Will Paul Ryan Help Romney With Blue-Collar Whites?

He bowhunts, noodles catfish, and makes his own sausage. Can Paul Ryan help the GOP run away with the crucial white vote this fall—or will the blue-collar shtick backfire? By Andrew Romano

Marc Piscotty / Getty Images

Before he became Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan was famous in precisely two places: his congressional district back in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. So the first thing he did after joining the GOP ticket was introduce himself to the rest of the country. “My veins run with cheese, bratwurst, a little Spotted Cow, Leinie's, and some Miller,” was how Ryan chose to begin his Wisconsin homecoming rally on August 12. “I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, I like to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is interesting.”

Two days later, Ryan took his introduction tour to Lakewood, Colo., where he somehow managed, over the course of a 20-minute speech, to mention working at McDonald's, filling the gas tank on his truck, camping and fishing with his family, and surmounting the state’s “14’ers,” or 14,000-plus-foot peaks. “I don't know about you,” Ryan said, “but when I was standing in front of that big Hobart machine washing dishes or waiting tables, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I thought to myself, ‘I'm the American dream.’” 

By the time Ryan’s joint People magazine interview with Romney materialized on newsstands, 10 days after they first appeared in public together, the picture of Ryan as an all-American, blue-collar Midwestern outdoorsman who loves nothing more than sports, sausages, and cold beer was pretty much complete. The People reporter mentioned that Ryan enjoys catfish “noodling,” or catching catfish with his bare hands, and asked Romney if he was planning to try the sport. “Uh, I'm not going to be doing a lot of noodling,” Romney said. “I enjoy fly-fishing, but noodling, I'm afraid, I'll leave to Paul.”

“I got a new chainsaw,” Ryan told the magazine. “It was nice. It's a Stihl.”

“You got a Stihl chainsaw?" Romney gushed. His voice, as People put it, was filled with “boyish envy.”

Paul Ryan didn’t spend his first weeks on the trail playing up his blue-collar bona fides by accident. He did it because there’s one group of voters that Romney most urgently needs to reach, rile up, and persuade, and they’re the same voters who tend to like bowhunting and bratwurst: white ones. 

In Washington, the conventional wisdom is that Romney tapped Ryan, the Republican Party’s intellectual leader, in order to transform “the GOP effort from a campaign into a movement,” as Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard wrote earlier this month. That's undoubtedly true; Ryan has been much clearer than Romney about the conservative future he envisions for the country, and he is much more beloved among conservatives because of it. But to win, a presidential candidate needs more than vision; he needs to sell his vision to the right kinds of voters. 

This is where Romney & Co. is really hoping Ryan can help. 

Ryan’s fiscal cred was the main reason he made Romney’s shortlist. But once the vetting began, what really surprised (and delighted) Romney’s staff, according to a Republican close to the campaign, was that Ryan managed to come off as a real, rounded human being as well. He hails from a blue-collar town. He's 100-percent Irish Catholic. His forebears built a small business from scratch. He has won by staggering margins in a Democratic-leaning district, again and again. And yes, he noodles catfish. Who better to bridge the gap between Romney—a wealthy, moderate, Wall Street Mormon who can seem, at times, like a visitor from Mars—and the white swing voters, many of them working-class types from the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest, that Romney needs to win over? 

And so the question now is not only whether Ryan can reenergize the Romney campaign with his vision and verve. It’s also something nittier, grittier, and less grandiose: whether, in so doing, Ryan can really help Romney run up the margins among whites—or whether Ryan’s surprisingly upscale pedigree and reverse-Robin Hood policy prescriptions could wreck the whole blue-collar story line. The answer could very well decide the election.

Saying that Romney is relying on white voters to win in November is not some sort of divisive slur. It’s simple math. Back in 2008, John McCain beat Obama among whites by 12 percentage points; recent polls suggest that four years later, the president will fall short of even that modest showing. It’s possible that Obama will become the first Democratic candidate since 1984 not to break the 40 percent barrier in a two-way race. 

