WASHINGTON -- Polls show that Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's pick as vice presidential running mate, was still unknown to a majority of Americans as Romney announced his selection on Saturday. While Ryan's controversial budget plan has suffered in similar obscurity, polling also shows that it will be a potential weakness for Republicans because of a wider debate over its impact. It explains why Democrats are already leaping at the chance to make the Ryan budget a central focus of the fall campaign.
A CNN/ORC International poll conducted just last week asked a national sample of Americans about "Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan." Twenty-seven percent rated him favorably and 19 percent unfavorably, but many said they had either never heard of Ryan (38 percent) or had no opinion of him (16 percent). Ryan's positive marks on the new poll were only slightly better than on polls conducted by CNN and other national news organizations a year ago.
These results mirror reactions to the budget plan that Ryan authored and that House Republicans passed in April 2011. Two months later, a CBS News poll asked Americans how much they had "heard or read about the changes to the Medicare system recently proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan and passed by House Republicans." Only 11 percent said they had heard a lot, and only 27 percent said they had heard some. More than half had either heard nothing at all (31 percent) or not much (28 percent).
At about the same time, a national USA Today/Gallup poll of Republicans found that just over two thirds (68 percent) said they did not know enough about Ryan's proposal to have an opinion on it. Most Republicans with an opinion (24 percent) favored the plan, while 8 percent opposed it.
However, some media pollsters asked about the substance of the plan and found net negative reactions among those willing to venture an opinion. In June 2011, for example, a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll posed the following question to Americans:
There is currently a proposal to change how Medicare would work so seniors being enrolled in the program ten years from now would be given a guaranteed payment called a voucher from the federal government to purchase a Medicare approved coverage plan from a private health insurance company. Do you think this is a good idea, a bad idea, or do you not know enough about this to have an opinion at this time?
Although nearly half said they had no opinion or were unsure (47 percent), more considered it a bad idea (31 percent) than a good one (22 percent).
Similarly, a CNN/ORC International poll conducted in May 2011 found that 58 percent of Americans opposed "the Republicans' plan to change Medicare" based on what they had heard or read, while just 35 percent said they supported it and 7 percent were unsure. Given the lack of familiarity gauged by other polls, the CNN result likely says more about suspicion of congressional Republicans on Medicare than awareness of the bill itself (the previous question on the same survey found that 48 percent preferred President Obama's approach to Medicare to 39 percent who preferred the approach of the Republicans in Congress).
The eagerness of Democrats to take on Ryan and his budget owes more to internal polling that tests messages and rhetoric and describes the budget in more detail. Most of those results are out of public view, but an extensive survey conducted last month by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg for Democracy Corps, an organization Greenberg founded with Democratic strategist James Carville, provides a window into the message testing efforts of the Democrats.
Greenberg and his colleagues argue that their survey and focus groups "reveal deep opposition to the Ryan budget-- and its potential to damage Mitt Romney's candidacy if he embraces it in the coming campaign." Voters, they say, express "serious doubts" about Romney "when they hear about proposed cuts—particularly to Medicare, education, and children of the working poor." Moreover, Greenberg reports, Obama slight lead over Romney increases "when the election is framed as a choice between the two candidates' positions on the Ryan budget-- particularly its impact on the most vulnerable."
Democratic campaigns at nearly every level have tested similar rhetoric and, judging from the ads that Democratic House candidates have run in recent special elections, found similar results. Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign has wasted no time in attacking Ryan as the "architect of the radical Republican House budget" proposal that would "end Medicare as we know it."
But a closer look at the Greenberg survey underscores that Democrats' perceived negatives in Ryan's budget are not self-evident to voters, who remain unfamiliar with its details. First, the survey's initial positive description of the budget ("using Ryan's own words") garnered a net favorable reaction (52 percent in favor, 35 percent opposed).
Second, while an extensive presentation of both negative and positive information and rhetoric during the course of the survey did increase Obama's lead, the movement was relatively small. Obama led Romney by 3 percentage points (49 to 46 percent) on the survey's initial vote question, and that lead grew to 6 percentage points (50 to 44 percent) by the end of the survey. Of course, such small changes can mean the difference between winning and losing a close election, but the movement on the survey is still relatively modest, especially given the sheer volume of information that respondents heard.
