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The Psychology of the Ryan Pick

My initial reaction to the Ryan VP selection was that there was only one possible explanation: Team Romney believed it was on track to lose, and Ryan allows them to shift blame for the loss onto the party’s conservative wing.

In response, a lot of readers have wondered why Romney would consciously try to lose. This misunderstands my point—I’m not suggesting he’s trying to lose. I’m saying he’s anticipating losing and trying to make the best of it. He’s not self-sabotaging; he’s resigned. 

To see this, let’s back up a few steps to something we can all agree on: You don’t pick Paul Ryan as your running mate if you think you have a strong chance of winning. Whatever you think of Ryan, no one regards him as low-risk. 

Now here’s where I add the special sauce: Given that Team Romney believed it was headed for defeat, there were one of two ways to respond. 1. With a genuinely bold pick that could have beefed up its margins among key demographic groups: women, independents, disgruntled Democrats, Latinos, etc. 2. With a pick whose only value was to excite conservatives (whom, I should reiterate, were already highly motivated).

The ideal option 1 would be a moderate woman or a moderate Latino, possibly even a Democrat. But Marco Rubio would have been a plausible take on option 1. Even Sarah Palin, as ludicrous as the idea turned out to be in retrospect, was consistent with option 1—she is an attractive, youthful woman who was a genuine outsider. This is your basic high-risk/high-reward proposition that marginally increases your chance of winning (which are low to begin with), but also increases the chance you lose by a large margin, because people see it as a gimmick.  

But Romney didn’t go that route. He went with option 2—a pick that does nothing to increase his chance of winning, but does increase the chance he loses by a large margin, because it hurts with the demographic groups we’re talking about. 

Why would Team Romney do that? Here’s where we get into the realm of psychology. I’d guess—and I won’t pretend it’s anything other than speculation—they worried that if they went with option 1 and lost big, then the blame was on them. In the case of a Palin or Rubio-type figure, the conventional wisdom would be that they were reckless, a la McCain. If they went with a moderate woman or a moderate Latino or a Democrat, the base would insist they lost because they strayed too far from the Truth. I doubt they ever articulated these anxieties, much less discussed them at length. But I suspect they acted as powerful, if subconscious, constraints.

By picking Ryan, on the other hand, they won nothing but validation from conservatives, who have now signed on in blood, and who will share the blame if the ticket goes down.

Just knowing what we know about how humans work, that strikes me as a much more appealing proposition. But, of course, it’s also incredibly risk-averse. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber