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.