Romney’s Ryan Strategy

Ask and ye shall receive (if I’m in the mood). Dr. X asked about my thoughts on the tactical merits of Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan for his veep candidate. Campaign and elections, particularly as they relate to the strategy of winning votes, is far outside my realm of expertise, so don’t assume I’m under the misguided impression that anything I write about it is authoritative. But what the hell, it’s silly season in American politics, so let’s get silly and pretend I know something about this. At best, this will probably just serve as a kickstarter for other folks to weigh in and say things equally insightful.

As a starter, I like Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan. Romney could have gone safe and chosen a popular pol from a must-win state, like Marco Rubio of Florida or Ohio’s Rob Portman. Instead he went with someone who instantly clarifies the issues in the campaign. Nobody in the GOP is more strongly identified with the opposition to Obama on the basic issues of what the government should be doing–how much it should spend and what it should be spending it on–than Ryan. For a race that has lacked much focus, this is a good thing. And I don’t mean that just because it makes the race more interesting from a horse-race lover’s point of view, but that it focuses the issues from a voter’s point of view. Was Romney really a born-again anti-government conservative, or just a moderate playing at being? Well, whatever the truth, he’s certainly sent a clear signal that he’s committing to the conservative camp. As one editorial puts it:

Ryan brings the blurriness of Romney’s policy proposals into focus. While Romney has not offered the details of his tax or budget proposals, Ryan’s policy preferences are plain to see. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan is the author of two budget plans…

But how does it play strategically? To me, the most prominent signal seemed to be that Romney was not yet confident that he’d locked up the conservative base. The second signal seems to be that he thinks emphasizing budget issues is a winning issue for Republicans.

As to the first point, Nate Silver thinks the pick of Ryan shows that Romney knows he’s losing (The League’s Tod Kelly thinks the same). It would be hard for Romney not to think this. He’s consistently trailed Obama at Intrade and the polls mostly favor Obama (including a FoxNews poll showing Obama 9 points ahead, his greatest advantage in any poll), with several putting Obama’s lead outside the margin of error, while the only two showing Romney with a lead (including the dubious Rasmussen) have his lead within the margin of error, while RealClearPolitics gives Obama a fairly strong lead in the electoral college (holding tossups constant). Any of those could be wrong, of course, but when they all trend in the same direction, you’d be a fool to be confident the reality is going the opposite way.

Knowing you’re trailing is one thing, but knowing why you’re trailing is something else. Romney has two groups to target, moderates and conservatives. By some reports he’s not doing well among moderates, but that’s a tricky group to target. Most actually are pretty pre-committed to one party or the other, even if they say they’re not, and they’re also least likely to turn out. So Romney has apparently decided not to focus on them, focusing instead on making sure the Republicans’ conservative base turns out.

So how to turn them out? It’s tempting to think mere anti-Obama fervor will be sufficient, but perhaps not. As despised as the president is by a lot of conservatives, the old saying that you can’t beat something with nothing is still a pretty good rule of thumb, and a lot of conservatives clearly think Romney’s a lot of nothing. So Romney has decided to give the base something to favor. And the truth is that he can possibly win without winning many moderates, so long as A) they aren’t inspired by Obama to turn out and vote for him, and B) Romney doesn’t scare them into turning out to vote for Obama. Put yourself in a moderate’s shoes (or perhaps they’re your own shoes): Is Obama a big inspiration any more? Even the liberals I know are more anti-Republican than pro-Obama this time around, so what’s there to make moderates get up and cheer?

What Romney’s campaign has lacked so far is any sense of purpose. I’m reminded of Bob Dole’s ’96 campaign, when he couldn’t really tell us what he would do with the presidency. Mitt’s campaign so far has been a bit mum on what he would do, but asking us to trust in the unknown. That’s not working, especially for fire-breathing conservatives who want some assurance that he’s not going to revert to his form as Massachusetts governor. Bringing Ryan on board brings a clear conservative economic vision to the campaign, giving conservatives something to cheer for. It also, however, gives liberals something to boo, and might simultaneously increase Obama’s turnout.

It’s sort of a game of chicken. I’m struck by how both sides seem to welcome the Ryan pick because it focuses the campaign on the budget issue. Both sides appear to think it’s a winning issue for them. I think the Democrats have the advantage on the issue because they’ve already successfully defined Romney as the uncaring rich guy, and the Ryan budget can be easily weaved into that story line (whether fairly or not). But that story line was winning anyway, and Romney selecting a vague, ill-defined, running mate wasn’t going to change that. Picking Ryan is something of a gamble, but Romney had to make a gamble, and the Ryan pick may have been the best odds available to him.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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21 Responses to Romney’s Ryan Strategy

  1. lumbercartel says:

    Instead he went with someone who instantly clarifies the issues in the campaign.

    And before a full day had passed, the Romney campaign was frantically backing off from the “clarity” and working to shift the lack-of-focus from Ryan’s plan (gaps and all) to Romney’s all-gaps plan.

    How he ever got the spine to actually ask Ann to marry him — and not back out — is a mystery to me.

  2. James Hanley says:

    How he ever got the spine to actually ask Ann to marry him — and not back out — is a mystery to me.

    That’s what shotguns are for.

  3. Dr X says:

    Thanks, James. That was an interesting analysis and the choice makes more sense to me now. I don’t remember who I was reading (a political scientist), but his observation was that the popular discourse can place too much emphasis on winning undecideds and not enough on inspiring the base to get to the polls. Obviously, there’s a potential tradeoff because if your base will be inspired to get off their duffs by something that simultaneously alarms the undecideds, you’d better be sure your calculation of the net gain is strong.

