If you happened to watch Fox News Tuesday night, you would have heard a good bit of carrying on about the Romney campaign’s criminal neglect of Paul Ryan. “Paul Ryan was put on the ticket and he’s a budget guy,” Laura Ingraham moaned. "But then, Paul Ryan was pulled back from discussing the budget." Had Boston only un-muzzled the GOP’s deepest thinker, the logic went, the election outcome could have been vastly different.
I couldn’t agree more! A few more Ryan appearances in the likes of Ohio and Florida and Romney might have lost these states by much larger margins.
Most of what you need to know about why Ryan was kryptonite for the GOP is contained in the pages of the so-called Path to Prosperity, his proposal to roll back government spending, de-fund Medicaid, and hack up Medicare while cutting taxes on the wealthy. Although smaller government polls reasonably well in the abstract—as it did in Tuesday’s exit polls—the most specific elements of Ryan's plan are calamitously unpopular. It’s no surprise that voters decisively rejected it the one chance they had before this week, handing a reliable Republican congressional seat in New York to a little known Democrat in 2011.
Before Romney made Ryan his running mate, conservatives persuaded themselves that the problem wasn’t the plan itself. It was that Ryan, possessed of both a righteous cause and irresistible powers of persuasion, had never had a chance to sell the plan on a national stage. Elevating him to the GOP ticket would correct that particular injustice.
But during the brief moment this summer when Ryan was prominently featured in the campaign—the window the Ingrahams of the world now pine for—his presence only made Romney less appealing to seniors and less credible on Medicare, depressing his margins in swing states. Not long after Ryan joined the ticket in August, a Quinnipiac poll showed Obama leading Romney on the question of who would better handle Medicare by 8 points in Florida and 10 points in Ohio. After a few weeks of Ryan charming voters with his budgetary dreaminess, the poll showed Obama leading Romney on the issue by 15 points in Florida and 16 points in Ohio. In a similar vein, Quinnipiac showed Obama struggling mightily with older voters back in August—down 13 points in Florida and 8 points in Ohio among people over 65. By late September, Obama was up 4 among seniors in Florida and 1 in Ohio.
This development was even more damaging to Romney’s prospects than you might initially realize. That's because, even more so than previous GOP nominees, Romney was going to need huge margins among white voters to have any shot at winning. And elderly voters are one of the most reliably Republican groups of whites.
That’s one reason why, when Romney first picked Ryan, I argued that the only possible rationale was to appease conservatives, even though the move could ensure Romney’s defeat. By late September, the Romney campaign had come to this conclusion, too. Ryan vanished into endless debate-cramming sessions. Other than rallying the campaign’s most hardcore supporters, the only time he emerged from his undisclosed location (and you thought they only got those after the election) was to hold fundraisers in electorally critical states like Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. When the Romney campaign ran ads, the wingman they showcased wasn’t Ryan. It was Ohio Senator (and vice presidential also-ran) Rob Portman.
The Pinochet-style disappearance of Ryan kinda, sorta worked. By late October, according to Quinnipiac, Romney was back to leading Obama among seniors in Florida and Ohio.* He’d cut his Medicare deficit back down to a manageable place, presumably on the strength of his first debate performance, where he dishonestly but effectively repackaged the Ryan Medicare plan. According to Tuesday’s exit polls, Romney carried seniors by 17 points in Florida and 12 in Ohio.
But just in case anyone was tempted to forget some recent history and insist that unleashing Ryan would have pushed Romney over the top, there was one place Romney simply couldn’t keep him hidden: Southeastern Wisconsin. In 2008, before Ryan became the leader of the GOP’s war on government, and long before Romney thrust him and his bold ideas into the national spotlight, Ryan carried his Wisconsin congressional district by a 29-point margin. On Tuesday, he won it by a mere 13-points, even as Obama’s Wisconsin margins fell in half. If Republicans want to try replicating this special form of magic on a national scale, I’m sure President Biden will be the first to thank them.
*Note: Quinnipiac changed its age categories from 65+ to 55+ between polls for some reason. But since 65-and-ups tend to be even more Republican than 55-and-ups, it’s safe to assume than any rough tie among the latter implied a Romney lead among the former.