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.