At Real Clear Politics, Tom Bevan and Carl Cannon rightly note that “[Mitt] Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan cheered fiscal and social conservatives within the Republican Party and provided a much needed shot in the arm for Romney’s campaign.” But they also argue that, “by choosing Ryan, Romney passed over the more qualified Rob Portman, Ohio’s Republican senator who could have helped in the Buckeye State.” Moreover, they speculate that “Ryan’s presence on the ticket might have actually hurt marginally in Florida, where his ideas about reforming Medicare were used, unfairly, to scare the bejesus out of seniors.”
It’s surprising to hear the claim that Portman was “more qualified” than Ryan, the well-liked House Budget Committee chairman who has been the intellectual leader of the Republican party throughout the Obama presidency. Few would have thought of Portman — who was President George W. Bush’s budget director for part of Bush’s second term — as a viable presidential contender in his own right, while many of us strongly encouraged Ryan to run. By all accounts, Portman did an excellent job of helping Romney in his debate prep and contributed greatly to his campaign. But he surely wouldn’t have generated the same enthusiasm that Ryan did, nor would he have done nearly so much to unite the party, and it seems rather unlikely that he could have swung the Buckeye State to Romney.
As for Bevan’s and Cannon’s claim that the Ryan pick may have scared Florida seniors, let’s look at the evidence. Exit polling in 2008 indicated that John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin won by a margin of 8 percentage points among Florida seniors (53 to 45 percent). Exit polling in 2012 indicates that Romney-Ryan more than doubled that margin — to 17 points (58 to 41 percent).
Romney’s other biggest gains in the Sunshine State, in relation to McCain, were among Floridians between the ages of 45 and 64 — the younger half of whom would have been among the first wave of Americans to experience the Romney-Ryan Medicare reforms firsthand. McCain lost among that group of voters by 5 points (52 to 47 percent); Romney won by 4 points (52 to 48 percent).
What’s more, when asked in exit polling who would do a better job of handling Medicare, Florida voters gave President Obama the edge over Romney by a meager 4 points — 50 to 46 percent — an enviable result for any Republican candidate. (That question wasn’t asked in 2008 exit polling.)
Perhaps Romney and Ryan had such success with Florida seniors (and with those within 20 years of becoming seniors) because, in the course of defending their proposed Medicare reforms, they launched a potent counterattack against Obamacare — highlighting its $716 billion Medicare raid. In fact, that counterattack was the only sustained offensive that Romney launched against Obamacare during the entire course of the campaign. If he had launched additional offensives against other parts of Obamacare — such as its requirement that younger Americans buy federally approved health insurance at inflated prices, so as to help subsidize the insurance of older (generally wealthier) Americans — perhaps he would have won over more voters under the age of 45 and taken the state.
Regardless, the evidence from exit polling suggests that Ryan’s presence on the ticket helped, rather than hurt, Romney with Florida’s seniors. Moreover, it suggests that the key to GOP victories in the future isn’t to cater to any particular subgroup of the electorate, but rather to take wise positions and then persuasively make the case for those positions with the electorate as a whole.