Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Republican, Catholic, and on a Presidential Ticket

Gov. Mitt Romney’s selection today of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate ensures that there will be a Catholic VP no matter what the outcome of Election 2012. Ryan is the first Catholic on a Republican ticket since 1964 when Rep. William Miller was Sen. Barry Goldwater’s running mate. This is also the first time in history a major U.S. party is putting a slate forward without a Protestant on the ballot.

Although Rep. Ryan is a bit of a household name in DC circles and was even a runner-up Time Person of the Year in 2011, many Americans are mostly unfamiliar with the seven term House member. It will be interesting to see how polls this week gauge the public’s response.

Rep. Ryan’s profile was elevated in the last few years with the U.S. dealing with issues related to rising debt. He has been one of the most active members in Congress in developing a plan to deal with this issue. Many in the media have been commenting that it is this work that makes Democrats “happy” with Romney’s selection. I wouldn’t be so sure about Ryan’s plan being a huge liability (...although as a political scientist I believe a different set of reforms would be preferable). First, Romney has been clear that he is not adopting the plan as part of his campaign. Second, many Americans recognize that debt is an issue that will have to be tackled and soon. Democrats have largely avoided the topic—failing to create a budget in the Senate in recent years while $5 trillion in new debt has been added during President Obama’s tenure.

Eight in ten Americans (80%) say they believe Medicare needs at least some modification (they are right… otherwise the program will be bankrupt in 2024). Forty-three percent believe the program needs either a complete overhaul or major changes. As the figure below shows, only one in five Catholics (19%) don’t think Medicare needs changes. 

I’ve already heard many pundits say Ryan wants to “end Medicare as we know it.” I guess it all depends on what one means by “as we know it.” Most Americans are accepting of changes to the program (certainly not an “end” though). Any politician who makes the case that no changes are needed is not being honest. The real debate is about what those changes will come to be.

Last spring, when debate over Rep. Ryan’s proposal was in the news many Americans don’t seem to have been paying close attention. At that time, one in four Americans (24%) supported Ryan’s plan, 7% opposed it and most, 68%, didn’t know enough to say if they supported or opposed it (there are few differences by religious affiliation). 

One of the plan’s more shrewd features is that it attempts to ease the worry of current seniors by restricting the changes to people a decade or more away from retirement. This may have limited the public stir caused by the plan (…and the fact that none of the Kardashians mentioned it on a reality TV show! Religion is not the “opiate of the masses” but I’m pretty sure pop culture is. As Gallup and Pew note there are few news stories that even a majority of the public pay very close attention to any more).

Not only did many not know about Ryan’s plan last summer, they also didn’t know him enough to have an opinion of him personally either. Among all Americans his positives and negatives were balanced. Among the religiously affiliated he has been viewed more positively. More Nones (those without a religious affiliation) have had a negative opinion of him.  

Most people just didn’t recognize his name or were unsure of their opinion about him. Think things must have changed in recent months? CNN measured his approval in a June 2012 poll and 56% of respondents said they’d “never heard of him” (40%) or had “no opinion” (16%) of him (24% approved and 20% disapproved).

That is all about to change. The Saturday morning announcement is odd timing (during the final weekend of the Summer Olympics no less). It may not be until late this week that public opinion includes sufficient knowledge of Rep. Ryan to accurately gauge the impact of the pick. I’m betting we hear a lot this week about Medicare, the deficit, Ryan’s affinity for Ayn Rand, and perhaps even a bit about Catholic bishops who have been publicly critical of some of his budget plans. Maybe we’ll even see a campaign ad from the president that is not about Bain Capital (I live in a “swing state” and I would welcome more variety… not that it really matters to me as I am an apolitical political scientist who just observes). I've heard a few Democratic pundits question his experience. Seems a bit odd to me. How less experienced is he now than President Obama was before being elected in 2008? I don't see that argument going far. Regardless, today may very well be the first day in a long career of presidential politics for Ryan. Historically, that has been rare for a person who is a Republican and a Catholic.  

Above photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore at Flickr Creative Commons.

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