The Mystery of the Romney-Ryan Bounce

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I was puzzled today by the Financial Times headline "Romney suffers in swing states," and by the article's first paragraph:

Mitt Romney, set to be officially nominated as the Republican presidential candidate next week, is suffering in crucial swing states as voters express concern about possible cuts to the Medicare health plan for the elderly, according to a new poll released on Thursday.

The Quinnipiac poll in question actually finds the opposite. Romney's standing has improved since the start of the month, as the FT's article in due course points out. Obama's lead in Florida is down from six points to three, and in Wisconsin from six points to two; in Ohio his lead is unchanged at six. Other recent polling, according to Nate Silver, also shows an overall improvement for Romney. This certainly isn't what I expected, by the way. I thought Ryan and the focus on Medicare would on balance hurt Romney's chances. Maybe, in the fullness of time, it will -- but it's interesting that there's no sign of it yet.

I think the point the FT meant to emphasize is that the Romney-Ryan Medicare plan is unpopular -- the poll does indeed say that -- but then one immediately asks why Romney's overall popularity has improved since Ryan and Medicare reform joined the ticket.

It could all just be statistical noise, of course. Or, as Silver says, candidates often get a bounce merely from naming their running mate. If you adjust for that, you might conclude that Romney's bounce is smaller than it should have been, and that once it goes away he'll be worse off.

Nonetheless I'm surprised that the Medicare plan hasn't proved instantly toxic. Unlike the rest of Ryan's budget, which is a fantasy, I think the Medicare plan is serious, brave and not to be dismissed. But I expected it to be very unpopular, and the polls suggest that it is. So why isn't Romney falling further behind?

One possibility is that many voters agree with him that the program is in mortal danger and that Obama has no plan to fix it -- and reckon that any serious proposal to deal with the problem, even one they don't like, deserves some credit. That sounds plausible, but it doesn't really work. According to the Quinnipiac poll, most voters trust Obama to do a better job with Medicare than Romney-Ryan. It's not just that they dislike Ryan's plan; they seem to think Obama has (or will) come up with something better.

It's a puzzle. The big thing Ryan brings to the Romney campaign is a Medicare plan voters don't like -- but his arrival hasn't hurt Romney's prospects and so far seems to have helped them. Go figure.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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