This presidential contest was supposed to be laser-focused on the economy, and the polls have borne that out — so far. But Mitt Romney’s new running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, could quickly throw a wrench in the political calculus.
Ryan’s controversial proposals to shift Medicare to a voucher system and to partially privatize Social Security virtually ensures a political brawl over the future of entitlement programs, a longtime political hot potato.
While there’s been little polling on entitlement programs specifically, data from surveys commissioned by POLITICO and George Washington University show a tight race between President Obama and Romney on the issue. Obama has held a small lead when it comes to who would better handle Medicare and Social Security, POLITICO noted that it’s “a number that could see some movement with Ryan, the architect of Republicans’ Medicare and entitlement policy, on the GOP ticket.”
A major component of that prediction seems to be how heavily the issue weighs in voters’ minds. CNN polling from late June and early July showed that 79 percent of registered voters ranked Social Security and Medicare “extremely” or “very important,” a level that rivals other top-tier issues like the economy, unemployment and health care. Not surprisingly, concern over entitlement programs increases with age: The poll also showed that 86 percent of those 50 and older consider entitlement programs extremely or very important, versus 74 percent of those under 50 who said the same.
Democrats are ready to spend lots of time and money bringing attention to entitlements, and that may serve as a good diversion for their cause: President Obama trails Romney on who is viewed as best to handle the economy, 46.5 percent to 43.5 percent in the PollTracker Average.
“The toxic nature of the Ryan budget simply can’t be overstated,” pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA wrote in a memo. “In Priorities USA Action polling in 2011 and 2012, descriptions of the Ryan budget were consistently and decisively the most effective messages against Romney and Republicans — better than dozens of others tested. Descriptions of the Ryan plan’s impact on education, taxes, Medicare, job training and high-tech research consistently raise ‘major doubts’ about Romney in over 55 percent of likely voters. Among independent and swing voters, the concerns are even greater.”
The impetus for the Ryan proposals — reducing the federal deficit — is also important to voters. The same proportion of voters in the CNN poll that considered entitlement programs extremely or very important — 79 percent — said the same on reducing the deficit, meaning the Romney campaign can leverage Ryan’s presence on the ticket to appeal to those voters.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.