A bigger challenge for Democrats may be how to make these arguments believable to true swing voters. Last month, The New York Times reported on a set of focus groups conducted in late 2011 by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA, in which participants were informed that "Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed 'ending Medicare as we know it' — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans." According to the Times report, the attacks had little impact. The participants "simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing."
For that reason, some observers, like New York magazine's Jonathan Chait, believe the Obama campaign's initial focus on Romney's business career was the "first stage of a two-part assault" that would "define his motives and perspective" and set the stage for a more credible argument against the Ryan budget.
Intentional or not, that theory is about to get a real world test. The choice of Ryan as a running mate virtually assures that the policy choices inherent in his budget will become the centerpiece of the fall campaign. If that budget takes a toll on Romney, we will know by November.
"Throughout his life, Mitt Romney has made great decisions, and choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate is a truly inspired choice. I got to know Paul during my Senate campaign when he endorsed me early on when I was still considered a long shot. Paul Ryan is a courageous reformer who understands our nation's challenges, has proposed bold policy solutions to solve them, and has shown the courage to stand up to President Obama and other Washington politicians trying to tear him down. "The Romney-Ryan ticket is going to win in November because it offers the American people visionary leadership to recapture the free enterprise spirit that has empowered countless Americans to build businesses from scratch and live the American dream. I'm excited about the visionary change a Romney-Ryan team will bring to Washington, and I look forward to campaigning
<blockquote> "Mitt Romney has made a great choice in Paul Ryan. He is an accomplished public servant and a leading voice on the most pressing issues facing our country. Paul is one of my best friends in Congress and someone I have worked closely with as a former colleague on the House Ways & Means Committee. "Jane and I wish Paul and Janna and their kids the very best. As the Chairman of the Romney campaign in Ohio, I look forward to working with Paul to ensure that the Romney-Ryan ticket carries Ohio and is victorious in November. Most importantly, as a member of the Senate, I look forward to working closely with a Romney-Ryan Administration to restore fiscal sanity and enact pro-growth policies to create jobs."</blockquote>
Obama for American Campaign Manager Jim Messina
<blockquote>"In naming Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney has chosen a leader of the House Republicans who shares his commitment to the flawed theory that new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while placing greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy. The architect of the radical Republican House budget, Ryan, like Romney, proposed an additional $250,000 tax cut for millionaires, and deep cuts in education from Head Start to college aid. His plan also would end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher system, shifting thousands of dollars in health care costs to seniors. As a member of Congress, Ryan rubber-stamped the reckless Bush economic policies that exploded our deficit and crashed our economy. Now the Romney-Ryan ticket would take us back by repeating the same, catastrophic mistakes."</blockquote>
Rachel Maddow MSNBC
Charles M. Blow
Progressive Change Campaign Committee
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee issued the following statement: <blockquote>"Paul Ryan is a right-wing extremist who wants to end Medicare. This is a major unforced error by Mitt Romney. It gives President Obama and Democrats a chance to draw a clear contrast in 2012 by promising not to cut one penny from Medicare or Social Security benefits. If Democrats win in a landslide, this was the game changer." -- Adam Green, co-founder, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a 1 million member grassroots organization</blockquote>
Susan B. Anthony List
The national pro-life organization released the following statement: <blockquote>"By selecting Congressman Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, Governor Romney demonstrates his commitment to protecting American women and unborn children," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List. "A longtime pro-life advocate and a strong fiscal conservative, Congressman Ryan has insisted that there can be no 'truce' when it comes to advancing the rights of the unborn and achieving fiscal responsibility. He has a pristine pro-life voting record and will be an asset to Governor Romney's campaign. "Pro-life voters are a key demographic and help secure victory in critical elections," continued Dannenfelser. "The addition of a second strong pro-life leader to the ticket energizes the pro-life base - we are thrilled with this pick."</blockquote>
