Obama, Romney and the empathy gap

Why blurring his policy differences with Obama might not be enough to save Romney on Medicare

By Steve Kornacki

Published August 23, 2012 4:05PM (EDT)

I wrote last Friday about the Romney campaign’s efforts to neutralize Medicare as an issue. The idea isn’t that the Romney team actually think they can run and win on Medicare, even though, for obvious reasons, they have to claim this; it’s that they recognize the political poison that Paul Ryan’s “premium support” plan represents and will consider it a triumph if they can keep it from costing them significant support.

The plan that they’ve settled on is to make claims about Obama’s own handling of Medicare that, to the casual voter, sound just as alarming as anything Democrats are saying about Ryan’s plan. So it was that the GOP ticket spent much of last week denouncing Obama’s “raid” on the program – the $716 billion in non-benefit cuts that are part of the Affordable Care Act. That the cuts are also part of Ryan’s budget plan are beside the point, at least as far as Romney’s campaign is concerned. The idea is to force Obama onto the defense and to prompt swing voters to throw up their hands in confusion or exasperation and move on to another topic, like the economy.

So how’s it working? A new set of New York Times/Quinnipiac polls from Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida provides some hints.

The good news for Republicans is that things could be worse for them. When Ryan’s voucher plan is described to voters (without his name or party attached to it), voters overwhelmingly reject it. Given a choice of maintaining the current Medicare system or switching to what Ryan is proposing, Florida voters favor the status quo by a 62-28 percent spread; in Ohio it’s 64-27 percent; and in Wisconsin it’s 59-32.

But when the margins tighten when voters are simply asked which candidate would do a better jobs handling Medicare. Obama wins that question in Florida 50-42 percent; 51-41 percent in Ohio; and 51-41 in Wisconsin.

Whether this is a direct result of Romney’s Medicare strategy or more a function of partisanship (Republicans lining up with their team once names and party labels are used) is unclear. But if this is where the Romney team is starting on Medicare, they are at least within theoretical striking distance of breaking even, which is their goal.

The problem is that there’s a lot of built-in resistance to Romney and his party on the issue. Democrats have long enjoyed an advantage when voters are asked which party they trust more to safeguard Medicare, and the new polls also highlight the empathy gap that exists between the two candidates. Nearly 60 percent of voters in each state say that Obama “cares about the needs and problems of people like you.” Romney’s numbers are in the low to mid-40s in all three states. This could complicate Romney’s Medicare confusion strategy. Even if he succeeds in blurring the policy differences, Obama’s basic claim might still ring true with swing voters in a way that Romney’s doesn’t.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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