Thursday, August 23, 2012


It's just days before the Republican presidential nominating convention and a simple review of the objective facts that describe the political context for the November election should put Mitt Romney ahead with a comfortable lead over President Obama. Obama's job approval has been mostly below the 50% mark for months (currently 47.5%: Rasmussen/Gallup). The economy is in its fourth year of recession and the unemployment rate is 8.3%. The “real” unemployment rate that includes individuals who have given up looking for jobs and others who have downgraded to part time or low end jobs, is 14.9%. Sixty one percent of America believe the “country is on the wrong track”. The federal deficit exceeds 15 trillion dollars and annual deficits which add to the debt are forecast to be near or above $1.3 trillion for as far as the eye can see. Obama's signature legislative “accomplishment”, Obamacare, still lacks majority support of the American people.

U.S. combat forces are out of Iraq but that took three years and the situation in Iraq is little better than after Saddam Hussein was deposed, as Sunni militias continue the internal conflict. The war in Afghanistan plods towards its 2014 expiration date for no logical reason. Afghan security forces are infiltrated by Taliban insurgents who are murdering U.S. troops at a higher rate than they are being killed in combat. Obama presides but does not govern. The Democrats haven't produced a budget in three years and the Federal Reserve is attempting to manage the economy through monetary policy.

Yet Romney will enter the GOP convention behind in national polls, several key swing states and projected electoral votes. Why is this so? The answer has several components.

First, Romney emerged from a weak field of Republican candidates which fought a vicious and self destructive nominating battle. As the front runner he was the main target of attacks. The Republican “brand” suffered as the public watched months of ineptitude (Bachmann, Cain), bizarre positions (Santorum) and hostility (Gingrich). Romney himself has been an uninspiring candidate, better than the others during the primary battle but lacking the innate qualities of “vision” and leadership necessary to inspire enthusiastic support in the general election battle. He offers a conservative alternative to Obama's big government, advanced welfare state, but it lacks coherence and projects a poorly defined outcome.

Second, each party has core supporters whose support is constant. The Democrat base is simply larger than the Republican's. Democrats can count on unions, minorities, gays, feminists, environmentalists, government workers and individuals on public assistance, as well as an ideologically motivated group of intellectuals i.e. educators and journalists. The Republican core includes the big business and financial communities, and blocs of voters concerned with abortion, gay rights, deficits and debt and defense.
So to gain a majority, Republican candidates must inspire independents and Democrats whose dissatisfaction with their current personal circumstances under Democrat leadership, overcomes their tendency to vote their historically perceived interests.

This then, is the context within which Romney made his choice of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. Much “conventional wisdom” surrounds the choice of a running mate. The first criteria always asserted by presidential candidates in their selection process is to find someone who is qualified to take over the office of the president in case that is necessary. This common sense standard however seems to have diminished in favor of other more political considerations i.e. McCain/Palin; Kerry/Edwards.

The basic question is “Will Paul Ryan bring votes to the ticket that weren't already there? Geography used to be a prominent factor. In our electoral college system a candidate from a large population state and thus with a significant number of electoral votes seemed to be a likely criteria. This of course assumed that the candidate was popular throughout the state in question. This logic also applied to regional candidates i.e. the “south”; the “mid-west”, New England etc. Other considerations however, can supersede this simple calculation. George W. Bush picked Dick Cheney from Wyoming with three electoral votes (insider Washington D.C experience). Obama picked Joe Biden from Delaware, with three electoral votes (alleged foreign policy expertise), and McCain picked Palin from Alaska with three electoral votes (the female vote).

Balance is often cited as a useful selection strategy. This could mean picking a candidate with particular expertise and experience. Most presidential candidates are short on foreign policy experience so a vice presidential candidate can campaign as filling this gap i.e. Biden. Ideological balance might be sought; a vice presidential candidate that is perceived to be “more liberal”, “more conservative” or even “more moderate” might be touted as “balancing the ticket”. In the modern era of televised campaigning personal traits have become more important. Dynamism, sense of humor, likeability, appearance, speaking ability, and self confidence, all are important.

So back to the basic questions: with respect to readiness to assume the office of president, both Romney and Ryan have the advantage of running against Obama whose 2008 election resume' lowered the bar in this respect to outer space like emptiness. Although relatively young at 42, Ryan's 13 years in the House of Representatives and prominence as GOP “ranking member”, and since 2010, Chairman of the Budget Committee place him beyond criticism from Democrats as being unprepared for the higher office if necessary.

Geography? Wisconsin, Ryan's home state, only has ten electoral votes but is considered a
“swing state”, and in a close election every electoral vote becomes important. Polls since Ryan was named show a slight (2%; within the polling margin of error) pick up for Romney, although Obama still leads slightly. But if electoral votes were the primary factor, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida would have been the choice.

“Balance” might have been a factor since Romney has met with an conservative enthusiasm gap since the primaries and Ryan is perceived, somewhat incorrectly, as a deficit hawk and a Tea Party favorite; (Ryan voted for the “Bush tax cuts; the Medicare Prescription Benefit; TARP, the bank bailout; and the auto bailout).

Essentially, Ryan is a politically savvy technocrat who loves economics and unlike most politicians isn't afraid to offer up specific ideas for debate in hopes of bringing about needed change. He lacks the energy and charisma of New Jersey Governor Chris Christy, or the interesting background, potential electoral college benefits, and up and coming political stardom of Florida Senator Marco Rubio both of who would have generated more interest/excitement, but he is a safe, conservative choice. His 2010/11 budget proposal has provided fodder for the expected Democrat doomsday scenarios and vitriol but any Republican vice presidential nominee would stimulate the far Left hate machine.

So will Ryan bring votes to the Republican ticket that weren't already there or could he cost Romney votes? Probably neither. Research shows that barring an obviously flawed vice presidential candidate (Palin) voters tend to vote for the top of the ticket. Voters who prefer Romney to Obama will approve of Ryan and vice-versa. The presidential and vice presidential debates will be crucial for Romney and Ryan. They have to make the case that Obama has led a failed administration and that they have a plan to turn the nation around. And they will have to do this in such a way as to inspire the confidence of the electorate.