Mitt Romney lost on Election Day, but it’s unclear whether running mate Paul Ryan did as well.
That’s because running mates nearly always have a political future, while presidential nominees don’t. And that future is defined, to a large extent, by how they conducted themselves during the presidential campaign.
According to limiting polling, you’d have to say yes, but according to some intangibles, you might say no.
In a Politico/George Washington University Battleground poll conducted one month after the election, the Wisconsin Republican remained popular — 47 percent viewed him favorably and only 33 percent viewed him unfavorably. That gap of 14 percentage points between his favorable and unfavorable rating was larger than the gap between President Obama’s favorable and unfavorable rating. In other words, Ryan’s rating was stronger.
That confirmed a phenomenon we saw throughout the general election: Ryan held a stronger favorable rating than Obama, Romney or Vice President Biden.
Early 2016 polling also has some good news. According to the left-leaning Public Policy Polling, Ryan sports a higher favorable rating among Republicans than the other possible Republican presidential candidates polled.
But despite that popularity, Republicans don’t see him as the party’s heir or even favored nominee. The same Public Policy Polling survey found that just 12 percent of national GOP voters wanted Ryan to win the nomination — good for a third-place tie with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. To be sure, that’s not a bad number, but it suggests Ryan didn’t wow GOP voters the same way Sarah Palin did.
Of course, a poll four years away from an election seems practically meaningless, but it does reveal one thing: that, whatever you think of Ryan’s performance as a vice-presidential running mate, it didn’t establish him as the front-runner for 2016. That says something.
The Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis thinks that, on balance, Ryan’s run actually “might have marginally hurt him” by virtue of the fact that it’s rare that a loser of any kind is deemed a winner. Of course, no one is blaming Ryan for Romney’s loss, but they’re not crediting him for helping Romney’s bid much, either.
Say what you want about Palin, but both her supporters and opponents agree she made a substantial impact on the 2008 race. You rarely hear anything of that kind about Ryan.
It’s downright surprising that someone as bold as Ryan left such a tepid imprint on the race. The lightning rod became a candy cane. The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis lays the blame squarely at Romney’s feet for turning Ryan “into the sixth Romney son.”
“When Team Romney did let Paul Ryan off the leash, he was an effective advocate of the need to fix entitlements and enhance upward mobility. But that didn’t happen too often, unfortunately, so Ryan ended up being an underutilized asset. … It was a huge missed opportunity.”
Under this interpretation, Ryan’s weaknesses weren’t actually Ryan’s but Romney’s, and if it did anything, the campaign showed Ryan’s talent as a national politician.
But Lewis disagrees, arguing that the national stage exposed a possible Ryan weakness: He’s a great conservative communicator, but not a great American one.
“Ryan’s communication skills are more persuasive when preaching to the choir,” Lewis explains, “but his rhetorical style is less persuasive or inspirational than, say, Marco Rubio’s ability to talk about the American Dream.”
Perhaps, then, it’s not coincidental that the guy Ryan’s looking up at in national polls is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). In Public Policy Polling’s survey, Rubio sits at the top of the leaderboard — 6 percentage points ahead of Ryan, despite being passed over for vice president.
But if Ryan wasn’t a visionary communicator, there’s no doubt he helped himself in some of the more pedestrian but no less important areas of presidential import. Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for the National Review, says Ryan didn’t just raise his national profile, he also “made contact with many Republican donors he had not previously known.”
But perhaps most importantly, Ponnuru notes that Ryan’s proposed Medicare reforms weren’t the drag on the ticket that many warned they’d be, and a lot of that was due to Ryan’s strength defending those reforms. Pethokoukis agrees and argues that the ticket’s success with senior citizens “shows Medi-scare no longer works.”
Ryan deserves substantial credit on that score — something that has to be heartening to conservatives who wonder whether bold reform can sell on a national stage. And after taking a shellacking last month, Republicans should savor anything that’s heartening.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.