Old Folks and That Nice Young Paul Ryan

Expect to hear a lot about this (from WaPo’s Aaron Blake) over the next couple of days:

Grandma isn’t scared of Paul Ryan.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 41 percent of Americans view the new GOP vice presidential nominee favorably, while 37 percent rate him unfavorably — slightly improved from last week’s polling.

Among seniors, though, the numbers are even better for Ryan: 50 percent favorable and 35 percent unfavorable. Fully one-third of seniors say they have a strongly favorable view of the Wisconsin congressman, while one-quarter have a strongly unfavorable view.

Ryan’s Medicare plan, of course, isn’t designed to affect current seniors; it would turn the entitlement into a voucher program for future beneficiaries, starting in 2023. But that doesn’t mean Democrats haven’t tried to use it for leverage with elderly voters — a reliable and important voting group in the 2012 election — and one that generally favors the GOP.

Well, maybe. Ryan’s only been on the ticket for eleven days, and I’m sure the impression some seniors have of him is that he’s a nice-looking young man who campaigns with his proud mama. And some may have bought the well-advertised idea that he and his boss Mitt are fighting to save Medicare from that nasty Obama who wants to cut it to help those people.

But the more important reservation I’d have about the numbers in that poll is simply this: seniors have become a strongly Republican demographic group. Lest we forget, they voted for John McCain by an estimated eight-point margin (53/45) even as Obama was winning the presidency by seven points. That’s a pretty big pro-Republican gap. So even if the current approval rates for Ryan more-or-less stick, they are not out of line with what you would expect in a close presidential race.

Now it would probably be a good idea generally for Democrats to go a little lighter on the Medicare stuff and a lot heavier on the other nasty things the Ryan Budget would do to the tax code, to the budget deficit, to all sorts of non-defense discretionary spending categories affecting economic growth (from education to transportation), and most of all to the neediest of Americans. With respect to seniors, it’s odd that Democrats aren’t (so far) making a much bigger deal out of Ryan’s devastating treatment of Medicaid, which pays for long-term care for six million seniors. They should also probably get around to mentioning now and then that it was Paul Ryan who nagged George W. Bush into proposing a partial privatization of Social Security back in 2005, before Republicans were admitting there was any sort of “debt crisis.”

Presumably all of this will come out in due time. But anyone who was expecting seniors to turn against the GOP massively hasn’t been paying attention to recent trends, and ultimately, it’s not who “wins” this or any other demographic category: it’s all about the margins.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.