The choice of Paul Ryan as mitt Romney’s Vice-Presidential running mate has caused a degree of surprise. Many commentators felt that Romney would have been better off with someone like Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio, for instance, brought two major advantages to the table. One, he is from Florida and could have helped Romney carry Florida, a – crucial swing state in Presidential elections. Rubio is also Hispanic, a significant demographic in the United States currently and one where Romney is not faring particularly well.
Conventional wisdom has it that Ryan is a risky choice; that the most compelling reason for choosing Ryan is that Mitt Romney recognizes that he is clearly behind Barack Obama at the moment. Therefore he needed to do something to shake things up and change the nature of the game. After all the last time a member of House was part of the winning ticket was John Nance Garner who was elected Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President in 1932. Garner was the Speaker of the house at the time. The last time that an ordinary member of the House was on the Republican ticket was when John Sherman was elected Vice President with William Howard Taft in 1908!
It is certainly true that when combating against superior forces it is better to introduce greater uncertainty. So to take an example, if you have to play tennis against Roger Federer then it is better to do that on an uneven playing surface. This tends to nullify some of the advantage of the superior opponent.
However, it is not at all clear whether the Ryan choice does introduce that element of uncertainty; clearly it does not to the extent that the choice of Sara Palin did for John McCain. Palin was almost completely unknown nationally and after she burst on to the scene, McCain experience a significant bounce in the polls.
Ryan on the other hand is much better known. However, in choosing him it is not clear that Romney nullifies any of Obama’s advantages. For one thing, Ryan is best known for the Republican House budget, a deeply unpopular document which proposes to gut entitlements and in many ways takes aim at the whole notion of the welfare state.
Till this point the Romney strategy was to set up this election as a referendum on Obama’s Presidency; draw attention to Obama’s failures and hope that the electorate will throw him out.
But by choosing Ryan, Romney is implicitly setting this up as a conflict between two radically different views of government and of the whole rationale of the welfare state. But this is not a wining argument. The US electorate has faced these choices and has repeatedly and overwhelmingly rejected similar attempts including the Bush proposal to privatize social security.
What is Romney’s thinking then? I think the fundamental calculation here is very different. Contrary to the views expressed by many talking heads there are few if any centrist voters, at least in the classical sense of the term. The US electorate is now divided into a series of well-defined voting blocs. The Presidential election boils down to a gruelling attempt to put together a patchwork of enough of these blocks within each state that allows the candidate to prevail in the state and thereby garner enough electoral votes. However, there are two challenges here. One is to hold on to the blocs that typically vote in a particular way. For instance, Mitt Romney is not going to get any significant portion of the black vote. Obama is not going to win the white blue-collar workers without a college degree. The trick then is to hang on to enough of these “captive” blocs while trying to snatch some away from the other camp.
But Romney was in grave danger of losing out on the conservative vote. These people – as embodied in the support for the Tea Party – have been deeply suspicious of Romney and there was a real possibility that these people would have stayed home on election-day.
The defeats of George Herbert Walker Bush at the hands of Bill Clinton and that of John McCain to Obama most likely had multiple reasons but an important contributing factor was that both of these candidates failed to mobilize the conservative base. George W Bush – actually Karl Rove - on the other hand did a masterful job of motivating the base via a series of legislative measures on the ballot in many states. This was to a large extent instrumental in Bush’s easy victory over John Kerry even though polls had suggested a much closer race.
Losing the conservative base was a recipe for certain disaster for Romney. By choosing Ryan he has locked up those votes. It is likely that Romney will still lose. His unfavourable ratings are high. A large part of the electorate does not trust him and he gives the impression that he does not have strong convictions. Add to this the fact that Ryan’s budget proposals are unacceptable to a large part of the population. But at least Romney no longer has to worry about the conservative vote and can now make a play for putting together a coalition that can take him over that threshold.