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Paul Ryan’s Medicare Plan May Scare Off Seniors—And Cost Romney the Presidency

If Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan for his running mate can be counted on to do anything, it's bringing Ryan’s controversial proposal to reform Medicare to center-stage. As we speak, the Obama campaign is probably dusting off the Democrats’ time-tested Medicare playbook, and the residents of the Palm Beach media market should prepare for three months of ads about “ending Medicare as we know it.” While this Medicare fight is quite predictable, the Romney campaign’s decision to court it is far more surprising. After all, Romney holds no credible path to the presidency without a decisive victory among seniors. Simply put: If Romney suffers losses among seniors as a result of the Ryan plan, he will lose.

The reason? Between 2004 and 2008, Obama made gains among virtually every demographic group. That’s hardly surprising, given that Obama won by 7 points and Kerry lost 3. But one demographic group actually moved in McCain’s direction: seniors. In 2004, Bush won seniors by a modest 51-48 percent margin, but four years later, even after widespread disaffection with the status quo and a financial crisis sent voters flooding toward Democrats, seniors voted for McCain by an even larger 53-45 percent margin. For Romney to win in 2012, he’ll need to do even better than McCain. Many of Obama’s gains among younger Americans were driven by demographic changes that are all but assured to endure. Put differently, Republicans need gains among seniors to compensate for the influx of predominantly Democratic non-white voters between 2004 and 2008.

Recent polls confirm that Romney’s road to the White House runs through seniors. Most polls show Obama in the low-40s among seniors, even though those same polls put him at 48 or 49 percent nationally. On that basis, we can infer that Obama would finish in the low-40s among seniors if he finishes at 48 or 49 percent nationally, which would mean that a narrow Romney victory would probably involve Obama losing seniors by about 15 points. And by that same token, if Obama can push his support up into the mid-40s, Obama would be well positioned to win reelection.

Enter the Ryan plan and suddenly Obama might have a new route to 50 percent of the vote. Although the polls are mixed, there is strong evidence that the Ryan plan could hurt Romney among seniors. According to a CNN poll conducted last year, 74 percent of seniors opposed the Ryan plan’s Medicare reform, and a Pew Research survey found 51 percent of seniors opposed, compared to just 25 percent supporting those same measures. Perhaps most troubling for the Romney campaign, the voters who had heard “a lot” about the proposed Medicare changes were most opposed, perhaps suggesting that while voters were initially open to the description of the reforms, they were quickly scared off by “vouchers” and “ending Medicare as we know it.”

Keep in mind, though, that there is evidence suggesting that the Ryan plan might not be as devastating as the conventional wisdom suggests. A prominent Democracy Corps survey demonstrated that the Ryan plan could help Obama, but seniors were conspicuously absent from their analysis. Instead, Obama made gains among independents and Obama's base demographics. And a USA Today/Gallup poll found that seniors preferred the Ryan plan to Obama’s deficit reduction plan by a 48-42 percent margin, perhaps suggesting that seniors are skeptical enough of Obama that they’re unlikely to embrace the president, even if they have questions about the Ryan plan. 

That said, the Gallup poll didn’t inform voters about the Ryan plan’s proposed changes to Medicare, so the results might not be representative of voters' positions after a sustained debate about entitlement reform. Of course, that applies to the surveys suggesting that Romney might be hurt by the Ryan plan, as well. After all, Romney can respond by criticizing Obama's changes to Medicare in the Affordable Care Act, and there's no question that seniors have always been skeptical of Obamacare. And the Ryan plan attempts to insulate itself against losses among seniors by limiting changes to future retirees, and it's possible that the Romney campaign could effectively communicate this distinction and ameliorate seniors' concerns, at least to a certain extent.

But if the Obama campaign successfully defines the Ryan plan as anti-Medicare, Romney could be in big trouble. Romney is utterly dependent on older voters and, while seniors have always been a weakness for Obama, the fact that 48 percent voted for Kerry in 2004 suggests that there are persuadable seniors or even latent Democrats who might be open to voting for Obama. Yes, many of these voters disapprove of the president’s performance, but Medicare is probably one of the few issues that could potentially convince voters to either stay home or cast a ballot to preserve an unsatisfactory but less than abhorrent status quo.  

There’s no question that the Romney campaign needed a shake-up, but when viewed in demographic terms, Romney’s choice creates a new and potentially fatal danger to his candidacy. With Obama just south of 50 percent, Romney needs to consolidate undecided voters with reservations about Obama’s performance. But by creating additional routes for Obama to reach 50 percent, the Romney campaign is taking a colossal risk. Romney possesses no credible route to the presidency without a double-digit victory among voters older than 65 years old, but history, the polls, and conventional wisdom all suggest that a prolonged debate about changes to Medicare could put such a margin in jeopardy. Whether the Romney campaign has an effective response remains to be seen, but if they don't, they've probably lost.