A lot of vice-presidential chatter has been framed around the question of whether Mitt Romney will make a “bold” choice for a running mate — like Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin — or a “safe” one, like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.
Mr. Ryan would surely do more to excite the Republican base, and he could be a more dynamic figure on the campaign trail. But having never represented anything larger than a Congressional district, he is not as well vetted as Mr. Portman. Mr. Ryan, also, would introduce an ideological element to the campaign in the form of his conservative budget plan, which polls poorly with independent voters.
There are times when making a high-risk choice can be worthwhile. John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin did not work out well for him in 2008. (Mr. McCain also inherited the Republican reins from an incumbent with a 20-something-percent approval rating who was blamed for an imploding economy.) But the strategic thinking behind Mr. McCain’s choice was sound, even if its execution may have been lacking.
Mr. Romney has had something of a rough month in the polls, especially in swing states. And if the economy is still fairly poor, recent reports suggest that it is at least not getting worse. There has been no blowup in Europe, no conflagration in the oil fields of the Middle East, that would send the economy into a double-dip recession and make him an overwhelming favorite.
Mr. Romney’s fundamentals remain much stronger than Mr. McCain’s, however. Most forecasting models produced by political scientists and economists predict a very tight race, although the consensus suggests that Mr. Obama perhaps has the narrowest of advantages as incumbents tend to get the benefit of the doubt from voters. But Mr. Obama still gets net-negative ratings from voters on his handling of the economy, and his approval ratings are only break-even.
Still, a devil’s advocate case for a bold pick could go something like this: Mr. Obama’s lead has been slim, but it has been steady. He’s averaging around 47 percent or 48 percent of the vote in national polls, and a little higher than that in some key swing states. That means Mr. Obama would need to pick up only a handful of undecided voters to win the election, while Mr. Romney would need the vast remainder of them. Mr. Romney has a good case to make to these voters on the economy. But if they haven’t been swayed so far, when this has been about the only message that his campaign has been emphasizing, what reason is there to think that something will suddenly change? The undecided voters are already convinced that the economy is terrible, but they haven’t latched on to Mr. Romney.
This line of thinking, furthermore, might account for the role of momentum in the presidential campaign. The Republican National Convention will be an opportunity for Mr. Romney to make a splash. But if he continues to emphasize the same one-note theme, and his vice-presidential choice doesn’t excite many people, it won’t make much news. Whatever bounce Mr. Romney gets in the polls will quickly evaporate once Mr. Obama holds his convention the week after. Fund-raisers and activists might even conclude that their best choice was to direct resources to the Senate, where Republican odds of a takeover still look fairly bright.
Am I persuaded by this reasoning? Not quite: The goal is to win the election in November, not to be ahead in the polls in September (as Mr. McCain briefly was). And although Mr. Romney hasn’t made many gains with undecided voters so far, a lot of them won’t be tuning in until that stretch-run period.
But the case to make a high-risk, high-reward pick is at least defensible. And if Mr. Romney really were down in the polls by four or five points right now instead of two or three — I don’t think he is — it would be a little stronger.
If Mr. Romney did want to “go bold” with his choice, however, there would be another direction apart from picking someone like Mr. Ryan.
In fact, he could go in the opposite direction: picking someone who has credentials as a moderate, and who could reposition the Republican ticket toward the center — at the risk of deeply annoying his base.
Mr. Romney has gone down this path before. In 2002, in his successful bid for governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney handpicked Kerry Healey, a moderate, as his lieutenant governor — snubbing the Republican Party establishment, which had endorsed a more conservative candidate, Jim Rappaport, at its convention.
If Mr. Romney were to pick a more moderate Republican, one potential choice stands out: Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada. Nevada, like Ohio, is a swing state. It contains fewer electoral votes than Ohio, but Mr. Sandoval is considerably more popular back at home than the relatively anonymous Mr. Portman — so the pick could have about the same electoral impact.
Mr. Sandoval, also, is Hispanic, at a time when Mr. Romney has struggled to pick up any support among that group of voters.
But Mr. Sandoval favors abortion rights. “I am pro-choice; I oppose partial-birth abortion, late term abortion and federal funding for abortion,” he writes on his Web site. Mr. Sandoval also favors domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, but not same-sex marriage.
Although Mr. Sandoval is fairly conservative on many other issues, his abortion position alone would make him a huge risk with Republican activists — especially if they have their hearts set on Mr. Ryan. There could be fireworks at the convention. It might actually be worth covering as a news event, for a change.
And Mr. Sandoval is risky in some other ways. With less than two full years in office, and hailing from a low-population state, he would be making a huge jump to the national stage.
But if Mr. Romney wants to take a risk, Mr. Sandoval would also present considerable upside. One drag on Mr. Romney is that the Republican Party is unpopular. Presenting someone who is a fresh face to voters in all senses of the term — demographically, ideologically and otherwise — could mitigate that.
Mr. Romney could run on a message of competence and pragmatism, positioning himself as the moderate in the race, as he did in Massachusetts in 2002. This could play more to his strengths, reducing the dissonance between Mr. Romney’s impressive (but moderate) track record as an executive and some of the positions he now holds.
Mr. Romney would still have plenty of opportunity to appeal to voters on the economy, however. His message could be something like this: Let’s put our other differences behind us, and get the economy fixed. Mr. Obama chose partisan priorities instead of jobs. I won’t make the same mistake.
Republican partisans, of course, would correctly read between the lines: a failure to emphasize partisan priorities would imply a failure to emphasize to their priorities, like Mr. Ryan’s budget.
But Mr. Romney could gamble that they’d have little choice but to vote for him. Republicans are reliable voters, and polls suggest that their enthusiasm for ousting Mr. Obama from office is high — even though they’ve always had tepid feelings about Mr. Romney.
Risky? Hugely so. But there’s more than one way to “go bold.”