<blockquote>"The selection of Paul Ryan is a bold and inspired pick," said Jimmy LaSalvia, Executive Director of GOProud. "Paul Ryan has been the architect of policies that would benefit all Americans, especially gay Americans." "Paul Ryan is one of the few political leaders anywhere in the country willing to tell the American people the truth about the unprecedented budget crisis we are facing, and - more importantly - willing to put forward bold plans to put this country back on the road to fiscal solvency," continued LaSalvia.</blockquote>
Log Cabin Republicans
<blockquote>"Congressman Paul Ryan is a strong choice for vice president, and his addition to the GOP ticket will help Republican candidates up and down the ballot," said R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director. "As chairman of the House Budget Committee and author of the Republican "path to prosperity" that provided the blueprint for serious spending cuts in this Congress, nobody is more qualified to articulate a conservative economic vision to restore the American economy and stimulate job creation. </blockquote>
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)
Center For American Progress President Neera Tanden
<blockquote>"Just like Sen. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin and George H.W. Bush's selection of Dan Quayle, Mitt Romney has been cowed by the right wing into choosing an extreme vice presidential nominee who will alienate moderate voters. It's now clearer than ever that as president, Mitt Romney would end Medicare as we know it, and will raise taxes on middle class families by more than $2,000in order to slash taxes on the wealthiest Americans. While there is a lot that can be said about Paul Ryan's extreme views, more important is what this choice says about Mitt Romney: that he is unwilling or unable to stand up to the far-right of his party and select a vice-presidential candidate that is both able to be president on day one and capable of governing by reaching across the aisle."</blockquote>
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry
<blockquote>"If there were ever any doubt that Mitt Romney is not on the side of working people, today's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate makes it crystal clear. With this choice, Romney has shown the American people that he believes Rep. Ryan's extremist, irresponsible and anti-worker agenda is what's right for our country. "Rep. Ryan has made a name for himself by fighting in the halls of Congress for tax giveaways for the wealthy and big corporations while proposing to gut vital services like Medicare and education, and eliminating any sense of retirement security for working families. His no-holds barred record of attacking seniors, children, and working men and women is frightening for the 99 percent of Americans who are not rich -- but for Mitt Romney it was a calling card to choose him as a running mate."
NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan
<blockquote>"Mitt Romney's choice of Rep. Ryan as his running mate reminds us of why elections matter when it comes to our ability to make personal and private medical decisions," Keenan continued. "The outcome of the 2012 presidential election very well could determine whether abortion remains legal and accessible for the next generation of American women. Romney has pledged that taking away women's rights will be a priority for him and his choice of Ryan amplifies that promise to the extreme anti-choice backers of this ticket. My organization's priority is to make sure President Obama remains in the White House."</blockquote>
Rep. Kathy Hochul
<blockquote>"Americans deserve new ideas for how we can reduce the debt and protect our seniors and the middle class. Just one year ago, Western New York voters rejected the Ryan-Collins policies that would end Medicare as we know it and hurt middle class families while giving more tax cuts to the rich. Our country needs to move forward, not re-hash failed ideas. Given Chris Collins' ongoing support for tax cuts for the rich that add nearly $1 trillion to the deficit and his willingness to send his business to China to line his pockets, it is clear my opponent is going to continue to pursue policies and priorities that have already been rejected."</blockquote>
Sen. Lisa Murkowski
Chris Van Hollen
Rep. Mary Bono Mack
Rep. Trent Franks
<blockquote>"Now that Paul Ryan's personal ambition has clearly trumped his interest in the First District, I have no doubt he'll find himself out of a job come November. Once Wisconsinites and voters across our country learn the truth about Ryan's radical plot to end Medicare as we know it, de-fund women's health care, and preserve tax breaks for millionaires, they'll vote against him not just once, but twice. In the coming weeks, our campaign will work with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to continue getting the word out on Ryan's indefensible record, and building momentum to ensure victory on Election Day."</blockquote>
<blockquote>"Governor Mitt Romney made a bold and reform-minded selection in Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. This election has to be about who is going to look out for the next generation. America needs a comeback team to turn around the economy and to turn around the fiscal status of our country. Romney and Ryan have the ideas and the experience needed to take on these core issues. This is a great day for Wisconsin and an even greater day for America."</blockquote>