Romney’s minority support is pitiful—a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll out last week shows him losing Latinos 2-to-1 and pulling in a whopping 0 percent of the black vote—so Obama’s unpopularity among whites represents Mitt’s best opportunity to outperform McCain. But Romney has yet to seal the deal. When Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush won their respective elections in 1952, 1980, 1988, and 2004, they each received between 56 and 61 percent of the white vote. Romney’s white support, meanwhile, currently lingers in the low 50s. 

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This would have been bad news for a Republican 25 years ago; in 2012, it could prove fatal. As America grows more diverse, the white share of the electorate continues to shrink--meaning that even if Romney manages to win 60 percent of the white vote in November, like Bush in 1988, he won’t come close to recapturing Bush’s 426 electoral votes. In fact, in that scenario, he might not win the White House at all. Assuming an electorate that’s slightly browner than 2008’s, experts currently project that Romney will have to pull in 61 percent of the white vote, more than any modern Republican except Reagan in 1984, to defeat Obama on Election Day—and even then, just barely. 

So can Ryan help Romney clear the magic 61 percent mark? Boston seems to believe that he can. This optimism is partly a product of Ryan’s official biography: the former altar boy from Janesville who was “forced,” in Romney’s words, “to grow up earlier than any young man should” when his father suddenly passed away—a tragedy that eventually made Ryan “self-reliant” enough to work a string of side jobs, to bowhunt and fish, to skin and butcher his kills, and to make his own Polish sausage and bratwurst. The moral of The Paul Ryan Story is clear: trust him, working-class whites. He’s just like you. “Democrats go after class, Republican go after culture—and when you’re dealing with blue-collar voters, culture wins every time,” says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a former adviser to John Edwards, Mark Warner, and Jim Webb. “What they’re trying to do is make Ryan culturally acceptable.” 

On the surface, Ryan’s Path to Prosperity only seems to enhance this heroic portrait. Since introducing the first version of his budget plan in 2010, the congressman has successfully sold himself as the premier small-government crusader on Capitol Hill. Conveniently enough, this penny-pinching message resonates particularly well with the voters that Romney is most eager to win over: non-college whites. On Election Day 2010, for instance, two thirds of them told pollsters that “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and people”; only 29 percent agreed that “government should do more to solve problems.” 

But the whole working-class hero shtick could backfire. First of all, Ryan is not, nor has he ever been, working-class. He was born into one of the more prominent families in Wisconsin; in 1884, his great-grandfather founded Ryan Incorporated Central, which is now a thriving national construction firm, and generations of Ryans have prospered from developing Janesville and building roads, mines, airports, landfills, and golf courses throughout the Midwest. Ryan’s grandfather was a lawyer. His father was a lawyer, too. Except for a brief stint as a “marketing consultant” in the family business, Ryan himself has been employed as a political operative or a politician his entire adult life. Today, the congressman resides in a 5,800-square-foot, six-bedroom estate and is worth between $2 million and $7.7 million, making him one of the wealthier members of the House. And unlike Romney, who earned his money in private equity, Ryan married into his fortune. His wife, Janna, inherited a trust worth between $1 million and $5 million from her mother and receives as much as $150,000 a year from mining and oil exploration investments managed by her father, an Oklahoma oil lawyer.

Ryan's vaunted record of convincing white, working-class swing voters to support his conservative vision is also something of a mirage. Yes, Ryan has won his congressional races by wide margins. But that’s only because Wisconsin Democrats have given him “a complete and total pass,” says party chairman Mike Tate. The reasons are many, and rather parochial: union decline in southwest Wisconsin; Democratic infighting; Ryan’s fundraising muscle. (Thanks to libertarian fat cats like Charles and David Koch, Ryan has a bigger war chest than any other House member, which tends to scare off challengers.) As a result, Ryan has only had to win one race: his first. The rest of the time he was competing against cash-poor vanity candidates, including (from 2000 to 2006) an elderly doctor whom Ryan had to drive to the debates, and (in 2010) an unemployed social-studies teacher who raised a grand total of $12,066. “Ryan hasn’t had a race of any kind since 1998, so his success in Wisconsin doesn’t say anything about his national appeal,” Tate explains. “He hasn’t had a negative ad run against him since becoming a member of Congress. He’s never had a real debate. There’s never been any voice up here articulating how Ryan’s policies would affect the working class.”

