The conventional wisdom on Obama’s recent surge is that it’s due largely to Mitt Romney’s 47% disaster, and there’s clearly something to this. If nothing else, it’s given Team Obama grist for an absolutely devastating ad.
But it’s worth pointing out another dynamic that’s been overlooked here: The escalating disaster that is Paul Ryan. At the time of his selection, a number of pundits argued Ryan’s strategic benefits, suggesting he would boost Romney by energizing conservatives, or by allowing Romney to run as the candidate of big ideas, or that he would at least be the party’s best defender of the Medicare plan Romney was going to have to defend whether he wanted to or not. This seemed like a stretch at the time—after all, Ryan’s Medicare plan proved to be a massive liability the one time voters weighed in on it. But who could say for sure?
Well, fast forward a month-and-a-half and the numbers look pretty persuasive. This week the New York Times released a set of polls, conducted by Quinnipiac, assessing the state of the race in Ohio and Florida. The top-line numbers were jaw-dropping enough: Obama’s lead in Ohio grew from six to ten over the last month, and from three to nine in Florida. (It’s better to focus on the change here than the magnitude, which is highly sensitive to polling methodology.) But once you look at the internal numbers, they’re even less kind to Romney. More to the point, they suggest Ryan has done enormous damage to the ticket.
Back in late August, Obama led Romney on the question of who would handle Medicare better by 8 points in Florida and 10 points in Ohio; now he’s up 15 in Florida and 16 in Ohio. And the problems are especially acute among senior citizens, a group Obama has traditionally struggled with. A month ago, Obama was down 13 points in Florida among people 65 and older; today he’s up 4. On the specific question of Medicare, Obama was down 4 points among Florida seniors in August; today he’s up 5 points. (The Quinnipiac Poll re-shuffled its age-groups between August and September, so you won’t be make apples-to-apples comparisons by eyeballing their crosstabs. But the super-kind people at Quinnipiac re-reshuffled them for me.)
The numbers for Ohio are similar: In August, Obama was down 8 among seniors in the state; today he’s up 1. A month ago Obama was down 6 points among Ohio seniors on the Medicare issue; today he’s up 6. The turnaround here is simply breathtaking.
Nor is the Times/Quinnipiac poll an outlier. Though I haven’t looked at the internal numbers, a set of Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation state polls out today shows something similar: Obama up 19 over Romney on Medicare in Ohio, 15 in Florida, 13 in Virginia, and 17 nationally (his largest lead on the question all year). As the Post write-up puts it: “[T]he more voters focus on Medicare, the more likely they are to support the president’s bid for reelection.”
Interestingly, the early post-Ryan polling actually showed the GOP ticket gaining ground on Medicare, if only by disingenuously accusing Obama of cutting $716 billion from the program to pay for healthcare reform. (Ryan had proposed identical cuts, except in his case they would have been refunded to the wealthy as tax cuts.) But that that was before the Democrats joined the fight. Since then, the Dems have relentlessly attacked the Ryan plan, both at their convention and on the campaign trail, and the numbers have followed suit. It’s hard to believe Obama would have had the success he’s had here without Ryan himself on the ticket.
So, yes, the “47 percent” is a big deal. But the likely upshot is to prevent Romney from getting up off the mat, not to knock him down in the first place. It’s Ryan who deserves credit for that.
Update: A reader asks if the movement among seniors is more pronounced than among younger cohorts, which is what you'd expect to see if Medicare were driving this. The short answer is yes, though the relative movement varies a bit.
According the Quinnipiac, Obama has seen a 17-point improvement among Florida voters 65-and-over since August, but only a 5-point improvement among those 50-64, and no change in his lead among those 18-49. His margin in Florida specifically on Medicare improved by 9 points among those 65-and-over, versus 7 points for the other two groups. (I'd argue that the reason seniors swung much more toward Obama on the first question than the second is that they're more likely to base their vote on Medicare. Or, put differently, no one likes the Ryan Medicare plan, but seniors are much more likely to vote according to that dislike.)
In Ohio, Obama has seen a 9-point improvement overall among voters 65-and-over, versus 6 points among those 50-64, and no change among those 18-49. On the Medicare question, he saw a 12-point improvement among seniors, versus 7 points among those 50-64 and 5 points among those 18-49.
Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber