Why Ryan Could Make It Harder for Romney to Win

Ronald Brownstein
National Journal

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate could deepen the intrinsic tension between the Republican policy agenda and the voters it relies on to win elections.

Ryan’s ambitious budget blueprint, as passed twice by House Republicans over the past two years, crystallizes the GOP’s highest policy priority: shrinking the size of the federal government, largely by dramatically restructuring entitlement programs led by Medicare and Medicaid. But the GOP today is increasingly dependent on the votes of older and blue-collar whites who -- while eager to scale back government programs that transfer income to the poor -- are much more resistant to retrenching entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security that largely benefit the middle-class.

Those attitudes haven’t stopped those voters from providing Republicans commanding margins in recent elections. But in polls, most of those older and blue-collar voters have consistently recoiled from the centerpiece proposal of Ryan’s budget: his initiative to convert Medicare from its existing structure, in which Washington pays doctors and hospitals directly for care they provide to seniors, into a premium support or voucher system that would provide seniors a fixed sum of money to either purchase private insurance or buy into the existing program.

Ryan is likely to bring energy and a propulsive sense of mission to a Romney campaign that has often seemed more about Power Points than passion. But Democrats believe that Romney’s elevation of the Ryan plan could allow them to cut into the big advantages that polls this year show Romney continuing to enjoy among both blue-collar and older whites.

“By putting Ryan on the ticket, the Ryan budget is their vision for the country,” said veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who wrote a memo last Sunday urging his party to nationalize both the presidential and congressional campaigns around Ryan’s budget. “They think the biggest problem of government is the money being spend on universal programs that older white non-college and working class voters depend on to have a middle class retirement. All that to pay for breathtaking tax cuts for the wealthiest. These are anti-elitist voters who are going to want very little to do with their vision and these two men.” 

Veteran GOP consultant David Carmen acknowledges that such attitudes could threaten the GOP’s solidifying dominance among downscale whites. But he says for Romney that is a risk worth taking to broaden the campaign debate beyond the more personal issues that have dominated the discussion so far. “The issue is who defines whether the GOP is saving Medicare or killing it,” Carmen said. “But it’s a bold elevation of the whole campaign and I think that whoever gets to positive faster and more credibly is going to score big. It’s hope and growth one more time.”

The electoral impact of Ryan’s plan is so crucial because less affluent whites have become so central to the GOP’s electoral prospects. Republicans have carried a majority of white seniors in each presidential election since 2000, with their share of the vote among them rising from 52 percent that year to 55 percent in 2004 to 58 percent in 2008; they soared to 63 percent with those voters in the 2010 House elections, according to exit polls. Over the past three presidential elections, Republicans have also amassed commanding margins among blue-collar whites, attracting around three-fifths of them each time; those voters also gave GOP House candidates 63 percent of their votes in 2010. Polls this year have found President Obama struggling with both older and blue-collar whites -- though recent Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times surveys have shown the president regaining some ground in battleground states with non-college white women, the so-called “waitress moms.”

Though Ryan’s budget is often described as a deficit-reduction package, it is focused at least as much on fundamentally reducing Washington’s role in society. Ryan’s plan envisions continuing (though reduced) deficits until 2040, largely because it maintains the tax cuts passed under George W. Bush and seeks a further reduction in the top marginal rate for the highest earners to 25 percent -- the lowest level since 1931. (Romney has proposed cutting the top rate to 28 percent.) Simultaneously Ryan’s plan aims to significantly reduce long-term federal spending by converting Medicaid into a block grant, transforming Medicare into a premium support program, and squeezing domestic discretionary programs over time to levels unseen since World War II. Still, the Congressional Budget Office calculated in March that Ryan’s plan would shrink federal spending, as a share of the economy, to  just 16 percent by 2050 -- a level not seen since 1950, before not only Medicare, Medicaid and federal education aid, but the interstate highway system.

In broad strokes, that agenda generates enthusiastic support among blue-collar and older white voters who have grown increasingly resistant to government spending, particularly for transfer programs to the poor, and the taxes required to fund them. In the 2010 national exit poll, for instance, two-thirds of non-college whites said “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and people,” while only 29 percent agreed that “government should do more to solve problems.” In a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey last year exploring the contrasting attitudes among American generations, 62 percent of the aging white baby boom-and an even more resounding 67 percent of the older “silent” generation-said they preferred a smaller government that offers fewer services to a larger government that provides more. And in that same survey, a majority of both the baby boomers and seniors said they supported the repeal of the new Obama health care law, which according to other polls many of them primarily view as a welfare program for the poor. In the 2010 exit poll, nearly three-fifths of non-college whites also supported repeal.

But among both blue-collar and older whites attitudes about Medicare are very different. In March, the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll offered respondents two options for the program. Just 19 percent of whites older than 65 endorsed Ryan’s approach, which said “Medicare should be changed to a system where the government provides seniors with a fixed sum of money they could use either to purchase private health insurance or to pay the cost of remaining in the current Medicare program.” Fully 74 percent of white seniors said instead that “Medicare should continue as it is today, with the government providing health insurance and paying doctors and hospitals directly for the services they provide to seniors.” Among non-college whites, 63 percent said they preferred the current system, while only 26 percent backed Ryan’s approach. (Ryan’s plan also drew opposition not only from 66 percent of college-educated white women -- consistently the most Democratic-leaning component of the white electorate -- but even 60 percent of college-educated men, an audience usually receptive to anti-government arguments.)

Generally surveys find white women more resistant to changes in the safety net than white men (although the specific Congressional Connection Poll on Ryan’s plan didn’t show that pattern.) If Ryan’s plan remains a central focus through the fall, it would not be surprising if that debate widened the gender gap -- potentially helping the Republican ticket with men most receptive to the sort of broad anti-government arguments Ryan unfurled in his announcement speech Saturday, but hurting it with white women.

At a Rick Santorum campaign event late last year in Marshalltown, Iowa, Carlene Illum, a retired credit-union loan officer, embodied the tension written in these polls. She cheered Santorum’s promises to retrench government entitlements for the poor and denounced Obama as “a socialist” for his health care plan. The budget deficit, she insisted, was rooted in “Obamacare and all those entitlement programs” like food stamps. But she blanched at the idea of converting Medicare into a premium-support plan or retrenching Social Security in any way. “I don’t think Social Security is an entitlement because I paid into it,” she said. “I feel the same way about Medicare.”

Obama faces many barriers-cultural, ideological, and in some cases racial-with older and working-class white voters. And Republicans are sure to remind those same voters about the provisions in Obama’s health care that will slow the growth of Medicare spending by $500 billion and use the savings to help finance coverage for the uninsured.

But if Ryan’s dream of restructuring Medicare provides Democrats a beachhead for recapturing any meaningful number of voters like Illum-particularly blue-collar women already displaying hesitation about Romney-that could enormously complicate the electoral math for the GOP. “The positions that [Ryan] has taken on Social Security and Medicare reform could alienate older white voters, and especially older white women, whose support is crucial to Romney's chances,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. “These older white voters don't care very much for President Obama, but they love their Medicare and Social Security benefits.”