Ultimately, it’s those proposals that could cause Romney and Ryan the most trouble in the fall. When non-college whites tell pollsters they dislike big government, what they’re really saying is a little more subtle. As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has written, “conservative voters draw a distinction between what they see as earned benefits (which tend to accrue to people like themselves) and handouts (which go to poorer, disproportionately less-white recipients.)” Medicare and Social Security are earned benefits; food stamps and welfare are handouts. This explains why Romney is spending so much time accusing Obama of gutting the welfare work requirement and raiding Medicare to pay for Obamacare; both appeal to the white working class’s desire for Less Government, which actually means Less Government for “Them.”

But the problem with Ryan’s plan, which would voucherize Medicare, block-grant Medicaid, lower the top tax rate by 10 percent, and eliminate all non-defense, non-entitlement federal spending by 2050—is that it also means Less Government for “Us.” In fact, given that whites currently receive a disproportionate share of government benefits—69 percent of the total, even though they only make up 64 percent of the nation’s population—it’s fair to say that Ryan’s reforms could have an even bigger impact on the voters Romney is hoping Ryan will persuade than the voters Romney has written off.

For example: Ryan’s own constituents, 82.2 percent of whom are white. Last year, I worked with nonpartisan budget analysts to figure out what the initial version of the Pathway to Prosperity, which passed the House with 235 Republican votes, would mean for Wisconsin’s first congressional district. We found that by 2030 the region’s 90,776 Medicare recipients would be forced to pay 68 percent of their premiums and out-of-pocket costs--up from 25 percent under current law—or accept less bang for their buck. As many as 93,000 poor, elderly, or sick residents would fall off the Medicaid rolls by 2021. District-wide federal spending on bridges and roads would drop by more than 37 percent, or $4.5 million, over the same span of time; meanwhile, federal support for R&D would fall by roughly $600,000—a 28 percent reduction. The biggest short-term cuts, however, would hit the public-school system, which would watch its federal funding plummet 53 percent over the next eight years, from $72 million to $34 million. By 2050, there would be no money—zero—in Ryan’s budget for any of these services. Finally, only the top 1 percent of Ryan’s constituents would pay lower taxes (as compared to Obama’s plan); the other 99 percent would receive tax hikes ranging from $545 (for the $30,000-to-$40,000 bracket) to $1,906 (for the $100,000-to-$200,000 bracket). 

“I think it’s crazy!” Esther Osmond, a white, 86-year-old Janesville resident, shouted when I reached her by phone. “And that’s about all I think!” Then she hung up.

If the Obama campaign focuses its fire on Ryan’s budget, other white voters may come to agree with Osmond’s assessment. But there are no guarantees, especially when culture matters more than class, and perception can be more powerful than policy.

Near the end of Ryan’s first week on the trail, he visited Glen Allen High School in central Virginia, where he told a crowd of 2,000 people that he had “spent a lot of time hunting and fishing in this state, because that’s the kind of thing I like to do.” As his supporters roared, a smile spread across Ryan’s face. “You’ve got some great bass out there,” he said. “I caught some big ones.” 

After the rally, I met a veteran named Jim Bain, who had suffered severe head and body injuries in a helicopter crash during the first Gulf War. His denim shirt was tucked into his jeans, a Purple Heart cap was perched on his head, and a cane was cradled in his one good hand. I asked Bain, 54, how he reacted when Romney chose Ryan. “I was delighted, absolutely delighted,” he said. “I knew he had some radical ideas, and it’s about time we did that.”

Was there anything else about Ryan that appealed to him? I asked.

“Well, I know he’s a Green Bay Packer fan,” Bain continued. “I’m a Green Bay Packer fan, too. Always have been, since ‘65. Even though I’m from Virginia. Green Bay is the only team that’s owned by the citizens. In doing that, the citizens have a choice—a voice—in everything. I think that’s wonderful.”

I could have mentioned Medicare. But I’m guessing it wouldn’t have mattered.