When Mitt Romney picked Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as his running mate in early August, both conservatives and liberals rejoiced.
Finally, the two parties thought: Here’s a chance to boost or tarnish Ryan’s brand of conservatism—an ideology well-known inside Washington but which not yet been litigated on the national stage.
But the Ryan brand has neither suffered nor soared in recent weeks. His selection did not give Romney an immediate boost in the polls, though it did thrill the base.
Nor has it proven itself as the silver bullet the Democrats crave to win tight congressional races. Democrats have long hoped that tying Romney to the Ryan budget and its proposed changes in Medicare would be enough to woo voters in key states. No one will know that until Election Day.
Instead, the biggest change for Ryan has simply been more exposure. “Clearly, it has given him a dramatic boost in name ID, but firm opinions of him have yet to be formed nationally,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and president of North Star Opinion Research.
Thursday night’s first and only vice presidential debate will serve as a national debut for the chairman of the House Budget Committee, who is one of the key architects of Republican policies in Congress. It will give him the chance to portray himself as the policy wonk he’s known as in conservative circles, or cast himself as a tough political tactician, ready for a bigger stage.
“Ryan has the opportunity to move the needle positively or negatively with the debate, but there is still not an insignificant majority of voters who don’t know who he is,” says Carroll Dougherty, an associate director at the Pew Research Center.
Voters who do know about Ryan remain divided, just as they have been since he was first selected by Romney as his running mate. A new poll from the Pew center, released on Wednesday, showed that 44 percent of voters viewed Ryan favorably while 40 percent held a negative view of him.
That pretty even split remains unchanged since late August, when voters polled by Pew expressed mixed views by describing Ryan with a combination of compliments and insults such as intelligent, good, energetic, honest, versus idiot, extreme, phony, scary.
This divided reaction comes partly from the role Ryan has played on the campaign trail. He has largely tucked away his PowerPoint presentations and facts and figures about Medicare to play the attack dog for Romney. That’s the more traditional role for the No. 2 on the national ticket but a departure for those accustomed to Ryan’s vocal persona on Capitol Hill. (Romney advisers and those close to the campaign are quick to point out that Ryan is running on Romney’s economic plans and ideas, not his own.)
“The job of the vice presidential choice is to pick up the policy platform of the candidate,” says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative think tank, American Action Forum, and a former senior adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. “It’s a misplaced hope on the part of conservatives that there would be tons of attention on Paul and his budget.”
Thursday night’s debate will be Ryan’s best chance in this cycle to receive national attention—and to showcase himself as a contender for a future presidential run, a fate that seems inevitable in talking to conservatives inside the beltway.
“The budget path Ryan has put forward will dominate conservative thinking for some time,” says Matthew Spalding, the vice president of the American Studies department at the Heritage Foundation. “The issues he has raised in this campaign will not go away.”
That has been the biggest boost to the Ryan brand since he joined the Republican presidential ticket. It has further cemented his role among the base as one of the top future leaders of the party, and his budget as a future blueprint for its policies. And, it will just as easily serve as the Democrats’ talking point against the Republican agenda once Ryan steps into the spotlight.
“He has come up with the best definition of this election from a Republican perspective,” Ayres added.
For now, the big change to the Ryan brand comes from within the wings of his own party and the way conservatives continue to embrace him despite being booed at a recent AARP rally, or the polling on Medicare that shows few Americans want the program changed. The conservatives love the Ryan brand and that’s here to stay, regardless of who wins the White House in November.