Columns » Jay Barth

First impressions of Ryan are everything

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Before Saturday, when House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan was announced as Mitt Romney's running mate, fewer than half of American voters knew enough of him to have an opinion. Those then able to evaluate Ryan — they split fairly evenly — are mostly informed partisans whose votes are not up for grabs. However, the coming days will be crucial in efforts to define Ryan in the eyes of the voters who will determine the outcome of Election 2012 — undeclared voters in the handful of key battleground states. And these first impressions of Ryan will determine whether or not he has a consequential role in the election in either a beneficial or harmful manner for GOP efforts.

In the Ryan roll-out, Romney's team has emphasized that Ryan is a "big thinker" who has shown character in his willingness to take on the most pressing fiscal problems of the present and future through his plans to get federal spending under control and to make the government's major entitlement programs solvent. This framing of Ryan also emphasizes the Wisconsinite's personal character; he's a "great guy" who emphasizes collegiality in his work. Indeed, Romney has noted Ryan's ability in "working across the aisle" in the Congress. Finally, this framing of Ryan highlights his commitment to family, church, and community. In short, he's the son any mother would love to have. Moreover, this storyline emphasizes what the Ryan selection has to say about Mitt Romney; it shows that the GOP nominee is a risk-taker ready to create fundamental change in a troubled nation with this policy entrepreneur at his right hand.

On the other hand, Democrats are aggressively attempting to create a counter-narrative. As shown in the nonstop tweets issued by the Obama camp since Saturday, this narrative contends that Ryan has recklessly attacked the contract between the government and its most vulnerable citizens through his budget plans. Most important, these plans have promised to "destroy" Medicare and even threaten Social Security. Ryan's vision also slashes taxes for the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class. The Democratic critique also gets personal: Ryan may be a great family man, but he is a son of wealth, much of it gained through government contracts, who has no understanding of those who must rely on the social safety net that he would shred. Citing hypocrisy, Democrats have noted Ryan's comfort in voting for a series of spending measures like Medicare Part D and the Bush wars that helped run up the massive deficits now in his bull's-eye. For icing, Ryan is portrayed as an extremist on social issues like the right to choose and LGBT rights. Democrats also argue that the Ryan selection says much about Romney: He's a radical beholden to the Tea Party and on a mission to create a tax structure beneficial to folks like him.

We know that once voters begin to see a politician through a particular lens, that perspective shapes all that follows. Once we have an opinion of that politician, we discard information that contradicts and soak in information that supports the view unless some dramatic happens. That's why the next few days are so important in determining which of these potentially compelling frames about Ryan dominates the campaign ahead.

With only the rare exception, vice-presidential candidates don't shape the outcome of presidential elections. Because of the powerful nature of the competing frames about Paul Ryan, he will matter in this election. If the Romney-Ryan ticket can propel the first frame to the forefront, he can become a positive for the ticket across the swing states. On the other hand, Democrats' successfully defining Ryan would make him an albatross to Romney (and, probably, Republicans down the ticket). A third, and perhaps most likely scenario, is that the "good Ryan" comes to fore in certain swing states like Iowa, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire but the Democrats are able to push forward the "bad Ryan" scenario in other states, particularly the consummate swing state of Florida. In that state, fundamental to any GOP plans for a Romney electoral college victory, Republicans are deeply worried about the vision of Ryan as a radical and uncaring slasher of Medicare becoming cemented. The clock is ticking — for both parties.

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