By Justin Sink - 08/11/12 10:55 PM EDT
Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate indicates the presumptive GOP nominee sees his path to victory running through the Midwest, political experts said Saturday.
And the selection of the House Budget Committee chairman also addresses two nagging concerns for the Romney campaign: the tepid support among influential conservatives and the need to shake up a presidential race that polls show favor President Obama.
But the main focus on Saturday was the electoral math.
"He'll definitely help put Wisconsin back in play, along with giving the Romney campaign a leg up Midwestern states like Ohio and Michigan," said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. "It allows Romney to play offense in states that had seemed safer, and force Obama to invest more resources there."
Polls released last week of Wisconsin from Marquette University and Quinnipiac University gave the president 5- and 6-point advantages, respectively. But a Public Policy Polling survey from July showed that adding Ryan to the Republican ticket would likely net Romney's campaign a 5-point swing in November. That would put the Badger State — and its 10 electoral votes — as a pure toss-up.
Ryan's small-town likability and Midwestern charm is likely to give the Republican ticket a spillover boost in Romney's native Michigan, where the ticket is outperforming recent GOP efforts, and Ohio, a state every Republican who's won the White House has captured.
"He has a blue-collar background and shares basic Midwestern values," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "The fact is, blue-collar voters broke for Obama at a record level in 2008, and Romney is going to have to improve on those numbers — especially since I don't think the campaign sees a lot of room to expand in the Southwest — if he is going to win this election."
Ryan's Catholic faith could also provide a significant boost in the Midwest, especially if the campaign begins aggressively highlighting issues like the birth control mandate. In Wisconsin alone, a full third of voters are Catholic; in Ohio, it's nearly a quarter of the electorate.
But the next GOP vice presidential nominee's appeal isn't limited solely to the Upper Midwest. Political watchers suggested that Ryan's libertarian streak and small government philosophies could boost Romney in New Hampshire, whose four electoral votes could possibly prove decisive in November.
"I'm willing to bet his emphasis on free enterprise and personal responsibility would endear him to the voters there," O'Connell said.
If Ryan is able to flip New Hampshire and Wisconsin into the Republican column, there are plausible scenarios where Romney could take the White House without winning Ohio or Virginia. That additional flexibility is crucial to a campaign that was previously facing do-or-die efforts in those states.
Almost equally as valuable to the Romney campaign is the credibility Ryan provides with his conservative base, which, while aligned in firm opposition to Obama, had never fully coalesced around Romney's candidacy.
"The primary advantage of having him in the election is it energizes the far-right base of the Republican Party," said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "He is well-liked and respected by the Tea Party people, and it certainly allays concerns from some of them who don't think Romney's a true conservative."
That excitement can often influence independent and swing voters drawn to the enthusiasm coalescing around a campaign — something that has been lacking so far in Romney's effort. And it can also provide a fundraising boost among some of the most generous donors in the campaign. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Saturday the Republican nominee had raised $2 million in the hours after the announcement.
In fact, Ryan's selection was in many ways a tacit admission that the Romney campaign needed to shake up a race and figure out a way to draw new attention to the Republican ticket. Rather than choosing from the safe and mild-mannered options Romney reportedly preferred early in the process, the campaign went for a pick that would change the dynamics.
"The overall sense was that they were sliding in the polls, and while this pick comes with some risk, they thought a bold pick was necessary," O'Connell said. "They wanted to stop talking about tax returns and Bain Capital and find someone who was a little more electrifying."
That electricity comes at a steep price, however. Ryan's controversial plans to privatize Social Security and radically change the administration of Medicare have proven wildly unpopular among seniors. And while Romney maybe can afford to lose seniors in the Southwest, where a growing Latino population is giving Obama a substantial edge, there are few plausible ways for Romney to win the White House without senior-heavy Florida.
"The campaign is going to have to quickly frame the debate and have a clear answer on Medicare," Bonjean said. "While Ryan enables Romney to go on offense and talk about a bad economy, they really have to watch their backs there."
A Pew Research survey released earlier this year showed the greatest opposition to Ryan's Medicare plan come from those age 50 and older, with 51 percent saying they opposed the proposal and 29 percent favoring it. Furthermore, people more than 50 years old were most likely to have "heard a lot" about Ryan's plan.
"The onus is really going to be on Paul Ryan to use his knowledge of complex financial matters and his ability to communicate them in a cogent way to explain his plan," O'Connell said. "Otherwise, Mitt Romney is going to have to try to win Florida on his own."