In the best-selling book What’s The Matter With Kansas?, author Thomas Frank makes the provocative argument that working-class voters care more about cultural issues than economic ones, frequently voting against their self-interest. As he writes, "There is no bad economic turn a conservative cannot do unto his buddy in the working class, as long as cultural solidarity has been cemented over a beer." It’s an argument that many liberals embraced when the book was released, but are conveniently overlooking as they cheer Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate.
By picking Ryan, Romney is gambling that enough blue-collar voters and seniors are so dissatisfied with President Obama that not even a full-fledged attack on Ryan’s budget plan will change their minds. They’re betting that Ryan’s image as a fresh-faced, straight-talking economic expert will prevail over the details of his budget blueprint that would impact future seniors and voters who are dependent on government benefits.
Romney is daring Obama to win over enough voters from the demographic groups with which he runs the weakest. It’s a major gamble, to be sure, but one that’s grounded in some political sense. Ryan’s fiscal proposals are cheered most enthusiastically by the elite conservative opinion leaders whose backgrounds are far different from the party’s grassroots, but his image as a small-town, hard-working boy who made good offers broad appeal.
The most recent Gallup weekly tracking numbers, along with the exit-poll numbers from the 2010 midterms, are instructive in illustrating how deep the president’s gap is with the groups that, on paper, would be most receptive to the Democrats’ Medicare attacks. His job approval with seniors is currently stuck at 37 percent, an identical number to his approval rating in the famously inhospitable South. The Democratic Party’s standing with seniors have been stuck underwater since the passage of Obama’s health care law; Republicans carried them by 21 points, 59 to 38 percent, in the 2010 midterms.
With working-class white voters, many of whom depend on government services, the numbers are even rougher for Obama and Democrats. In last month’s national Quinnipiac poll, only 33 percent of noncollege whites said they’d be supporting Obama over Romney, with just 32 percent saying they would be backing a House Democrat in November. That’s at the same level as the party with these voters in November 2010, even as Democrats have gone on an all-out blitz casting questions about Romney’s wealth and portraying his tax plans as geared toward the super-wealthy.
Of course, the gamble by picking Ryan is that these voters, many disenchanted with Romney and his privileged background, would view Ryan’s entitlement reform proposals as unacceptable. For the undecided voters, it could become the final straw pushing them to support the president. That’s the Obama campaign’s bet, and it’s borne out in plenty of polling and focus groups that show voters are acutely sensitive to charges alleging Republicans want to decimate the social safety net.
The reward is that Ryan’s biography could very well resonate as much as the details of his policy proposals. Already he’s added some much-needed energy to the Romney ticket, and has seamlessly weaved in personal anecdotes that effectively advance the merits of free-market capitalism. "You know, I don't know about you, but when I was growing up, you know when I was flipping burgers at McDonald's, when I was standing in front of that big Hobart machine washing dishes or waiting tables, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life," Ryan said at a campaign rally on Tuesday in suburban Denver.
It’s that everyman biography -- flipping burgers at McDonald’s to pay for college, his Packers fandom, stories of his hunting and fishing exploits -- that could be as compelling for blue-collar voters as the details of his entitlement proposals could repel them. There’s a reason that Ryan never faced a tough race since first elected to the House in 1998, despite running in a competitive district that Obama carried. Even as Democrats crowed early on this cycle that his proposal would make him newly vulnerable for his House seat this year, his Democratic challenger Rob Zerban has failed to make inroads against the House member.
Romney says he picked Ryan because of his bold economic proposals, but where he really stands to benefit is Ryan’s combination of everyman sensibility and articulate advocacy of conservative economic principles. Already Romney has demurred when asked whether he supports Ryan’s budget, and Ryan has been squarely focused on job growth in his solo campaign appearances.
If this becomes a race focused on the nitty-gritty of Ryan’s budget blueprint, Romney is in trouble. But if Romney can fight Obama to a draw on Medicare, Ryan could go a long way to bridging the longstanding divide between Romney and the working class.