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.