Monthly Archives: August 2012

Why Choose Ryan Now? Because There’s No Time To Lose

I’m posting at the Economist today with a short piece on the timing of the Ryan announcement which, as I’ve noted before, is the second  earliest relative to the start of a candidate’s nominating convention since 1976.  While it is tempting to attribute the timing of Romney’s announcement of the Ryan pick to his sliding polling numbers (if, in fact they were sliding!), I think something more fundamental is at work here.  Simply put, campaigns are unfolding at a quicker pace, particularly with the expected increase in early voting which may reach 35% or more nationally, and which in some battleground states could go even higher, to 70% or more according to some estimates.  And, as one Economist reader commented, by announcing the Ryan pick early Romney may be seeking to accelerate his fundraising so that’s he’s ready to spend the money that becomes eligible for him to use in the post-convention period.  And, indeed, there’s some evidence that there’s been a fundraising windfall since Ryan’s pick was announced.

Meanwhile, Romney and  Ryan went on 60 Minutes last Sunday as their first major joint media venture and, much as I expected, Romney was quick to dispel any notion that he’s running on the Ryan budget plan:  “Well, I have my budget plan as you know that I’ve put out. And that’s the budget plan that we’re going to run on. At the same time, we have the record of President Obama. If people think, by the way, that their utility bill has gone down, they should vote for him. If they think jobs are more plentiful, they should vote for him.”   Of course, Romney’s efforts are likely to have almost no impact on efforts by Obama surrogates to argue that he is in fact running on the Ryan plan – or to make him directly repudiate that plan. And that’s why I don’t think the Ryan pick is going to shift very many votes.  It may, however, engage the Republican base a bit more, both  in terms of early voting and fundraising.

I’ll be back here tomorrow with a post on the Fareed Zakaria situation.


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.

Why Romney Picked Ryan And Announced It Now

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?

I Was Wrong About Romney’s VP Pick

If media reports are accurate, Mitt Romney is set to announce his vice presidential pick today at 8:45 a.m. (E.T.) during a morning campaign event in Virginia.  Based on twitter feeds, the early betting indicates that Paul Ryan is the choice.  If Romney does announce Ryan as his pick today, this will be the earliest announcement – as measured by the number of days before the candidate’s party convention – of  a vice presidential choice by any presidential candidate, with the exception of John Kerry in 2004, dating back to 1976.  I’ll have much more to say about this later today, but for now I would point out that Ryan – if he’s the pick – has some of the strengths I mentioned regarding Rob Portman: he’s a Washington insider with deep knowledge of budget politics.  In short, he’s Portman, but with the pizazz that Portman – and Tim Pawlenty – lack. If Ryan is the pick, Republican conservatives are going to be very very pleased. As an added plus for Romney, Ryan might make Wisconsin competitive. But I do find it interesting that Romney felt compelled to announce his VP pick this far in advance of the Republican Party convention. My guess – and it is only a guess – is that his decision was influenced in part by recent national polls suggesting Obama had extended his “lead”. Romney is hoping that by announcing the pick this early, he might capture the media headlines and stem, at least for the moment, the seeming erosion in polling support.  I don’t doubt that Romney’s announcement of his VP pick will dominate media coverage for the next several days (although I do question his decision to announce the pick on a weekend!)  But if history is any guide it won’t have any lasting impact on the 2012 presidential race, beyond a short-term polling bump.  And, for what it is worth (which is next to nothing), Condi Rice was the better choice.  My mistake, however, was not in predicting that Rice would be the choice – it was in arguing that Romney would hold off on announcing his pick until shortly before the Republican convention, as almost all previous candidates have done.

I’ll have more to say on this later today .


Of Course The Electorate Is Highly Polarized! (Not)

I’m posting at the Economist’s Democracy in America site today, with an article examining the evidence for whether the American electorate is, as Kevin Drum and other pundits would have us believe, extremely polarized along partisan lines. The short answer, as you’ve heard me state before, is that they are not.

Meanwhile, I hope to  have something up  here tomorrow on the VP sweepstakes.

Stay tuned.