In terms of demographics, Mitt Romney has one path to victory: overwhelming support from white voters. At the least, he’ll have to outperform every Republican since Ronald Reagan, and win 60 percent of their votes. And this is if minority turnout is at its 2008 levels. If it increases, he needs even more whites to make up the difference.
Seniors play a key part in this coalition. The New Republic’s Nate Cohn puts it bluntly: “Romney’s road to the White House runs through seniors.” John McCain won 51 percent of seniors, beating Obama by four percentage points. At the moment, Cohn notes, Obama’s support among this group is in the low 40s. If the former Massachusetts governor can outperform McCain and crush Obama among older Americans, he can eke out a narrow win. But if Obama can hold his own—and move closer to his 2008 total—he’ll have secured victory.
Enter Paul Ryan. As a congressman, the Wisconsin representative’s signature accomplishment is a proposal to reform entitlements, particularly Medicare. In its original incarnation, Ryan’s Medicare reforms would replace guaranteed health care with a vouchers, which seniors could use to purchase health insurance on a private market. Because Ryan designs his vouchers to fall behind rising medical costs, most seniors would find themselves forced to pay more out of pocket.
More recently, after criticism from all sides, he released a less conservative variation of his original proposal. The structure hasn’t changed, but traditional Medicare is preserved as an option. The problem is that new beneficiaries would be automatically enrolled in the new program, leaving traditional Medicare to collapse under the burden of fewer participants and higher costs.
There’s little popular support for transforming Medicare into a series of vouchers. In a survey last year, the Washington Post and ABC News found massive opposition to Ryan’s original proposal—65 percent opposed a plan to provide vouchers, which grew to 85 percent when respondents were told that the vouchers wouldn’t pay for full medical care. According to CNN last June, 50 percent of those surveyed oppose the plan, and 56 percent say it would be bad for the elderly. Among seniors themselves, 74 percent oppose it.
Given the extent to which the Obama campaign was ready—at the outset of the general election—to shiv Mitt Romney over his tax returns and tenure at Bain Capital, it’s probably true that Chicago has a wealth of material to use against the newly minted vice presidential nominee. It’s possible that these attacks could fall flat, and Romney doesn’t suffer for his running mate’s Medicare policies.
I’m skeptical. Not only is Romney already running away from the Ryan budget, but in a world where “my opponent cuts Medicare” is a potent attack, it’s a little odd to think that this wouldn’t have a negative effect on Romney’s standing with seniors.
In all likelihood, any gains from the Ryan pick—in terms of mobilizing the conservative base—are offset (or even outweighed) by the fact that Romney has introduced a huge a new danger to his campaign. If Obama’s Medicare attacks are successful in peeling off seniors from Romney’s coalition, the path to 50+1 percent of the vote is much more difficult—if not impossible—for the former Massachusetts governor.
Indeed, as Sean Trende (who is far from easy toward Obama) points out at Real Clear Politics, this new vulnerability introduces the potential for something that was quite unlikely before—an Obama landslide. He explains:
I’ve always thought that Obama wouldn’t be able to win more than a two-to-three-point re-election victory, mainly because a president almost never wins the votes of people who disapprove of the job that he is doing, and Obama’s approval rating is unlikely to be much above 50 percent on Election Day. But, while I don’t think it’s guaranteed, this really does give Democrats an opportunity to make Romney so radioactive that people who don’t like the president nevertheless vote for him. If the white working class revolts at the prospect of the Ryan plan, Obama really could match, or even exceed, his 2008 showing.
There’s always a tendency to assume some strategic calculation on the part of politicians—or find some reason for why a given choice isn’t a bad one—but in this case, the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. Ryan is an unknown politician with a deeply unpopular plan. Right now, the conventional wisdom is that this somehow means he was a smart pick who can help Romney win voters who are looking for “big” solutions to our problems.
Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that Ryan doesn’t actually offer solutions to mass unemployment or budget sustainability, it’s worth focusing on the obvious: It’s never a good thing when your vice presidential pick makes it more likely you’ll lose.