Sabato's Crystal Ball

Mitt Hops on the Ryan Express

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics August 11th, 2012

Finally, the Veepstakes is over — and Paul Ryan is the winner. What does the Ryan pick mean for the fall campaign, and how does his selection compare to previous choices? We break it all down in this special weekend edition of the Crystal Ball, which includes the return of our video series (to see the video, just click on the link below).
– The Editors




The favored Republican adjective for Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan is “bold.” The favored adjective for Democrats is “risky.”

The word that historians will choose to describe the selection, though, is anyone’s guess.

Ryan, who the Crystal Ball listed among its final five Veepstakes contenders (from an original 23), is certainly not the safe pick that a Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty would have been. The House Budget Committee chairman is perhaps the leading conservative economic spokesman in the Republican Party, and his now famous (or infamous) budget plan, with its changes to how Medicare is delivered and its multitude of cuts to social programs, became a major lightning rod earlier this cycle. By selecting Ryan, Romney has essentially taken ownership of Ryan’s budget ideas. That’s probably a relief to Republicans, who question Romney’s commitment to the cause, but it also provides openings to Democrats, as the Ryan budget could be a potent political weapon in the fall, and not just at the top of the ticket.

His selection has also heightened the differences between the two party’s tickets; Romney’s actual beliefs on issues might be difficult to nail down, but Ryan’s aren’t. This is a big choice election, at least when it comes to budget and taxation issues. And, frankly, that’s the way it should be: The nation does undoubtedly have questions about the future of its entitlement programs and the size of the national debt. Anything that promotes discussion of those national choices, as opposed to a national fixation on gaffes and attack ads, is welcome.

In picking Ryan, Romney is, in a way, emulating the vice presidential decision made by the man who beat him for the 2008 GOP nomination: John McCain.

Ryan, like Sarah Palin, is a pick designed not necessarily to appeal to independents or Democrats, but rather to excite the party’s base. Palin’s selection did that for McCain, at least for a time, but her candidacy fizzled after a number of slip-ups, including her now-infamous interview with Katie Couric. Presumably, Ryan won’t make the same sorts of mistakes that Palin made, and it’s helpful to him that he’s much more familiar with the national press, which regards him as an intellectual. (They certainly didn’t feel that way about Palin.) Also, McCain’s base strategy couldn’t succeed in a year when the Republican Party was so damaged, when the economy was collapsing and when Barack Obama was running a historic, exciting candidacy. But a base strategy might work this year because a motivated GOP base, despite its weaknesses with minority voters, might be able to outnumber the Democratic base in this election, much like it did in 2004.

It does not appear that Romney has his base fully behind him. His poll numbers, especially lately, have not been strong. At the moment, Romney is slightly underperforming John McCain’s performance from four years ago. McCain received 45.6% of the national vote and 45.4% in seven key swing states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia) — whereas Romney is scoring just 43.4% nationally and 44.5% in the swing states, according to Saturday’s RealClearPolitics average of polls. There are Republican-leaning voters who still must be brought into the fold, and Romney has two big chances to win them over — through the vice presidential selection, and through his upcoming convention in Tampa at the end of the month.

The Washington Examiner’s Byron York recently reported, “Romney aides believe strongly that this race will play out like the 1980 campaign, in which President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan for much of the race until Reagan broke through just before the election.” If that is indeed the campaign’s thinking — and that strikes us as more than a little overoptimistic even given the gloomy economic numbers — then it would make sense to pick Ryan with an eye to post-January policymaking as opposed to pre-November politicking.

It’s also possible that after weeks of lousy headlines and mediocre poll numbers, Romney simply decided he needed to make a bigger splash, particularly with the conservative base, than a Pawlenty or Portman would have given him.

Democrats are gleeful about the selection; Jesse Ferguson, the national press secretary of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tweeted on Saturday morning: “Hmm. So this is what xmas morning feels like?” Democrats are trying to nationalize the race for the House by using the Ryan budget against Republican incumbents, nearly all of whom voted for it in April 2011. The Ryan budget was always going to be part of this campaign, but given that its architect is now on the national ticket, it will be harder for other Republicans to downplay that vote.

When announcing Ryan, Romney misspoke and introduced him as “the next president of the United States” (he came back to the podium after Ryan finished speaking and corrected the goof). Given that many Republicans would probably prefer that Ryan and Romney’s places on the ticket were reversed — as would many Democratic operatives — expect to see Romney’s fumbled introduction in television ads.

