Why It’s Hard for Republicans to Campaign on Medicare

Romney advisor Ed Gillespie:

The fact is, we’re going to go on offense here. Because the president has raided the Medicare trust fund to the tune of $716 billion to pay for a massive expansion of government known as Obamacare.

This will be an uphill battle for the GOP, for two reasons.

First, Democrats are more trusted to handle the issue of Medicare.  That is, they “own” the issue.  See, for example, my piece on campaign agendas (especially Figure 1).  To cite some more recent data, a February GW Battleground Poll found that 52% of respondents trusted Democrats to handle “Social Security and Medicare,” while 43% trusted Republicans.  A June 2011 poll found that 47% of respondents had “more confidence” in the Democrats’ ability to handle Medicare, while 40% had more confidence in Republicans.

Second, although perceptions of which party owns an issue can change, they usually will not change during the short window of a campaign.  Take 1988 for example.  In this election, Michael Dukakis tried to emphasize national defense.  George H.W. Bush emphasized jobs and declared that he would be the “education president.” Both were attempting to “trespass” on the other party’s territory.  How’d that work out for them?  Political scientists Bruce Buchanan and Helmut Norpoth studied those strategies and found:

Our findings raise serious doubts that “issue trespassing” pays electoral dividends. Voters tend to rely too much on party stereotypes to notice such attempts.

Voters tended to attribute Bush’s slogans and promises about education and jobs to Dukakis, and attribute Dukakis’s promises about national defense to Bush.  They relied on stereotypes of issue ownership—“if someone wants to improve education, he must be a Democrat”—rather than pay attention to the specific promises of Bush and Dukakis.

In my work, I find that parties often trespass by finding dimensions of issues that play to the party’s ideology.  So a Republican might talk about education by emphasizing vouchers.  Democrats might talk about crime by talking about prevention rather than punishment (see, e.g., David Holian’s study of Bill Clinton).

With regard to Romney-Ryan and Medicare, you could imagine how the GOP might try to do this.  For example, they could talk about “reforming Medicare” as a means to reducing the budget deficit, since that is what Ryan has proposed anyway and since the deficit is an issue more associated with the GOP.  Sure, Obama will counter-attack—calling the “reform” dismantlement, etc.—but at least the battle will be partly fought on the GOP’s turf.

But to go toe-to-toe on “who wants to cut Medicare more”?  That strikes me as a much harder sell for the Republican ticket.

14 Responses to Why It’s Hard for Republicans to Campaign on Medicare

  1. Nadia Hassan August 14, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    Professor Sides, do you think the same is true as far as advertising the conservative reform anti-government budget as something that will help the middle class? Democrats tend to have the advantage in this area, and Obama tends to have the advantage over Romney.

    Some commentators (e.g. Guy Molneux, Jim Tankersley) have raised the possibility that middle class voters will respond affirmatively to cutting the deficit by cutting services for the undeserving poor, but that’s a tougher sell with the tax cuts for the wealthy and numbers stuff with the middle class.

  2. PBR August 14, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    Or, how about Democrats’ attempts to sell themselves as credible deficit cutters?

  3. Larry Bartels August 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    Romney was much more credible than Obama on the deficit issue before Ryan’s selection (http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/08/11/the-fiscal-facts-of-life-do-americans-understand-where-budget-deficits-come-from/); it is hard to see why that would cease to be the case after his selection. And for what it’s worth, expectations regarding deficit reduction seem to be having a much larger impact on vote intentions than expectations regarding domestic spending–while expectations regarding entitlement spending don’t seem to be having much impact at all (perhaps because some prospective voters think more entitlement spending would be a good thing while others think it would be a bad thing).

    • Nadia Hassan August 14, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

      Though Professor Bartels, didn’t you find in your comparative Great Recession paper on Ideology V. Retrospection that stimulus spending was modestly associated with better electoral performance? Also, Nate Silver found practically no relationship between deficits and electoral outcomes.

      It deserves noting that David Cameron and the Tories are experiencing a lot of political pain for their austerity budget, though as you noted in your paper, sorting through the political impact of fiscal policy is tricky because expansionary fiscal policy improves economic performance. Americans, moreover, do tend to respond more affirmatively to limited government appeals than voters in other nations.

      I agree that Ryan likely won’t do much to change perceptions related to deficit spending, and Romney will likely continue to enjoy whatever political benefits exist.

      • Larry Bartels August 15, 2012 at 11:28 am #

        There is no necessary connection between what people say they want and what they will think of it after it happens. That’s one of the reasons why being a politician is harder than reading the water meter.

        • Nadia Hassan August 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

          Well, work by Shapiro and Jacobs is pretty persuasive that politicians in America are largely motivated by their own beliefs. Admittedly, my knowledge of the situation abroad is very limited, but Cameron, Osborne, and the Tories seem to be sticking with austerity out of conviction.

          Politicians often seem interested in public opinion as far as marshalling it to serve their own ends or minimizing the electoral consequences of unpopular policies.

          I note this because prominent Democrats (the politicians who have to do more than glance at surveys) are now making statements to the effect of “If we can succeed in showing voters how Ryan is not really a deficit hawk at all — that he prioritizes conservative ideology over balancing the budget — the rationale for his selection is gone, and Romney’s political high-wire act will fail.”

          Your point above suggests that voters already have perceptions that are unlikely to change substantially. That doesn’t imply that the debate will necessary work out to Republicans’ favor, but underscores the complicated dynamics at play.

  4. Kenneth Almquist August 14, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

    What you are implying by omission is that the truthfulness of Gillespie’s attack on Obama with respect to Medicare is irrelevant to the effectiveness of the attack. Is that an accurate reading of your posting?

    It seems to me that if Gillespie’s charge were true, he could find lots of credible sources to substantiate his charge. Taking money out of the Medicare trust fund would set a precedent that could be used to justify taking money out of the Social Security trust funds, so it would be seen as an assault on both Social Security and Medicare. The amount of outrage from the political left would be huge, and the AARP would have fought against it tooth and nail. So the Republicans could make their case in advertisements that did nothing but quote Democrats and the AARP, and it seems plausible that a campaign of that sort could be quite effective.

    • John Sides August 14, 2012 at 11:04 pm #

      Kenneth: I don’t think it is necessarily easy for voters to parse the truthfulness of attacks. So truth may be secondary. What voters will more likely see is two candidates, each of whom is claiming that they’ll protect Medicare and their opponent will hurt it. If that debate unfolds, it’s a debate on the Democrats’ turf.

  5. Kevin P August 14, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    very nice treatment of Riker in your article, ‘Origins of Campaign Agendas’

    • John Sides August 14, 2012 at 11:04 pm #


  6. Kevin Elliott August 15, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    Professor Sides; I take your point about the potency of in-built biases, so I wonder what you think about this (somewhat lengthy) video by a Republican strategist from Nevada: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VMPu12Jkjg&feature=player_embedded).

    He lays out how a Nevada congressman responded to backing the Ryan budget by focusing on his opponent’s support for Obamacare, and its cuts to Medicare. This strategy seems to pit powerful biases against each other–dislike of (and ignorance about) Obamacare vs. Dems as the protect-Medicare party. The hack points out at the end that their aim isn’t to win the issue, but just to fight it to a tie, which they seem to have been able to do. Of course, his analysis commits the sin of omitting variables, but it still paints a picture suggestively contrary to your conclusions.