In broad strokes, that agenda generates enthusiastic support among blue-collar and older white voters who have grown increasingly resistant to government spending, particularly for transfer programs to the poor, and the taxes required to fund them. In the 2010 national exit poll, for instance, two-thirds of non-college whites said “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and people,” while only 29 percent agreed that “government should do more to solve problems.” In a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey last year exploring the contrasting attitudes among American generations, 62 percent of the aging white baby boom-and an even more resounding 67 percent of the older “silent” generation-said they preferred a smaller government that offers fewer services to a larger government that provides more. And in that same survey, a majority of both the baby boomers and seniors said they supported the repeal of the new Obama health care law, which according to other polls many of them primarily view as a welfare program for the poor. In the 2010 exit poll, nearly three-fifths of non-college whites also supported repeal.
(RELATED: How Biden and Ryan Stack Up)
But among both blue-collar and older whites attitudes about Medicare are very different. In March, the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll offered respondents two options for the program. Just 19 percent of whites older than 65 endorsed Ryan’s approach, which said “Medicare should be changed to a system where the government provides seniors with a fixed sum of money they could use either to purchase private health insurance or to pay the cost of remaining in the current Medicare program.” Fully 74 percent of white seniors said instead that “Medicare should continue as it is today, with the government providing health insurance and paying doctors and hospitals directly for the services they provide to seniors.” Among non-college whites, 63 percent said they preferred the current system, while only 26 percent backed Ryan’s approach. (Ryan’s plan also drew opposition not only from 66 percent of college-educated white women -- consistently the most Democratic-leaning component of the white electorate -- but even 60 percent of college-educated men, an audience usually receptive to anti-government arguments.)
Generally surveys find white women more resistant to changes in the safety net than white men (although the specific Congressional Connection Poll on Ryan’s plan didn’t show that pattern.) If Ryan’s plan remains a central focus through the fall, it would not be surprising if that debate widened the gender gap -- potentially helping the Republican ticket with men most receptive to the sort of broad anti-government arguments Ryan unfurled in his announcement speech Saturday, but hurting it with white women.
(FULL COVERAGE: Paul Ryan Picked for VP)
At a Rick Santorum campaign event late last year in Marshalltown, Iowa, Carlene Illum, a retired credit-union loan officer, embodied the tension written in these polls. She cheered Santorum’s promises to retrench government entitlements for the poor and denounced Obama as “a socialist” for his health care plan. The budget deficit, she insisted, was rooted in “Obamacare and all those entitlement programs” like food stamps. But she blanched at the idea of converting Medicare into a premium-support plan or retrenching Social Security in any way. “I don’t think Social Security is an entitlement because I paid into it,” she said. “I feel the same way about Medicare.”
Obama faces many barriers-cultural, ideological, and in some cases racial-with older and working-class white voters. And Republicans are sure to remind those same voters about the provisions in Obama’s health care that will slow the growth of Medicare spending by $500 billion and use the savings to help finance coverage for the uninsured.
But if Ryan’s dream of restructuring Medicare provides Democrats a beachhead for recapturing any meaningful number of voters like Illum-particularly blue-collar women already displaying hesitation about Romney-that could enormously complicate the electoral math for the GOP. “The positions that [Ryan] has taken on Social Security and Medicare reform could alienate older white voters, and especially older white women, whose support is crucial to Romney's chances,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. “These older white voters don't care very much for President Obama, but they love their Medicare and Social Security benefits.”