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How Ryan can take Romney to the White House

By Lawrence R. Jacobs, Special to CNN
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Thu August 16, 2012
The Paul Ryan choice adopts a strategy premised on supermobilizing the Republican base, says Lawrence Jacobs.
The Paul Ryan choice adopts a strategy premised on supermobilizing the Republican base, says Lawrence Jacobs.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lawrence Jacobs: Mitt Romney was shrewd in picking Paul Ryan as his running mate
  • Jacobs: Ryan can supercharge conservatives, who outnumber liberals 2 to 1
  • He says there are signs that Obama supporters won't actually cast a ballot
  • Jacobs: Using Ryan to ignite the GOP base is probably Romney's best chance of prevailing

Editor's note: Lawrence R. Jacobs is professor and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota.

(CNN) -- By now, we're on the same page that Mitt Romney's pick of Paul Ryan as his running mate contradicts a golden oldie of presidential election strategy -- run to the conservative (or liberal) base to win the nomination and then reposition toward the center to lure the more moderate independent swing voters who are necessary to win the general election.

Ryan may be many things -- energetic, charismatic and geeky -- but no one familiar with his Full Monty conservative budgets would describe his selection as remotely moving to the center. Just the opposite -- Romney has doubled down on his move to the right during the primary battle.

What gives? Did the looming prospect of defeat push Romney into a desperate gamble?

Lawrence R. Jacobs
Lawrence R. Jacobs

Give Romney some credit. He's made a shrewd move.

The Ryan choice adopts a strategy premised on supermobilizing the base and luring a smidgeon of others. Put on your thinking caps and grab an abacus, here are the numbers that could put Romney in the White House.

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Conservatives outnumber liberals 2 to 1 (40% to 21%).

Rage against Obama has the GOP ready to walk over red hot coals to cast a ballot. A mainstay of Gallup's measure for determining who is likely to vote -- whether survey respondents are thinking a lot about the election -- shows not only that Republicans are more attentive than Democrats by 13 points but also more fired up than in recent presidential elections.

To make sure they harvest the Ryan enthusiasts, the Romney campaign appears to be assembling an impressive operation to turn out the vote and to aggressively compete with the Obama team for the early vote.

What makes the Romney mobilization particularly threatening to Obama is that it targets his biggest challenge -- polls consistently show him ahead but there are ominous signs that a decisive group of those supporters won't actually cast a ballot.

Even with Obama's pro-immigration shift and the growing number of Latinos in competitive states, their actual turnout may flag from their record numbers in 2008. Less than half of Hispanics eligible to vote are registering and only 64% of Hispanics say they will definitely vote as compared to their 77% response in 2008 and the national average of 78% today.

Ditto on youth. The percentage of voters 18 to 29 who say they will definitely vote in November (58%) is currently running 20 points or more behind the national average today (78%) or the youth turnout in 2008 (78%) or 2004 (81%).

Blue collar voters -- never drawn to Obama (think Hillary Clinton in 2008 Democratic primaries) -- may desert him in numbers that approach the "Reagan Democrat" defections in 1980. This possible weakness in the Democratic coalition coincides with a bit more slippage among Obama's 2008 supporters (9%) than among McCain voters who won't vote GOP in November (5%).

Bottom line: By picking the bona fide conservative Ryan, the Republican base is likely to deliver a rapturous response, which may allow Romney to succeed in exploiting Obama's greatest weakness at this point.

Before you conclude this is far-fetched, think back to Karl Rove's strategy in 2004 to move right with strident social conservatism on abortion and same-sex marriage, steep tax cuts and hawkish policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Embracing the base and scorning the rush to the middle cost George W. Bush the independent vote. But Bush also supercharged conservatives and Republicans, who turned out in droves. Refuting the conventional wisdom that Democrats do best in high-turnout elections, it was Bush who most benefited from the 16% jump in the total vote.

But -- there's always a but.

Even as Ryan fires up conservatives, he may also mobilize votes for Obama -- including senior citizens who reside in key swing states like Florida. Alarmed by his draconian proposals to remake Medicare, they may boost their support of Obama.

Another potential risk: A good number of voters may be primed to punish the incumbent for poor economic times. Pluralities of Ohio and Florida independents report that Obama's re-election would hurt their personal financial situation. But the coming hullabaloo over Ryan's budget proposals may distract the economically pained from punishing Obama.

All in all, Romney has a tough battle ahead -- even stringent counts of Electoral College votes based on polls show Obama within striking distance of winning. But using Ryan to ignite the Republican base is probably Romney's most plausible path to prevailing. And, it may produce a campaign focused a bit more on policy than on birth certificates, service records and the other side issues of recent elections. Strap in, folks, 2012 may be much more interesting and close than we'd imagined.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lawrence R. Jacobs.

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