I think Romney just handed Obama the election.

I was hiking in Great Falls yesterday when my cell phone binged with the news alert of the day – Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running-mate. My first thought was “Romney just handed the election to Obama.”

This feels like 2008 all over again. Romney probably ran the numbers, realized the odds are against him and decided to throw a hail mary pass. With the electoral college leaning Democratic, Romney’s team understood they just couldn’t win unless they inspired the conservative base, and the Tea Party especially, to turn out in big numbers for the election.

Romney’s campaign attempted to make the campaign a referendum of Obama’s handling of the economy, but that strategy has failed. The American electorate is smarter than people think, and everyone understands that Obama was handed a very bad hand. He’s probably played it about as well as anyone could have, and the economy is improving, slowly but surely. And in light of the economic troubles in Europe and China, the US economy looks positively vibrant.

With the economic strategy failing, Romney’s choice of Ryan seems to make sense. Ryan is young, charismatic and bright, and his budget proposals are a beacon for the Tea Party. He’s an ideological purist who feels that over dependence on the U.S. government undermines the liberty of  its citizens. Romney believes that Ryan’s presence on the ticket will sooth the far right, which has always been suspicious of his conservative credentials, and drive the Tea Party to support him on November 6. And he’s right – Ryan will probably draw significant support from the Conservative base. Ryan will also solidify Romney in Wisconsin, a key swing state in 2012.

However, in doing this, Romney has stepped into a trap. Paul Ryan is such a polarizing figure he’s actually going to rally more support from the Democratic base than anything Obama could have done. Whether the perception is correct or not, Ryan is viewed as a symbol for gutting domestic social programs in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. This will likely shift states leaning towards Obama into the solid Obama camp. Ryan is seen as favoring a dismantling of Medicare, so toss-up states with a high percentage of elderly voters will start to lean Democratic. Most critically, Ryan isn’t going to play well in Florida with its high proportion of retirees.

Adding Florida’s 29 electoral votes to his ‘solid Obama’ total of 237 electoral votes will give Obama 268 – only two shy of the number needed to capture the Presidency. With Florida, Obama only needs to win one additional state from the remaining seven toss up states. For the Obama camp, that’s pretty good odds.

But in fact, Romney faced long odds when he failed to make a centrist turn after the Republican primary. The center-right Romney, the one who governed Massachusetts with pragmatism, fiscal conservatism and a social libertarian bent – that Romney could have beaten Obama handily. And so its a mystery to why Romney, after making a hard right to sew up the Republican nomination, didn’t then take a hard turn back to center after he became the Republican candidate.

The ‘real’ Romney, the Massachusetts governor who seemed to favor whats right over what’s Right, was the one that held the promise of real change from the outside. The current version of Romney looks like a failed upgrade – one that is beholden to the far right, and has now selected a career politician with exactly one year of private sector experience, to be his running-mate. Ryan is the ultimate Washington insider. The private-sector pragmatist Romney now looks very much like the torchbearer for the Republican base.

I think Romney just handed Obama the election.

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