In Ryan pick, echoes of Obama’s own selection of Vice President Biden

For two men who are so different in almost every respect, President Obama and Mitt Romney have chosen running mates with strikingly similar cultural contours.

In 2008, the youthful, black, Democratic son of a single mother chose a white, Catholic, Irish-American running mate. On Saturday morning, the middle-aged, wealthy Republican son of a governor did exactly the same.

There are, to be sure, political and ideological chasms that separate Vice President Biden from Romney’s newly selected junior partner, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

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But the selection of two people with near-identical demographic profiles says a lot about the voting blocs that will be most pivotal in November’s presidential election — and about the vulnerabilities of the men atop their respective tickets. 

Put simply, Biden and Ryan offer help in appealing to the white working-class voters who will prove crucial in swing states like Biden’s native Pennsylvania, Ryan’s native Wisconsin, and other perennial battlegrounds like Ohio and Michigan. 

“When you put the two men side by side, the fact that they are white, Catholic, working-class guys just jumps off the page immediately,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine who has written extensively about class and cultural divisions in U.S. politics.


Both Biden and Ryan exhibit an ease in personal encounters with voters that is lacking in Obama and Romney, neither of whom is likely to be mistaken for a natural backslapper and flesh-presser.

Even if Biden’s garrulousness can cause him problems or Ryan sometimes departs from the safety-first script of many Washington politicians, Obama and Romney evidently consider these prices worth paying.

“When I listen to the president, sometimes I feel I want to take out my notes — it’s the constitutional law professor speaking, you know?” said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College. “And with Romney, what more can be said about how he’s aloof, detached, distant and all the rest?

“But Biden connects very well at that level, and Ryan connects very well too. They offer a very clear contrast with the president and Gov. Romney.”

Political partisans already are trading verbal punches over whether Biden or Ryan has the more genuine everyman appeal.

“Biden is a guy you would want to have a pint with even if he was not who he is, because he has never forgotten where he and his family came from,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “Ryan is a guy who, if you had a pint with him, would insist on splitting the tab down to the penny.”

Quite the opposite, says Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who recalled coming away highly impressed from witnessing Ryan firsthand in Wisconsin.

“I have seen him do the family restaurant circuit, and he’s very good,” Wilson said. “He can connect with people because he’s like them. When hunting season starts, he wants to go get his deer. Joe Biden is a creature of Washington.”

Obama and Romney both have had consistent problems appealing to working-class, white voters. 

At look at their respective winning primary campaigns proves the point. In May 2008, at a time when Obama was the near-certain Democratic presidential nominee, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton walloped him by a more than 2-to-1 margin in the West Virginia primary. Exit polls showed her winning the votes of white Democrats by 74 to 21 percent.

In March of this year, when former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (Pa.) hopes of ultimate victory in the Republican race were all but extinguished, he beat Romney in Louisiana by more than 20 percentage points.  Among those who never attended college, Santorum’s support was 59 to 14 percent.

The knotty question of how religion intersects with politics is also part of the challenge for both Obama and Romney. 

Obama made a memorable error during the 2008 campaign when he referred to people whose economic travails made them “cling to guns or religion.” Romney’s Mormonism — and, more broadly, his perceived malleability on social issues like abortion and gay rights — has given Christian conservatives pause.

Biden has sometimes served as an emissary from the Obama administration to his Catholic co-religionists. In March, for example, he told a crowd at Iowa State University that the administration had “screwed up” its first attempt at mandating that religious-run institutions provide contraception coverage to their employees.

The furor over that mandate continues to be used by the Romney campaign, which launched a video ad earlier this week that incorporated an image of Pope John Paul II and the accusation that Obama was “forcing religious institutions to go against their faith.”

When he introduced Ryan as his vice presidential choice on Saturday morning, Romney — who once supported abortion rights — conspicuously referred to him as “a faithful Catholic [who] believes in the worth and dignity of every human life.”

Brewer, the political scientist, said that it is much more problematic than it was a half-century ago to talk about the “Catholic vote”.  

The decision for Catholics now, he said “shakes out in part by how you view Catholicism in the 21st century,” he said. “If you are a traditionalist, pre-Vatican II Catholic, for whom social issues are very important, you tend to vote Republican. For those conservative Catholics who might look at Romney with a skeptical eye, Ryan might help him.”

For those among the faithful who took a more liberal view of the church’s teachings, Brewer added, “Joe Biden — looking out for the little guy, caring about the poor — is your guy.”

The specificities of faith aside, Brewer said, the battle for white, working-class support remains vital. 

Even if that vote was not as big as it used to be, she said, “It is still going to be crucial in those Midwestern battleground states, where every vote counts.”