Ryan Redux: Reevaluating Romney’s Running Mate


To see the Crystal Ball’s initial reaction to Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate and how Ryan compares to previous selections, click here.

Earlier this year, former Bush political strategist Karl Rove issued a mea culpa about his opposition to then-Gov. George W. Bush’s selection of Dick Cheney as his running mate in 2000.

“[Bush] knew I was opposed and invited me to make the case against his idea. I came to our meeting armed with eight political objections. Mr. Bush heard me out but with a twist: I explained my objections with Mr. Cheney sitting, mute and expressionless, next to the governor.” (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in that room.)

After the meeting, Bush told Rove he was right about the political problems the Cheney selection would have presented, but he said, effectively, that Rove just had to deal with them. Even though Cheney of heavily-GOP Wyoming added nothing in the Electoral College, Bush got elected anyway, barely, and Rove said Bush was right to have not listened to him about Cheney.

Cheney was selected to add gravitas to the ticket, and Bush preferred him to some swing-state possibilities, such as Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. The Cheney selection seems instructive now as we continue to assess Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan. Like Cheney, Ryan is a pick made with an eye to governance as opposed to politics. Unlike Bush, Romney didn’t need to add gravitas to his ticket because Romney does not suffer from the same competence and experience questions that Bush faced. Besides, adding a man two decades his junior — Ryan could pass for Romney’s son, much like Dan Quayle could have passed for George H.W. Bush’s son in 1988 — doesn’t add gravitas to Romney’s ticket, no matter how sharp Ryan may be. Instead, the Ryan selection seems to tell us more about the direction of Romney’s governing plan should he win the election. This wasn’t a choice Romney made to boost his electoral chances; rather, it was a choice to help him if and when he occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

We’ll never know if a different choice might have made a difference in the excruciatingly close 2000 election. Perhaps Ridge might have won Pennsylvania for Bush; although Al Gore won Pennsylvania by four points — which is a lot to expect a running mate to overcome — it’s not impossible that a different ticket might have led to a different result. Or what if Bush had twisted the arm of Florida Sen. Connie Mack III to put him on the ticket? Surely Mack, whose son has just won the Republican nomination for the right to try to capture his father’s old Senate seat, would have gotten Bush at least a few more votes in the Sunshine State, potentially allowing the country to avoid a constitutional crisis and saving Bush some major heartburn.

A presidential nominee only gets one shot at picking a running mate — unless he’s George McGovern, whom no presidential nominee wants to be — and the “what if” possibilities are endless.

Wisconsin and the electoral calculus

Of all the traditional states in the Midwest, only Minnesota has a longer streak of voting Democratic at the presidential level than does Paul Ryan’s home state, Wisconsin, which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan in 1984. That said, Wisconsin is hardly a slam dunk for Democrats. While President Obama won a big 56% victory there in 2008, that’s probably an aberration. Over the past five elections, Wisconsin has only given the Democratic nominee for president about one additional percentage point of its two-party vote than the nation as a whole. That would seem to provide an opening for the Romney-Ryan ticket, provided the race is close to a tie nationally (as in 2000, when Gore won the popular vote by about a half a percentage point), given that vice presidential nominees can be worth a point or two in their home states.

However, is it really likely that in a very close race, Wisconsin would provide the 270th electoral vote to Romney? History says no.

Romney’s clearest path to victory would seem to be to capture the five states where Obama won a smaller percentage of the vote than he did nationally (52.9% in 2008). Of those, Indiana is basically already in Romney’s column, North Carolina is leaning to him and Florida, Ohio and Virginia are toss-ups. Winning those five and retaining all of John McCain’s states (which shouldn’t be a problem) would get Romney to 266 electoral votes. That means all Romney would need to do then is win one more Obama 2008 state — and the likeliest possibilities would be Colorado, Iowa or New Hampshire. Note that Wisconsin isn’t on this list. Perhaps it could be, especially because Wisconsin has a large population of white, non-college graduates who, in theory, should not be all that supportive of Obama. Still, Romney’s path to 270 is probably reliant on the more traditional swing states. Like Indiana and North Carolina for Obama in 2008, a Romney win in Wisconsin would more likely be icing on the cake, rather than decisive. If it is decisive, then the Ryan selection would confer genius status upon Romney.

