In previous examinations of the VP decision-making process, we noted two popular theories: The first was the "first do no harm" theory that a "safe" choice should be made because a VP can hurt but not really help a ticket. The second theory is that a VP can help by broadening the appeal of the ticket.
The Ryan decision is perplexing in some ways, because he seems to be the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, he was widely regarded as a "risky" pick because of the big negative he carries: Ryan is associated with a very unpopular budget plan that involved privatizing Medicare. Indeed, "associated" may be an understatement, since it was known as the "Ryan Plan." Thus, Ryan fails the "do no harm" test. But on the other hand, he doesn't seem to have many qualities that would broaden the appeal of the ticket. Unlike Marco Rubio, who would have appealed to many independents (particularly Hispanics), Ryan would tend, if anything, to alienate independents.
It might also be noted that Ryan is young and looks young, and that his highest elected office is that of a U.S. House member--which does not require winning a state-wide election. However, since Ryan has held that office since 1999, he is less vulnerable to criticisms of being inexperienced, despite being about the same age as Rubio.
So why was Ryan chosen? There are a number of factors that likely weighed heavily in Romney's mind. First, the trial balloons on Romney and Portman earlier this summer fell flat. Second, polls have suggested that Barack Obama has held a slight lead over Romney throughout the race. Such polls are of registered voters rather than likely voters, but perhaps Romney's campaign is as led by the RealClearPolitics average as Intrade is. Also, some very recent polls show Obama with a bigger lead. Putting these two things together, Romney may have been persuaded that he needs a "game changing" VP, just as John McCain concluded four years ago.
Then there are the attributes that favor Ryan. Among Tea Partiers and hardcore conservatives, Ryan is considered a genuine conservative, not a "RINO." No doubt Romney chose Ryan in part to balance the ticket and energize his base. Unlike many on the far right, Ryan is not considered a "kook," but an intelligent and articulate, hard-working legislator. Ryan's youth and energy would also be seen as qualities that help balance the ticket. Though it's unlikely to make much difference, Ryan provides geographic balance as well: He's from Wisconsin, a Midwestern swing state. Finally, Ryan would probably have little difficulty beating Joe Biden in a debate.
The irony of the Ryan selection is that during the Republican primary, Romney went out of his way to avoid appearing too aggressively conservative on fiscal issues. Recall that for a long time, Romney avoided endorsing tax cuts for the rich; he only changed his mind when his campaign appeared vulnerable later on, when he needed to appeal to conservatives. The selection of Ryan is a full embrace of fiscal conservatism, including its most unpopular elements. Yet Romney may have felt that since he already spoke favorably of the Ryan Plan, he was stuck anyway.
Putting it all together, how will Ryan's selection impact the dynamic of the race? On balance, it will hurt Romney. By choosing Ryan, Romney has played directly into Obama's current strategy of class warfare. The Obama campaign can go on the offensive, claiming that a Romney/Ryan victory would result in the end of Medicare. By contrast, Ryan doesn't carry any constituency of his own to counter his downside. Arguably he could help energize the base, but there is historical evidence to suggest that the base turns out anyway, and candidates win the presidency by winning independents. On the surface, it appears Ryan will hurt rather than help with independents.
It will be some time before we can fully determine how a Ryan VP candidacy will play, and how Americans respond to him. For the moment, it is Elephant Watcher's determination that Romney's odds of winning the presidency have declined modestly.