Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Paul Ryan vs Polling - Painting outside the lines

Picking up on Ace's "DOOM!" meme, if we're to believe the polling about Paul Ryan's Medicare plan, the GOP is doomed.  And not just the GOP, but the nation as well, because ignoring the issue is going to put us in a Greek-like situation in relatively short order.  Problem being that we're not Greece, we're the US of A, and there will be a lot more collateral damage.

But Ryan isn't backing down, ignoring the hand-wringing pollsters.

Republicans need to learn to paint outside the proverbial lines.

Ryan on Meet the Press (emphasis added):
REP. RYAN:  First of all, if people are describing this accurately in polls, it's far more popular than the poll you've referenced.  Second of all, leaders are elected to lead.  I don't consult polls to tell me what my principles are or what our policies should be.  Leaders change the polls.  And we are leading in the House.  We are not seeing this kind of leadership from the president of the United States.  The Senate Democrats haven't even proposed or passed a budget for 753 days, and we have a budget crisis.  So yes, we are going to lead, and we are going to try to move these polls and change these polls because that's what the country wants.

I, I just did 19 town hall meetings, David, in, in the district that I work for that went for Obama, Dukakis, Clinton and Gore.  People are hungry for solutions, and I really fundamentally believe that the people are way ahead of the political class.  And I think they're going to reward the leader who steps up to the plate and actually fixes these problems, no matter how much demagoguery, no matter how much distortion, no matter how much political parties try to scare seniors in the next election.  I just don't think they're going to buy it this year, and they're hungry for leaders to fix this problem before it gets out of our control.

There's a maxim among political consultants -- "If you're explaining, you're losing."  And there is some truth to that, like if you're trying to explain why you voted for something before voting against it, you're in trouble.  Or if you're trying to explain that, yes, the candidate does read a lot of news sources despite failing to name a single one in an interview, you're losing.  If you're explaining that you cheated on your wife because of how much you love your country, you're losing.

But on certain issues, particularly existential issues, you need to do some explaining.  You need to lead.  You need to call the other side out for lying like Jon Lovitz on his old Saturday Night Live sketches.  Paul Ryan has done that, and wins in his not-overly-conservative district because he consistently takes the time to explain his positions and people trust him.

Unlike some "damn the torpedoes" conservatives, I am generally appreciative of the wisdom obtained from good polling. But there are limitations to the utility of polls.  Polls are clumsy at detecting social tipping points, and poor at anticipating results involving exogenous circumstance -- exogenous circumstances like an imminent sovereign debt crisis and a politician actually willing to lead on that issue.  I have personally witnessed polling in a state-wide race where the politician moved significant numbers based on a screwball issue no pollster or consultant would have ever dreamed of.  It can be done.  "Leaders change the polls."

But the limitation is not just with polling and pollsters, but with the entire professional partisan political consulting universe.  Consultants only know how to paint inside the lines, caring more about the quick 50-percent-plus-one win and caring less about an electoral future two years distant. Draw a quick contrast grid, emphasize your candidate's positives, slam your opponent's negatives, make a bunch of phone calls, and hang on for dear life.  It's a process that works enough of the time to be useful, but it isn't a strategy for changing a lot of hearts and minds.

The special election in NY-26 illustrates this ineptitude.  Corwin has backed off her support of the Ryan plan, no doubt following the advice of pollsters and other consultants.  In doing so, she has forfeited credibility among both conservative Tea Partiers and independent swing voters alike.  She is somehow simultaneously an ideological squish and a mean, grandma-killing ghoul.  The Republican party apparatus, having lost the last two Congressional special elections in upstate New York, knows nothing other than its previous recipe for failure -- calling in (well-meaning) out-of-state shock troops and barraging the electorate with phone calls and advertisements well past the point of saturation.

I know -- "What about Jack Davis?"  First of all, a lot of Davis voters are breaking Democrat.  Second, to the extent that Republicans "protest" with a Davis vote, it reflects poorly upon the ability of the NYGOP and the Corwin campaign to hold their own.  I despise him as much as the next guy, but don't go blaming all of this mess on Davis.

Imagine if Corwin had explained (gulp!) that the Democratic plan is to either (1) ignore the problem and blow up the system, or (2) force rationing from DC central planners?  Given those two choices, isn't it preferable that oldsters have a hand in determining how best to manage their own health care budgets?  If society wants to spend less money on health care, who should make those decisions, bureaucrats or individuals with their doctors?

Instead, Corwin painted inside the lines.

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