We do not yet know what effect Ryan will have in Wisconsin, and we won’t until there is fresh, reliable, state-level polling in the Badger State. Of course, Ryan never ran statewide, so he doesn’t have the statewide name ID and organization that a typical running mate (usually a governor or senator) has in all corners of a state.

Ryan was not picked to deliver Wisconsin, or at least not in the way the selection of Ohio Sen. Rob Portman — the most obvious swing state candidate among Romney’s finalists — would have been designed to carry Ohio.

Changing the subject

According to a frequent critique from Mitt Romney, President Obama took his eye off the ball by pushing the Affordable Care Act in the first half of his term. “Instead of focusing on the big issue, the economy, he focused on his healthcare reform, called Obamacare,” Romney told an audience in Salem, Virginia, in June.

Given the selection of Ryan, might Romney be taking his eye off the ball too, at least in terms of keeping the focus of this election on the economy?

Romney seems to be betting that the economy will get him elected, just like the economy largely got Obama elected. But the circumstances today are a lot different. GDP growth in the third quarter of 2008 was -3.7% and a third or less of Americans approved of the job performance of the incumbent, George W. Bush. The out-of-power party’s candidate, in this case Obama, could hardly hope for better “fundamentals” in pursuing the presidency. In 2012, second quarter GDP growth was a meager 1.5%, but that’s a far cry from 2008, and Obama’s approval rating is 48.3% — again, not great, but it’s high enough to potentially allow him to be reelected. The lousy economy gives Romney his greatest weapon, but is he actually using it? The Ryan pick suggests otherwise.

If the election turns into a great debate over the future of entitlements like Medicare, the autumn might produce a useful exercise in civics education. But how does that help a party win a close campaign? Entitlement reform is hardly Romney’s best electoral argument, and Republicans might be leading with their chin on this one. Given a choice between medicine and cotton candy, an electorate will likely choose the latter.

If Obama’s campaign and presidency are instructive of anything, it’s that when politicians set the bar high for themselves — as Obama did when he ran a campaign with the now clearly unachievable goal of bringing the country together — voters judge them against that high bar, and are invariably disappointed. Ryan, in an interview with 60 Minutes and Bob Schieffer, said that he and his family have “dedicated much of our lives to saving this country.” Ryan sounds like a man on a crusade in the way he talks about the budget. Given America’s fiscal mess, he has a point, but struggling Americans probably aren’t looking for an entitlement reform movement from the president’s challengers, particularly on an issue that many of them, rightly or wrongly, don’t think is the nation’s top priority.

The unsurprising surprise

After the Ryan pick, Ben Smith of BuzzFeed quoted a “top Republican” who said that, “Everybody was against [Ryan] to start with only Romney for.” Just as in 2000 with Cheney, Romney’s top political people opposed Ryan.

For whatever reason, the past several Republican presidential nominees have felt the need to make a splash with their vice presidential selections, going against the grain to make a genuinely unexpected, if not bewildering, selection. As vice presidential expert and Crystal Ball contributor Joel Goldstein put it in an interview with Canadian Broadcasting, “One thing that’s interesting about the Republican side is that the choice is always surprising. [Dan] Quayle in ‘88, [Jack] Kemp in ‘96, [Dick] Cheney in 2000, [Sarah] Palin in 2008, Ryan in 2012. It almost would be surprising if the Republican pick isn’t surprising.”

The other thing about those selections is that they were often mediocre. Quayle and Palin were arguably drags on the Republican tickets, and despite their competence and experience, Kemp and Cheney added little politically. The jury’s still out on Ryan, though Gallup already is suggesting a below-average bounce of just a percentage point.

Ultimately, observers are probably making too much out of the Ryan selection. This election is still about the candidates at the top of the ballot, and the Ryan budget was always going to be a centerpiece of the Democrats’ campaign this year. Nevertheless, it’s easy to picture Romney, if there’s a close loss in November, imagining what might have been with a vanilla running mate who could have added a key state.

Of course, if Obama loses, maybe he’ll think about his road not taken, too. Vice President Joe Biden, who can’t stop inserting both feet in his mouth, adds nothing to the Democratic electoral calculus. We’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked us, “Can’t Hillary take Biden’s place?” Believe us when we say it is in the hundreds once we add in personal comments, e-mails and tweets. But that ship sailed long ago. For better or worse, both presidential nominees have their first mates, and a rough voyage lies ahead on the way to their Nov. 6 destination.