The political purpose of a running mate, as all political observers know, is to broaden the presidential candidate’s appeal. He or she wins the support of voters who otherwise might not have backed the candidate, often by bringing entire voting blocs into the candidate’s coalition. The running mate must be different enough to attract new voters, without repelling those already in the coalition.
In 2008, a struggling Sen. John McCain surprised the nation by choosing Gov. Sarah Palin, who would have become the first female vice president. The selection was a desperate attempt to add novelty to the ticket; Democrats were pushing voters to elect the first black president (never mind his shadowy background and radical beliefs), and Republicans needed a similar gimmick.
On the Democratic side, Barack Obama’s choice of fellow senator Joe Biden stemmed from similar logic. Obama didn’t need novelty; he was already aiming to be a historic first, and was so different than the average, voting American (and average politician) as to be a risky nominee. His ticket needed stability, and found it in Biden’s age and long career in government. The tactic worked. Swing voters concerned about Obama’s foreign upbringing, contested religious beliefs, and lack of experience were reassured by the presence of a seasoned Washington insider on the ticket.
Fast forward to the present. Gov. Mitt Romney has just selected Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate, which was an unexpected move, though not as unexpected as McCain’s selection of Palin. Since being elected to the House in 1998, Ryan has made a name for himself as a fiscal conservative (despite voting for the controversial bailouts in 2008), and is probably best known for the Ryan Plan, a federal budget for the 2012 fiscal year which passed the House in April 2011, but quickly died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Ryan is more socially conservative than Romney, and he’s a Catholic. The list of significant differences ends there. Like Romney, Ryan is a big-government conservative who has supported federal involvement in public education, marijuana prohibition, warrantless surveillance and other controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act, military interventions in the Middle East, and a dozen other serious stumbling blocks for any small-government conservative, constitutionalist, or libertarian voter.
Ryan appeals to practically no one who wasn’t already planning to vote for Romney (however reluctantly). A lily-white ticket will have more trouble responding to Obama supporters’ incessant race-baiting than would a ticket featuring, say, Hispanic senator Marco Rubio (who also happens to live in Florida, a vital swing state), and libertarians who might have been appeased by the selection of Sen. Rand Paul are now likely to back Libertarian nominee Gov. Gary Johnson, or, even less pragmatically, write in Ron Paul. It’s true that Ryan’s selection has enthused social conservatives in a way that Romney just can’t, but no one seriously expected them to vote for Obama or a third-party candidate, or abstain from voting altogether; this group is so accustomed to holding their noses and dutifully backing moderate Republican nominees (e.g., Bush, Dole, Bush, McCain) that they probably wouldn’t know what to do if the party nominated someone they actually liked.
In short, Ryan is a poor choice, politically speaking. Anyone who’s enthusiastic about him was already in Romney’s camp, and he’s unlikely to win over many who were truly undecided. That, and the possibility of a sizable libertarian defection, could be be enough to cause the Republican Party to lose what ought to be one of the easiest contests in recent history.