Three Misconceptions About the Ryan Pick

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.


  1. Counterpoint: By picking Ryan, Romney is essentially adopting his budget and his solution to Medicare. All of the talk shows focused on “Ryan’s solution” to Medicare. I know you think the pundits are usually wrong, but they do get a lot of ink and face time.

    So if Romney doesn’t agree with Ryan’s solution to Medicare, doesn’t he have to come up with his own? And if it isn’t compatible with Ryan’s, doesnt it put them at cross purposes?

    The picking of Ryan is a great gift to the electorate. Now, I believe, we will have some substantive debate on how we solve our fiscal problems. Obama had better be ready with some details or Romney and Ryan will eat his lunch. And we can have a national debate on two different philosophies of government.

    Bravo Mitt.

  2. Jack,

    You make excellent points, ones that I think with which a lot of people will agree. But I think your own words provide my answer: “All of the talk shows focused on ‘Ryan’s solution’ to Medicare. And that’s my point: they debated the “solution”, but came to no agreement. And no one but policy wonks could follow the debate – and probably only policy wonks were watching! I hardly call that a substantive debate – it was more the typical cable-based food fight between talking heads. Moreover, there’s no reason why Romney has to embrace his VP candidate’s policy views, any more than Reagan accepted Bush’s portrayal of “Reaganomics” as “voodoo economics”, or Obama agreed with Biden’s proposal to let Iraq break into three relatively autonomous zones, or Kerry adopted Edwards’ tax policies. Romney heads the ticket, not vice versa. It’s Ryan who has to adopt Romney’s views, and campaign on them – no matter what the pundits may say.

  3. But Romney differs from Reagan, Obama, and even Kerry in that he doesn’t really have any real views. I agree that it’s being overstated how much Romney’s choosing Ryan is an endorsement of Ryan’s radical philosophy of government, but I understand why Romney’s blank-slate, my-views-will-be-what-I-need-them-to-be quality would lead people to think that Romney will embrace Ryan’s views.

  4. I’m wondering, Matt (and here, I’m speaking from across the pond, and am only now listening to the podcasts of morning talking head shows today), if you think that Ryan’s high profile in budget issues, and the target that has been put on his back for more than a year by Team Obama, makes this somewhat different than, say, Edwards’ tax policies, or Biden’s Iraq policy. Since Obama was already planning to make the Romney embrace of the Ryan budget plan a key part of the campaign, on the negative side, doesn’t this actually matter more, in the end, as a campaign theme, going forward? I realize, of course, the point on the fundamentals (and agree), but when it comes, in particular, to older voters in some key states, perhaps the Ryan budget will be a larger issue than it is for some of these other vice presidential positions?

    And hey, looking forward to your next Economist post–coming out tomorrow?

  5. Toren,

    I think you are right – Romney’s political persona is less well-defined than was Reagan’s, although I’m not sure I would make the same claim in comparison to Obama circa 2008. But your more general point, I think, is correct – that by choosing Ryan, it appears to many people that Romney is embracing Ryan’s budget plan in its entirety. This was Jack’s point as well, and I think the Democrats will do their darndest to make it so. But I also think Romney and his surrogates will push back on this. The key is whether they can do so without making this a referendum on Ryan, as opposed to a referendum on Obama. That’s why I think Romney’s preferred strategy is to talk in broad strokes, using Ryan as a symbol of an policy activist who can help refine and sell the Romney economic plan. Believe it or not – he actually has published a rather detailed economic plan! Whether he can sell it is another thing entirely.

  6. Jeff,

    Both Jack and Toren made similar points, and I think there’s something to it in part because, as Toren points out, not only is Ryan associated with a particular budget plan – but Romney is viewed as something of an chameleon on plaid when it comes to what he stands for. But I would make three points in response. First, because the Ryan budget has been out there as a target for so long, Republicans are well-versed in which parts of it sell, and which do not. This is what I meant when I said Romney is in position to pick and choose. Remember, beyond the few of us who don’t have a life, most members of the public really don’t know what the Ryan plan entails – indeed, few people even know who Ryan is! Finally, I persist in thinking that this election will be won nationally, and not locally. That is, if Romney wins the popular vote, he likely wins the Electoral College vote. And while seniors are not likely to embrace Ryan’s Medicare reform, they are one of the demographic groups that so far seem predominantly to back Romney, and which is solidly opposed to Obama’s health care plan.

  7. I have several competing impressions. Can you help me determine which ones are closer to right?

    1) Romney picking Ryan doesn’t appear pointed to any particular electoral target.

    2) Romney picking Ryan is indeed pointed at the new movement conservatives and indicates that he/his team feels nervous about getting turnout from the Tea Party base.

    3) Romney picking Ryan doesn’t shore up any of the central weaknesses in Romney’s bona fides, a common role for VP pick (Cheney, Biden, etc).

    4) Romney picking Ryan doesn’t appease any primary challenger, a common role for VP pick (Bush I, Gore, etc).

    5) Romney picking Ryan – a guy who never minces words and is never wrong, even when he changes opinion – shores up the uncertainty among the entire electorate about Romney’s Janus-like image.

    Not all of these are mutually-exclusive, but these impressions don’t all fit nicely together, not that anything associated with Romney fits together nicely…

  8. Vijay, I think the best way to understand any VP pick in the modern era is that the primary consideration is always its likely electoral impact. Everything else flows from that. In that vein, I think the Ryan pick, in theory, is meant to address almost all of your concerns, except perhaps for appeasing party rivals. So, I think Ryan allows Romney to hold down the base, which has always been lukewarm toward him but which is also fired up about this election, but also to appeal to independents as a problem-solver who has ideas about fixing the economy. Also, Ryan provides some leverage and insight into dealing with legislators, which Romney doesn’t have, so the pick does compensate for Romney’s lack of national political experience. Now this is how Romney hopes the pick plays out – I’m not sure it will actually do so, particularly since Obama’s surrogates will be out in force trying to tie Ryan’s budget around Mitt’s neck.

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