At 42, Ryan is tied for the sixth-youngest major party vice presidential nominee in American history; John Breckenridge, James Buchanan’s running mate in 1856, was the youngest (35). A polished striver whose father and grandfather both died of heart attacks in their 50s, Ryan may be motivated by his unfortunate family history to climb the political ladder quicker than most. Lyndon Johnson, another great political striver, had a similar family history. (From all we know about both men, the similarities between Johnson and Ryan may end there.)

Chart 1: Youngest major party vice presidential candidates




Note: In a previous version of this chart, we listed Ryan as tied for 7th, not 6th, youngest. This was because in 1896, William Jennings Bryan had two VP candidates, one nominated by the Democrats (Arthur Sewall) and one nominated by the Populist Party (Thomas Watson). We originally included Watson on this list but technically he was not a “major” party nominee so we have removed him.

Win or lose, accepting the nomination was close to a zero-risk proposition for Ryan, so long as he performs well in his Oct. 11 debate with Vice President Joe Biden and on the trail. Given the right’s cool relationship with Romney, if the ticket loses it seems like the man at the top of the ticket would get most of the blame. Also, Ryan will almost certainly be an elected officeholder in Washington in 2013 no matter what happens in the presidential race, because he will remain on the ballot in Wisconsin’s First District, and he is a heavy favorite to win reelection. LBJ did the same thing in 1960, as have other running mates such as Lloyd Bentsen (1988), Joe Lieberman (2000) and Joe Biden (2008). Moreover, Ryan is now at the top of the heap for a future GOP presidential nomination: 2016 if Romney loses and 2020 if Romney wins.

The selection’s rollout was, frankly, odd. The news broke at about 11:30 Friday night, and the official announcement came early the next morning in Norfolk, Va. Granted, President Obama’s selection of Joe Biden came out late on a Friday evening, but that was just a few days before the convention. An announcement early next week after the end of the Olympics would seem to have made more sense. Perhaps the Romney campaign just wanted to aggravate the national press; if so, then the announcement undoubtedly succeeded in its purpose.

VPs — how much do they help?

Ryan is the first member of a major party presidential ticket from Wisconsin, and his selection probably makes the Badger State at least a bit more competitive. For now, the Crystal Ball still sees it leaning to Obama, but this could change and we’ll be watching closely.

There’s reason to suggest that Ryan might provide a small but potentially potent home state bounce for the Romney-Ryan ticket — some evidence suggests that running mates might be worth a few points in their respective home states, although the effect is certainly not uniform. For instance, George W. Bush received 56.03% of the vote in North Carolina during his 2000 candidacy, and 56.02% in 2004. That’s despite his opponent in 2004, John Kerry, selecting North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate. Kerry did not pick Edwards to win North Carolina, and it’s a good thing he didn’t, because Edwards hardly made any difference.

There are recent running mate examples that arguably were decisive in their home states, though. In 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a relatively comfortable fourth term in the midst of World War II. However, while Ohio so often decides presidential elections, it was an outlier in FDR’s final run, and the Buckeye State backed FDR’s opponent, Republican Thomas E. Dewey.

Dewey won Ohio by only four-tenths of a percentage point over FDR, whose share of the national vote declined by 1.35 percentage points from 1940 to 1944. In Ohio, FDR’s share declined 2.38 points. Why? Probably because Ohio Gov. John W. Bricker was Dewey’s running mate. The small but significant Bricker boost is a rare data point that shows a vice presidential selection can matter in a swing state. (Hmm. Would Rob Portman have been Romney’s Bricker in November? We’ll never know.)

Perhaps the finest performance by a running mate in recent memory is 1960, when Lyndon Johnson not only helped JFK win LBJ’s native Texas (by two percentage points), but also probably helped in other parts of the South, such as North Carolina (JFK won by less than five points), South Carolina (less than three points) and border state Missouri (less than one point). Again, LBJ’s actual effect is difficult to quantify, but Kennedy’s camp certainly feared that Texas was trending Republican in the Eisenhower years — Ike comfortably won the westernmost piece of the Solid South twice.

