Paul Ryan's Unpopular (but Unknown) Ideas

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The specifics of the vice presidential nominee's budget proposals poll poorly, but most Americans still aren't familiar with them.

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Paul Ryan is on the Republican ticket, and Democrats are psyched. The pick of Ryan lashes Mitt Romney tightly to the controversial budget Ryan has passed through the House -- one that includes major changes to Medicare, cuts to government spending, and an overhaul of the tax code.

The specifics of these proposals do not poll well. In a gleeful memo Monday, Priorities USA Action, the Obama-supporting Super PAC, detailed its public-opinion research on Ryan's budget:

The toxic nature of the Ryan Budget simply can't be [overstated]. In Priorities USA Action polling in 2011 and 2012, descriptions of the Ryan Budget were consistently and decisively the most effective messages against Romney and Republicans -- better than dozens of others tested. Descriptions of the Ryan plan's impact on education, taxes, Medicare, job training and high-tech research consistently raise "major doubts" about Romney in over 55 percent of likely voters. Among independent and swing voters, the concerns are even greater.

Mostly overlooked among the pundit class is that Ryan's Medicare proposal is only one driver of the plan's unpopularity. The Ryan plan's deep cuts to early childhood education are 'extremely concerning' for 62% of voters. Cuts to Pell Grants for college students are extremely concerning to 57% of voters. The plan's shift in the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class is extremely concerning to 62%. Cuts to job training, nursing home care, scientific research and children's health care all raise similar concerns for voters. Other individual items with the Ryan Budget -- such as cuts to higher education, tax cuts for corporations, and increasing health care costs for seniors -- were consistently labeled as "extremely concerning" by about half of voters.

Prior to Ryan's selection as running mate, Bill Burton of Priorities USA writes, the group's biggest problem was that voters didn't believe Romney really supported these unpopular proposals. Now, that task gets easier. (Although, it should be noted, some of the group's descriptions of the Ryan budget represent loaded characterizations or extrapolations; Ryan's office disputes, for example, that his plan would lead to cuts in Pell grants or corporate taxes.)

But it's far too soon to say that the Ryan budget spells inevitable doom for Romney and the GOP ticket, because the words "Ryan budget" don't by themselves mean much to people. In a CBS News poll last year, just 11 percent said they knew a lot about "the changes to the Medicare system recently proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan and passed by House Republicans," and 27 percent knew "some"; the rest said they'd heard little or nothing about it. (HuffPo's Mark Blumenthal has a good guide to Ryan polling here.)

And so it is now up to both parties to define Ryan's ideas in the minds of voters, a task in which both Democrats and Republicans are now furiously engaged. The impression of Ryan's agenda that sinks in with voters will be a major factor in deciding the election, and for now, it is up in the air.

The parties do, however, have plenty of practice. The Ryan plan has been at the center of congressional races for the last couple of years, with mixed results. Democrats believe campaigning against Ryan's Medicare proposals powered them to recent special-election victories in New York and Arizona. Here's an ad from the Arizona campaign, where Democrat Ron Barber won the race to replace Rep. Gabby Giffords:

But Republicans believe they've figured out how to fight back with a two-pronged approach: First, go on offensive by attacking the reductions in Medicare spending in Obama's health-care legislation (even though the Ryan plan includes the same cuts); then bring in Mom. In last year's special election in Nevada, Republican Mark Amodei beat his Democratic opponent handily by running Medicare-themed ads featuring his elderly mother, like this one:

It's already obvious that Romney and Ryan are using the Amodei playbook. In their first joint interview, with CBS's Bob Schieffer on Sunday, Romney said: "There's only one president that I know of in history that robbed Medicare, $716 billion to pay for a new risky program of his own that we call Obamacare. What Paul Ryan and I have talked about is saving Medicare."

Then Ryan jumped in -- to talk about his mom.

"My mom is a Medicare senior in Florida," Ryan said. "Our point is we need to preserve their benefits, because government made promises to them that they've organized their retirements around. In order to make sure we can do that, you must reform it for those of us who are younger."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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