    Regarding your point about conservative feelings about Romney and liberal feelings about Obama, can you think of a race where ideological passions were so intense at the same time that both candidates are having trouble with their base? IIRC, Dukakis/Bush lack of candidate enthusiasm on both sides, but ideological passions not intensely inflamed as they seem now.

  4. Troublesome Frog says:

    I think Romney’s campaign advisers think it’s probably time for the campaign to feature less Mitt Romney. A smooth star like Ryan should help with that. I certainly wouldn’t want to be Biden up against him, in either the debate or the swimsuit part of the pageant.

    I’m not usually the kind of guy who poses cool by complaining that everything is “overrated” but Ryan’s particular brand of overrated ticks me off. According to the media love-fest over the past couple of years, he’s supposed to be some sort of hard-headed, numbers-driven economics wizard. All I see is another Republican “economic plan” the same as it always was:

    1) Note that deficits are bad. Once the voters nod in agreement, go to step 2.
    2) Propose $X in spending cuts.
    3) Propose $5X in tax cuts for the wealthy.
    4) Handwave about closing $2X in unspecified “loopholes.”
    5) When asked, insist that the additional $2X new deficit dollars are just an illusion caused by the sheer awesomeness of your plan. Try wearing sunglasses to cut the glare when reading it so you can see the dynamic effects.

    If you’re lucky, your plan becomes policy. In a few years, the deficit will be worse and a new, young, good looking “deficit hawk” with fresh credibility can repeat the act. This is not new in any sense. It’s a legitimate policy position, but it has nothing to do with the deficit, so there’s really no reason to believe that he is the courageous leader who will save us all from ourselves. His plan is the same as always, just more brazen. I suppose that qualifies as courageous, but not in a good way.

    As for being some type of economics prodigy, I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor from this interview, suggesting that we could “coax” money into the economy by raising the federal funds rate to increase the rate of return on investments.

  5. James Hanley says:

    I don’t remember who I was reading (a political scientist), but his observation was that the popular discourse can place too much emphasis on winning undecideds and not enough on inspiring the base to get to the polls.

    Until recently I thought it was the middle-of-the-roaders who were critical, too. It fits perfectky with Hotelling’s law and median voter theory. But a mon-political scientist commenting on some blog brought the relevant research to my attention. IIRC, it showed that prez candidates winning the undecideds didn’t always win the election. I suppose median voter theory assumes equal likelihood of turnout, which of course usn’t a real-world condition. If I get into my office where I have Internet access, maybe I’ll dig that up and write about it.

    can you think of a race where ideological passions were so intense at the same time that both candidates are having trouble with their base?

    I think you just defined what’s been niggling at me about this campaign.

  6. James Hanley says:

    or the swimsuit part of the pageant


    As for the rest of that comment, I’m in complete agreement. The claim that Ryan’s a hard numbers guy and has made a bold proposal is setting the bar so low that the only guys who can’t get under it are Mitt Romney and Harry Reid.

  7. James Hanley says:


    Want to write a guest post about e interview and Ryan’s budget plan?

  8. Matty says:

    ‘Joe Biden swimsuit’ 13,700,000 results on google, I am far too disturbed by the fact I even investigated that to dare click any of them.

  9. James Hanley says:

    OK, I followed the Google hits, and the following are found under “Joe Biden swimsuit” and “Paul Ryan swimsuit,” respectively (don’t ask me to explain such mysteries). You may now cast your votes.

    Joe Biden Swimsuit

    Paul Ryan swimsuit

    (Believe it or not, that first one is the top hit in Google images for “Joe Biden swimsuit.”)

  10. AMW says:

    Paul Ryan is apparently a skank with a boob job. I’m afraid Biden wins my vote for swimsuit competition.

    Also, Ryan is disqualified because body paint does not count as a swimsuit.

  11. James Hanley says:

    I have nothing in particular against Ryan, but I do think it’d be hilarious if your first sentence went viral.

  12. James Hanley says:

    Update: Apparently the choice of Ryan is not playing well with the general public, at least initially, but is playing pretty well with Republicans.

  13. lancifer666 says:

    Joe Biden has helmet hair and Paul Ryan’s painted on ensemble seems to include a soap on a rope around her neck.

  14. Matty says:

    Joe Biden almost looks like someone I dated once, come to think of it we have lost touch….

  15. Dr X says:

    I like the very pretty but more natural-looking Joe Biden.

  16. Troublesome Frog says:

    James Hanley:

    I’m very flattered by the offer, but I’m not sure I have the spare time to do a high quality guest post. I’d need to dig into the latest incarnation of the plan, and I’m in the middle of moving into a house that needs a lot of work. My time online has been pretty spotty.

    It’s also possible that I’ll die of paint poisoning before I finish.

  17. James Hanley says:

    I understand, but I can promise you that if paint poisoning was a serious health risk I wouldn’t be here after the last month’s work on my house.

  18. lancifer666 says:

    What colors are you painting your Queen Anne?

    Answer carefully, because if you say white, gray or beige I will have to kill you.

  19. James Hanley says:

    The Queen used to be purple and pink, two owners ago. The owners prior to us repainted it white, dark grey, and light grey. We are doing a cream body, with green trim and tan accents. When I get the front done, I’ll post a pic. I haven’t picked up a brush for the last two weeks, though.

  20. James Hanley says:

    My wife has good taste. I would never have imagined the color combination myself, but I really think it’s wonderful; very warm and inviting.

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