The disparity between the quality of the running mates in 1968 might have contributed to what became a very tight contest between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. HHH’s running mate, Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME), is oftentimes credited with running a strong vice presidential campaign in 1968 (including by renowned VP expert Joel Goldstein, a Crystal Ball contributor). Meanwhile, Nixon’s running mate, Gov. Spiro Agnew (R-MD), was seen as so vulnerable that the Humphrey campaign ran ads poking fun at him. For example, with a visual of Agnew’s name on a television, laughter was heard along with the kicker, “This would be funny if it weren’t so serious.” Agnew did not even deliver Maryland, a swing state at the time, but Muskie comfortably won Maine, which was more Republican back then. From 1916-1988, Maine voted for the Democratic nominee for president only twice — in 1964, as part of LBJ’s landslide, and in 1968, thanks to Muskie.

In recent years, it’s hard to say that any vice presidential candidate has had much of an impact one way or the other. Yes, Bill Clinton carried running mate Al Gore’s home state of Tennessee in 1992 and 1996, but that probably had as much to do with Clinton as it did Gore: Gore lost the Volunteer State in 2000. The impact other recent running mates had on the race — Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin — appears to be small. The most notable name on that list is Palin, but McCain was probably a loser no matter what, considering the rotten hand dealt him as the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

Given that Romney has no hope of winning Massachusetts, it’s possible — perhaps even somewhat likely — that both members of the Republican ticket will lose their respective home states. If the Romney-Ryan ticket loses Massachusetts and Wisconsin yet still captures the White House, it would be only the second ticket since 1824 — the effective beginning of widespread popular voting in presidential elections — to capture the presidency despite a failure to carry both nominees’ home states. The other case was in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson (New Jersey) and Vice President Thomas Marshall (Indiana) lost in their own back yards while eking out a national victory.

Ryan: Federal swing state insider

Members of the House are rarely selected to join the tickets of major-party presidential nominees. Of 27 selections made after World War II by both Republican and Democratic candidates (including both of George McGovern’s selections in 1972), Ryan is just the third sitting House member selected. The other two were Rep. William Miller (R-NY, 1964) and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY, 1984), who were on two of the most lackluster presidential tickets in the 20th century. Their ticket leaders Barry Goldwater and Walter Mondale were defeated in landslides, of course. Bob Dole’s 1996 running mate and one of Ryan’s mentors, Jack Kemp, was not a sitting member of the House when he was selected, and he had Cabinet experience as Housing and Urban Development secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Chart 2: Classifying post-World War II vice presidential nominees



In another way, though, Ryan shares a trait with nearly all of the post-WWII running mates: His government experience is primarily in federal government, as opposed to state or local government. Of the 27 major party running mates, only three had primarily state as opposed to federal experience: future Supreme Court chief justice but then-Gov. Earl Warren (R-CA, 1948), Agnew (1968) and Palin (2008). Agnew and Palin, in particular, did not run distinguished vice presidential campaigns. Perhaps the lack of federal experience had something to do with Pawlenty, the ex-governor of Minnesota, being passed over both this year and in 2008.

Ryan, as a seven-term congressman, is definitely an insider; the insider/outsider dynamic, as noted in Chart 2, is somewhat of a subjective one. We are attempting to quantify the relative power of the running mate and whether he or she was an influential public official before being selected. Warren, then serving his second term as governor of California and who had previously served as state attorney general, was not a federal lawmaker or creature of Washington, but it’s hard to call the then-two term governor of a major state an “outsider.” A better example of an outsider is Palin, a first-term governor known for a whistle-blower past, and Sen. John Edwards (D-NC, 2004), a first-term senator whose prospects for reelection in 2004 were poor. Notice that the “outsider” candidates include some weaker nominees, such as Sen. Dan Quayle (R-IN, 1988), Miller and Ferraro. The outsiders also tend to be riskier picks, at least in our judgment.

New York and… Indiana? The cradles of vice presidents

While Wisconsin did produce crusading progressive Robert LaFollette, who captured 17% of the popular vote as a third-party presidential candidate in 1924, Ryan is the first Wisconsinite to appear on a major-party presidential ticket. Wisconsin is the 33rd state to have produced a vice presidential nominee since 1824 for an announced presidential ticket that won at least one electoral vote.

As shown in Chart 3, New York has produced more than double the number of running mates than any other state — 15. Indiana, like New York once a major American swing state, has produced the second-most nominees, with seven.

Remarkably, Florida — a one-time part of the Democratic “Solid South” turned premier swing state — has never produced a major-party running mate or, for that matter, a major-party presidential nominee. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have no doubt noted this. Politicians love to right wrongs; if they benefit, it’s just gravy.

Chart 3: Vice presidential nominee totals by state



Note: List includes all vice presidential candidates from announced presidential tickets that won at least one electoral vote.