Thursday, October 11, 2012

One reason why tonight's Biden-Ryan debate might be (unusually) important

Back on September 27 (how long ago that seems now, in political time!), when support for the Romney-Ryan ticket seemed to be sinking like a stone, Noam Scheiber offered an analysis whose main thrust was nicely summed up in the title of his piece "'47%' Was Bad for Romney; Ryan Has Been Deadly":
The conventional wisdom on Obama’s recent surge {JW: remember that?] is that it’s due largely to Mitt Romney’s 47% disaster, and there’s clearly something to this. If nothing else, it’s given Team Obama grist for an absolutely devastating ad.

But it’s worth pointing out another dynamic that’s been overlooked here: The escalating disaster that is Paul Ryan. At the time of his selection, a number of pundits argued Ryan’s strategic benefits, suggesting he would boost Romney by energizing conservatives, or by allowing Romney to run as the candidate of big ideas, or that he would at least be the party’s best defender of the Medicare plan Romney was going to have to defend whether he wanted to or not. This seemed like a stretch at the time—after all, Ryan’s Medicare plan proved to be a massive liability the one time voters weighed in on it. But who could say for sure?

Well, fast forward a month-and-a-half and the numbers look pretty persuasive. This week the New York Times released a set of polls, conducted by Quinnipiac, assessing the state of the race in Ohio and Florida. The top-line numbers were jaw-dropping enough: Obama’s lead in Ohio grew from six to ten over the last month, and from three to nine in Florida. (It’s better to focus on the change here than the magnitude, which is highly sensitive to polling methodology.) But once you look at the internal numbers, they’re even less kind to Romney. More to the point, they suggest Ryan has done enormous damage to the ticket.

Back in late August, Obama led Romney on the question of who would handle Medicare better by 8 points in Florida and 10 points in Ohio; now he’s up 15 in Florida and 16 in Ohio. And the problems are especially acute among senior citizens, a group Obama has traditionally struggled with. A month ago, Obama was down 13 points in Florida among people 65 and older; today he’s up 4. On the specific question of Medicare, Obama was down 4 points among Florida seniors in August; today he’s up 5 points. (The Quinnipiac Poll re-shuffled its age-groups between August and September, so you won’t be make apples-to-apples comparisons by eyeballing their crosstabs. But the super-kind people at Quinnipiac re-reshuffled them for me.)

The numbers for Ohio are similar: In August, Obama was down 8 among seniors in the state; today he’s up 1. A month ago Obama was down 6 points among Ohio seniors on the Medicare issue; today he’s up 6. The turnaround here is simply breathtaking. [....]
And so on. You can read the rest here.

That analysis struck me as plausible at the time, and it still strikes me as plausible—that is, I'm sure it captures an important element of what was going on. Since last week's debate, of course, the situation is different. Part of Romney's strategy, starting with his debate performance, was to shake the Etch-a-Sketch and reinvent himself as Moderate Mitt from Massachusetts (in style, at least, though not so much in substance). In the process, he's been trying to put as much space as possible between himself and the specter of the Ryan Budget.  He is counting on the gullibility and short attention spans of the punditry and the electorate to get away with this.

However, while Romney has been successful to a degree in obfuscating his actual policy positions (or simply lying about their implications, as in the case of his proposed tax cuts for the wealthy), those policies remain highly unpopular, even scary, to a lot of voters. For the moment, much of the electorate seems to be in the grip of a temporary amnesia about Ryan and the Ryan Budget. If Biden can effectively smoke Ryan out—reminding voters of Ryan's existence, his extremist policy proposals, his larger commitment to a program of "right-wing social engineering," and the fact that Romney once endorsed that program in the warmest tones—that could serve as a useful and significant reality check. On the other hand, if Ryan is able to evade responsibility for his long-held positions by doing his own Etch-a-Sketch, or if Biden blows it in some other way. that will be bad news.

I guess we'll see pretty soon.

—Jeff Weintraub