WASHINGTON - (TheBlaze/AP) Since Mitt Romney tapped Paul Ryan as his running mate, Democrats have aggressively highlighted what Ryan's budget would mean to Medicare. Ryan's plan would allow those 55 and older to stay in the health care program for seniors as it is currently set up, but would also offer private alternatives for younger workers. That has left some voters skittish.
But was it enough? Due to a concerted push by the Romney campaign to push the Medicare debate front and center while focusing on President Obama's own record of cutting Medicare, Democrats may have decided that this strategy is no longer functional.
What else can explain President Obama's shift from targeting the vote rich demographic of elderly voters to putting college students, a group generally considered far less likely to turn out at the polls, on notice about Paul Ryan's education plans?
On Tuesday, Obama planned to tell voters in sharply contested Ohio that Ryan's budget proposal would cut $115 billion from the Education Department, remove 2 million children from Head Start programs and cost 1 million college students their Pell Grants over the next decade. The line of criticism will be coupled with television ads.
Obama's latest line of criticism was described by Democratic officials involved in the plan. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the strategy before the president began executing it, which he planned to do at Capital University in Columbus and continue later in the day during a stop at a community college in Reno, Nev.
This is quite a safe change of subject, especially given that young voters overwhelmingly favored Obama in 2008, and he continues to enjoy a sizable lead in polls - although not as wide as four years ago. While their parents are less convinced, and they are as much Obama's audience as their children, the questions remains: Has President Obama executed this pivot because he thinks he's lost on Medicare?
That case can certainly be made. Consider the Democrats' first steps toward this education-focused attack. The president started radio ads in New Hampshire that claim 21,000 college students in that state would have their Pell Grants cut by $800 each. Another ad tells Ohio voters that 356,000 students would have their Pell Grants cut.
Officials with the Democratic National Committee also joined in the attack, releasing a Web video that mocked Romney's suggestion that college students would do better to "shop around" for tuition rates and college loans. The ad suggested that Romney doesn't understand students' struggles to pay for college.
"Students can't afford Mitt Romney," the ad says.
Compare these attacks to the President and his party's previous ads on Medicare, depicting Rep. Ryan throwing old women off a cliff. Which is the more aggressive? The tonal shift indicates a move toward defensiveness.
Moreover, the polling on Ryan's supposedly volcanically unpopular plan has been disappointing for the Obama campaign. As the Miami Herald noted:
Right now, Romney might be winning the public-relations war in Florida, according to a poll from Rasmussen Reports, which has a reputation for leaning Republican. Asked which plan “scares you more,” the poll found 54 percent of Florida seniors said Obamacare, while 34 percent said the Ryan plan. Overall, 48 percent were more scared of Obamacare and 41 percent were more worried about Ryan’s plan, which is the backbone of Romney’s proposal.
The Ryan-Romney plan, which has few details compared to Obamacare, would give new recipients a capped subsidy through Medicare to buy private insurance in 2022, and would only impact those who are currently under age 55. That distinction should allay concerns of seniors and those about to retire.
There’s no guarantee that the Ryan plan devastates Romney’s chances among seniors. But if Romney does struggle among seniors, that’s going to hurt Romney everywhere, not just in Florida. Yes, those losses would be larger in Florida, but perhaps not as much larger as the conventional wisdom suggests, and certainly not so much larger that media coverage about the fight over seniors should focus exclusively on the danger Romney faces in Florida. There are plenty of seniors in every battleground state, and losses among the elderly would be costly to Romney's chances across the map. Paul Ryan doesn't change the electoral map.
So faced with this polling and commentary, the Obama campaign's response has been to pivot to education. You can read the implications into that yourself.