Everybody, even the Republicans, is talking about how choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate has made winning the election just that much harder for Mitt Romney. But maybe the choice makes it just a little bit easier to steal.
Sure, some down-ballot Republican candidates are scrambling to distance themselves from Ryan’s plan to strangle Medicare; and behind the scenes, many Beltway GOP operatives worry that with Ryan on the ticket, “Romney has practically ceded the election,” as Politico writes. But these scaredy-cats are forgetting that even issues like Medicare may ultimately prove irrelevant as long as their vast system of voter suppression is up and running. As if to remind them, a Pennsylvania judge yesterday upheld that state’s draconian voter ID law, which could keep hundreds of thousands of registered minority, urban and elderly voters from the ballot box—enough to hand this Obama-leaning state to Romney.
And Paul Ryan is the GOP’s best bet that such a theft would be greeted with a nationwide shrug.
While the Republicans have the mechanics of voter suppression in place, they still face some psychological challenges in getting the public to accept any victories that are too obviously based on massive voter disenfranchisement.
First, the campaign has tried hard to banish all memories of Bush/Cheney, and the last thing they need is a reminder of the Brooks Brothers riot at Florida polling places in 2000. That means they must make any election theft look like, at the least, a perfectly legal fait accompli. Illegal voting-machine shenanigans aren’t about to go away, of course, but Republican state legislatures have at the same time been cranking out laws that pre-emptively strip voter rights on all fronts: voter ID laws, voter purges, the abolition or shortening of early voting, making voter registration more difficult and so on. But (as shown by the Ohio secretary of state’s decision to rescind his policy of extending voting hours in Republican-leaning counties but not in Democratic-leaning ones), theft by voter suppression must not only be technically legal, it must also be perceived as fair.
This is where Ryan comes in.
With that likable, smart, charming fella by Romney’s side, a GOP win is more likely to feel fair, to feel right. That’s because we tend to attribute honesty and good intentions to good-looking, charming people. In our national dramatic narratives, amiable good-lookers (like Obama himself) are more likely to be viewed as playing the role of the handsome hero. So even if Romney and Ryan win key swing states only by virtue of suppressing votes, such wins are a little more likely to feel legit, to feel, even, destined—after all, they’ve been achieved with the help of the winsome-eyed, well-exercised, “serious” young man. And that could make it easier to shrug off any post-election, number-crunching, legalistic squabbles as so many sour grapes.
That brings us to the second psychological challenge Republicans face in stealing 2012: polls favoring Obama. A Romney victory made possible by minimizing the Democratic vote would still be hard to swallow if polls near Election Day had the president significantly ahead. Let’s pretend that a stolen national election had been held earlier this month, for instance. How could Fox News have spun its own poll that showed Obama beating Romney by nine points? Or a CNN poll by seven points? We could call them outliers, but if the poll-of-polls were to conflict significantly with election results, Americans might feel they’d been had—pretty-boy Ryan notwithstanding.
And that’s where Ryan’s base comes in:
Any unsightly discrepancies between poll numbers and election results could be explained by the media’s underestimating the depth of conservative enthusiasm for Paul Ryan. It’s happened before. In 2004 pollsters explained discrepancies between exit polls that predicted Kerry would win by saying that voters on the right, particularly evangelicals, avoid talking to exit pollsters. Now, that explanation—that a distrusted mainstream media is too out of touch to ever gauge true conservative enthusiasm—would be harder to pull off with a Pawlenty or a Portman, whose candidacies would have been the sort of middle-road chloroform traps where enthusiasm goes to pass out.
But with Ryan, the Tea Party base really will be enthused, and only too happy to stick it to the lamestream media. Thus, any discrepancies between polls and results will seem less suspect. And easier to bury in the collective memory.
Because polls—and elections—can be canceled out by massive voter suppression, the media should be should be discussing voter suppression every single time they discuss polls. Which means constantly.
That would be one big step toward suppressing the suppression.