Here are some things to keep in mind as the media spends the next few days over analyzing the impact of Romney’s choice of the “next President of the United States” Paul Ryan. First, history suggests that Romney will get a short-term polling bump in the aftermath of the announcement. In past elections, that bump has ranged anywhere from 1% to 7%, with an average of about 2%. But after the inevitable Democratic counterattack focusing on the Ryan budget proposal – how it will balloon the deficit, devastate Medicare, hurt seniors, etc. – I doubt that polling bump will prove permanent. In the end, the race is between Romney and Obama. Despite the historical anecdotes to the contrary, vice presidential picks are rarely consequential in terms of the election outcome.
The bigger takeaway here is how the Ryan pick fits into the Romney campaign frame. Much of the media analysis leading up to the Ryan pick focused on how Romney could use his VP pick to “balance” the ticket, electorally. But it is clear here that in picking Ryan, Romney was not seeking balance – he was seeking to double down on his campaign frame that this is an election that turns on economic issues. Ryan’s reputation as an economic policy wonk feeds into that frame. Of course, it also may prove to be something of a distraction, as we are slated to hear endless replays of Newt Gingrich criticizing the Ryan budget as “social engineering”, etc. Media pundits will undoubtedly redouble their efforts to get Ryan to specify how he plans to raise revenue, if not through tax increases, in his budget plan – something Ryan has generally avoided addressing in detail. Remember, as a member of the House, Ryan’s voting record there is now fair game for the Obama opposition attack team. That’s another reason that I don’t believe the long-term impact of the Ryan pick will be very substantial .
Beyond the economic message, this is in some ways a very safe pick: Ryan is well vetted, he plays to the base, and he is comfortable with wonk-speak and being on the national stage. So there’s not much risk that he will wander off the reservation and make a major gaffe. Keep in mind that the traditional VP candidate role is to play attack dog, so that the head of the ticket doesn’t have to. Ryan has already been performing in this role for some time, and has handled it well. If you listened to the speech today, it was sprinkled with references to those values that form the core of the American political creed: that governments serve the people, we are a nation of ideas, etc. These are straight out of my introductory American politics class, and the phrasing was intended to appeal particularly to the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.
Finally, the timing of this announcement, as I’ve mentioned previously, is relatively unprecedented. Only Kerry among candidates dating back to 1976 announced his pick earlier, relative to the start of the party convention. As I noted in the previous post, it’s possible the decision was driven by the recent polling showing a slight bump in Obama’s support. By announcing now, Romney fills an impending news vacuum with the end of the Olympics and tries to refocus the media narrative on economic issues, rather than tax returns and Bain. (How likely is that to happen?)
But it may also be that the timing reflects a more fundamental fact about presidential campaigns – that the start of the general election campaign now precedes the traditional post-convention Labor Day kick off. In short, campaigns are playing out at an accelerated pace. Keep in mind that early voting begins in many states in September, and estimates are that some 40 million Americans will vote early this election. Romney may have worried that if he waited until the Convention to announce his VP pick, as most candidates have done, he risked allowing Obama to frame the media narrative via his early spending blitz, particular with the size of the persuadable voter pool dwindling quickly. By announcing today, Romney can use the Ryan pick to kick off his four-day bus tour through key swing states, as the first step in reaching out to the dwindling number of undecided voters. The key question remains, however: are they paying attention at this stage of the race?