Will Ryan Save Romney?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 14, 2012

 

Appropriately described as a bold move, the decision to pick Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate will determine Romney’s chances of defeating Obama.  Though it is likely that Ryan will energize conservative voters and bring vitality to the campaign, it will be more difficult for Romney to attract moderate voters and reduce Obama’s lead among minorities, independent women and the elderly.

 

American elections are decided in the center. In the primaries, candidates cater to the party faithful, taking radical positions to win over the nomination. After they have secured the nomination, candidates act more strategically, catering to centrist and independent voters.  In addition, candidates also consider how their choice of a running mate will affect their chances of winning those critical decisive states.

 

Three months away from election-day, there are only 11 states still undecided. Obama is ahead in 16 states and Washington D.C., bringing his Electoral College vote count to 201 (he needs 270 to win re-election).  Romney is leading in 23 states 191 votes in the Electoral College). Obama is ahead in the more populous states, and Romney benefits from the over representation of smaller states in the Electoral College. 

 

Most of the 11 states are still undecided went for Obama in 2008. However, several of those have been historically Republican states. The 2008 economic crisis, outgoing President Bush’s unpopularity, and the failure of John McCain to mount a strong campaign helped Obama carry several Republican states in 2008.  In order to unseat Obama, Romney has to win over most of those traditionally Republican states.  Two of the states Romney expects to win are Wisconsin and Iowa, two neighboring states that together account for 16 Electoral College votes.  Representative Paul Ryan is from Wisconsin and is expected to help Romney carry that state, and possibly also Iowa.

 

By choosing Ryan, Romney has also sent a signal about his falling expectations of winning Ohio and Florida, with 18 and 29 Electoral College votes respectively. In the weeks before he announced his choice, Ohio Senator John Portman and Florida Senator Marco Rubio were in the VP short list.  By having passed on them, Romney seems to indicate that he has little hope in winning those states.

 

Any vice presidential candidate would have brought assets and liabilities to the campaign. For example, Portman is a somewhat moderate and pragmatic candidate, but worked for the Bush administration and is anything but an enthusiastic and charismatic campaigner. Rubio is young, attractive and has the potential to cater to the Latino vote, but has gotten himself into trouble by omitting some troubling aspects of his personal history in his recently published best seller.

 

Ryan is no exception. He also has a number of strengths and evident weaknesses. He is young, intelligent, telegenic and energizing campaigner. However, his positions are way to the right of the moderate American electorate. He is also a divisive figure in Washington D.C. and has little professional experience outside politics. He was first elected to Congress at age 28 and has spent 14 years in the House of Representatives. As a Tea Party favorite, he has embraced some very radical notions of fiscal responsibility. In order to bring the budget under control, Ryan has famously proposed a plan that would cut taxes and drastically cut expenditures—except in defense.  That would result in dramatic cuts to some of the most popular entitlement programs, like social security and the health care program for the elderly, Medicare. As opposed to more moderate fiscal responsibility hawks, Ryan has taken a very dogmatic approach to balancing the budget. He wants to do it by squeezing the size of the government and by reducing—rather than temporarily increasing—individual and corporate taxes.

 

The radical positions Ryan has championed in the House of Representatives, where he serves as the chair of the Budget Committee has made him a favorite among the conservative wing of the party, the Tea Party. His budget proposal, The Path to Prosperity, has become a textbook for Tea Party policy positions.  In entering the race, Ryan will help make the campaign a debate over ideas and policies, bringing the fiscal deficit to the forefront of the list of priorities and campaign themes. However, that will also give ammunition to the Democratic Party.  The democratic attack dogs and the Obama campaign have already began their effort to characterize Ryan as a radical conservative who will put in danger programs that are deeply valued by the elderly—the largest voting bloc—the poor, and even the middle class.

 

By choosing Ryan, Romney has pretty much set the tone for the final three months of the campaign, establishing the deficit and budget issues as central themes in the debate.  Romney has also strengthened his chances of winning in Wisconsin and Iowa. However, Romney might have signaled that he has given up on Ohio and Florida and that he no longer thinks that he can defeat Obama among the elderly and moderate voters, the two most important voting blocs in this election.