Whether Mitt Romney's selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate turns out to be brilliant or disastrous, it does offer some insight into how the Romney camp is approaching the fall. Here are five takeaways:
The Midwest is the key to victory: Choosing a congressman from Wisconsin is a sign that the Romney campaign views winning the Midwest as the key to victory. Roughly half of the states that figure to be in play in the fall are in the Midwest and Ryan is better suited towards those states than almost any other possible pick.
In 2010, Republicans swept nearly all of the statewide races in the Midwest and the Romney campaign is striving to replicate that strong showing. It's also a signal that Romney intends to fully contest the Democratic-leaning swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
White Catholics are a major target group: In addition to being from the Midwest, Ryan is also a Catholic. Coincidentally, much of the swing vote in these Midwestern states is Catholic. In 2008, John McCain won the white Catholic vote 52 percent to 47 percent and lost all of the Midwestern swing states. In 2010, Republicans won white Catholics 59 percent to 39 percent, according to House exit poll data.
Without this large shift among white Catholics, Republicans could not have won races for governor in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Iowa. If Romney can do as well among white Catholics as Republicans did in 2010, then he can start measuring the drapes in the Oval Office.
The riskiest move would have been to play it safe: Even major supporters of the Ryan pick will admit to it being a risky choice. The reduction in entitlement benefits that is part of the Ryan budget plan is the greatest reduction in government benefits proposed by a political figure since Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater was trounced in part due to ideas like making Social Security optional. Ever since, proposing any reduction in entitlement programs have been considered the “third rail” of politics.
But embracing Ryan is less drastic than appears at first. It didn’t matter who Romney picked to be his number two, the main Obama attack on Romney this fall was going to be over Medicare anyway. And if you are going to be attacked for slashing Medicare, you might as well have the person best equipped to explain the details on your ticket.
A referendum on Obama isn’t the best strategy: Many have thought that this election would be a referendum on Obama’s presidency, particularly his handling of the economy. It has been thought that this would be the best strategy for Romney, considering that unemployment is currently above eight percent and that any recovery has been anemic at best.
It could be said that the worst thing for Romney is to have an election that is petty, trivial, and personality based. A personality contest between Obama and Romney could very well go in Obama’s favor. The direction of the campaign over the past few weeks has suggested as much. Adding Ryan to the ticket changes the dynamic. It has already reoriented the campaign away from personal attacks and to arguments over spending. There’s no guarantee of success in a contest of ideas, but it’s far sturdier ground to stand on.
Base enthusiasm is essential to victory: While winning over independents is the bread and butter of electoral politics, it is not the only consideration for building a winning coalition. Having a strong turnout from the base is also essential. The 2004 presidential election was famous as a duel between George W. Bush and John Kerry to increase their supporters’ turnout. Bush was able to win in 2004 because he was able to turn out the Republican base a bit better than the Kerry camp turned out Democrats. In 2008, Democratic enthusiasm was through the roof while Republican turnout fell off.
Picking a strong conservative like Ryan means that Romney feels that he needed a boost in conservative enthusiasm. To look at the very large turnout at the first Romney-Ryan appearances this weekend, it succeeded.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.