still likely drive the decision for most voters.