The Magazine

Fighting to Win

The Romney-Ryan ticket welcomes a battle over entitlements.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Seven months later, one of Rubio’s two opponents, Florida governor Charlie Crist, used Rubio’s words from this interview in a television ad that was part of a relentless campaign of demagoguery. Most of Crist’s attack focused on Social Security rather than Medicare, but the arguments are similar. “Work longer, get by on less,” intoned a scary voice. “That’s the Marco Rubio retirement plan. Rubio wants to raise the Social Security retirement age. That means you’ll work harder and longer for your money.” Rubio, the ad continued, wants to “cut benefits” and “balance the budget on the backs of seniors.”

Rubio responded with a substantive refutation of the misleading claims in the ad. But he didn’t stop there. As he did almost every time he talked about entitlement reform, Rubio personalized the issue—talking about his own mother and explaining that he wouldn’t do anything that would affect the benefits she’d earned. “Anytime you can take a theoretical argument and apply it to someone, that’s better, particularly if it’s someone in your own life,” Rubio says. “The truth is it makes me care about the issue on a personal level, not just a political level. It’s important to show that. We all have someone we know on Medicare or Social Security.”

This worked for Rubio. As Crist’s demagoguery intensified, Rubio’s internal tracking polls showed him maintaining his leads among key demographic groups that he would win on Election Day. On the specific question of who would better protect Social Security, which Rubio’s pollster tested for the final two weeks of the campaign, when Crist focused on the issue to the exclusion of virtually everything else, Rubio’s position eroded only slightly—from 32 percent to 28 percent—and he still ended up higher than either of his opponents. Those same internal polls showed Rubio with 35 percent of the 65-and-older vote at the beginning of October and 34 percent at the end of the month. Over that timeframe, Rubio increased his support among voters age 18-34, from 30 percent to 45 percent. Exit polls taken on Election Day affirm this trajectory, showing Rubio ultimately won seniors with 50 percent of the vote and 18-29-year-olds (a slightly different cohort) with 36 percent of the vote.

It’s early, again, but it may be working for Romney and Ryan. The glee Democrats expressed in the immediate aftermath of the Ryan announcement has given way to a slightly more circumspect view. Matt Miller, a veteran of the Clinton White House, used his Washington Post column to urge Democrats to attack Romney and Ryan broadly, and to warn them about the fight over entitlement reform: “But if Democrats spend all their energy on Medicare—and don’t knock out the GOP ticket’s undeserved reputation for fiscal responsibility—they’ll find themselves in unexpected peril as the race heads to the fall.”

Ezra Klein, a liberal columnist at the same paper, worried that the Obama plan to elevate Ryan could “backfire more disastrously than they have ever imagined” if Ryan helps Mitt Romney get elected and then implements his reforms. 

Too much focus on Medicare for Democrats? Republicans could campaign on entitlement reform and win? A running mate who actually will affect the outcome of a presidential race? So much for conventional wisdom.

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