Now that the initial roar of excitement from Mitt Romney’s surprise pick of Paul Ryan as his running mate has quieted a bit, it’s worth pointing out that Ryan may pose a huge liability in a hugely important swing state: Florida. Splashed across the front page of Saturday’s Miami Herald was the headline: “Ryan Could Hurt Romney in Florida.” Why is that? Medicare, that’s why. Ryan’s budget would convert Medicare from a defined benefit program to a voucher system that would provide seniors with a fixed sum to buy private insurance, a sum that probably wouldn’t keep pace with rising health-care costs and would therefore require seniors to pay more out of their own pocket.
On the plus side, as Ryan would point out, that would free up money currently slated for Medicare for other purposes, such as the big tax cut he has proposed for top earners. On the downside, cutting Medicare could terrify seniors (as could Ryan’s past proposals to partially privatize Social Security). And as the Herald piece explains, there’s very good reason to think that it might. Voters—especially seniors—don’t like Ryan’s plan for Medicare (see chart above). In March, a United Technologies/National Journal poll found that respondents prefer Medicare as currently constituted over Ryan’s plan by a 64 percent to 26 percent margin.
Ryan seeks to mitigate this disadvantage by preserving the current Medicare system for anyone 55 or older. But any threat at all to Medicare—particularly one that is hyped by hundreds of millions of dollars in ads from an opposing presidential campaign—stands to be a major political liability. In a state like Florida, filled with seniors, it could be a decisive one.
The biggest risk embedded in the Ryan pick is that it casts Florida’s 29 electoral votes into doubt. For Romney, there are very few plausible paths to the necessary 270 electoral votes that don’t include Florida. Right now, the 23 states certain or very likely to go to Romney constitute 191 electoral votes (Obama looks to have 19 states plus Washington D.C. and 243 electoral votes). Romney could win seven of the eight remaining battleground states—Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Virginia—and still have only 266 electoral votes if he lost Florida.