To get a better sense of how the November election is shaping up, I recently spoke to BR contributing editor and Harvard political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere.

David Johnson: Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate has obviously crystallized the race some. What was your impression of the pick?

Stephen Ansolabehere: The Ryan selection was interesting because it helped clarify the Romney campaign’s position on a variety of economic and fiscal issues, especially budgetary matters. There are some costs to the appointment, I think, because of past positions that Ryan’s taken on Social Security and Medicare; it actually might hurt the ticket somewhat in Florida and perhaps also Arizona—although Arizona’s not as important as Florida—and also maybe Ohio, because Ohio is one of the older states in terms of age distribution (about 17 percent of Ohio residents are over 65). Some of the internal polling at different organizations indicated that Ryan didn’t give an immediate boost to Romney in Wisconsin because Ryan wasn’t that well-known in the state, but some of the alternatives, such as Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, might have helped the ticket more in the short term in those states. We might still see Romney pick up additional support in Wisconsin, as people in Wisconsin come to know Ryan and feel some loyalty for the home-state candidate.

DJ: I saw an article today suggesting that the Romney-Ryan plan for Medicare is polling better in Ohio and Florida than Obama’s. So I wonder whether—apart from the details of their respective policies—the fact that Ryan even has a plan can help the ticket in those two states, given that the public may not be so alert to what’s actually in their respective plans.

SA: Yeah, I think this’ll get debated extensively in the fall campaign, and the magnitude of the proposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare hasn’t been made clear. To the extent that Romney and Ryan have been talking about their plan, it’s mainly just to say, “We have a specific plan to save Medicare, and Obama’s going to do something more radical.” But they’ve really backed away from the Social Security proposals that both Romney and Ryan had backed, specifically the privatization plan that they backed that came out of the Bush administration.

The other aspect of this, of course is who was passed over and why. The other final candidate appeared to be Rob Portman from Ohio, which seems surprising to me—that an Ohio person would be passed over. I think part of the reason for that was that Ryan is a much more dynamic personality, and some of this had to do with how much enthusiasm and excitement each of the candidates would bring to the race. So I think the big asset that Ryan brings is less the policy specifics, and less the key state, such as Wisconsin, and more just the enthusiasm and energy. And his ability as a debater.

DJ: In terms of Ryan offering more of a concrete perspective of what a Romney-Ryan ticket would bring to America—because Ryan has such detailed proposals and Romney, comparatively, doesn’t, at least so far—do you think it’s unfair to pin Ryan’s ideas to Romney, since he is the presidential candidate?

SA: Ultimately that’s going to be one of the problems: you vote for president, not for vice president, and the responsibility for policy ideas and so forth rests with the president. And as soon as something comes up about a proposal supported by Ryan that Romney has to distance himself from, there’s going to emerge this tension about what Romney really stands for.

DJ: Do you remember a presidential campaign ever having this problem, in which a vice presidential nominee has such detailed proposals that they overshadow the presidential nominee’s or are forced on him?

SA: There have been presidential/vice-presidential tickets, such as George H.W. Bush under Ronald Reagan, that did raise such questions. Bush was much more specific and concrete than Reagan was in terms of his policy proposals, and he was critical of Reagan. He’s the one who coined the term “voodoo economics.” So we have seen policy tensions between presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and there have been vice presidential candidates with long vote records and histories in Congress, but never one, at least not in recent history, one who has set of proposals as controversial as the Ryan budget.

DJ: Have you been looking at polling numbers for the national race between Democrats and Republicans for control of the House and Senate?

SA: Yes. The poll numbers on the House are pretty early. There’s a generic congressional question that looks toward the fall election: “Who do you think you’ll be more likely to vote for, the Democrat or Republican in your race, or in your area?” and that’s been pretty evenly split between the two parties. However, that usually is not a great predictor, race by race, of what will happen, because of incumbency, which is a very big factor. To the extent that people are not voting for Democrats or Republicans, they are often voting for a person, and that person is usually the incumbent. So my guess is the Republicans have an edge there because there are more incumbent Republicans running for re-election. It’s also the case, as you go race by race looking at retirements and redistricting, that Republicans appear to have a slight edge in the House in terms of number of seats. They’ll probably hold on to their majority—betting odds that the Republicans will keep their House majority are now in the range of about 75 percent. The odds are less clear for the Senate and the presidency.

Romney’s doing pretty badly among women. That might end up being a big factor.

The Senate is the more interesting story. There it is easy to get a clear sense of what are the key races, and going into this election, the Senate looked like it was going to slide pretty strongly in the Republican direction, simply because of what year it is. The Senate’s elected on a six-year cycle and this is 2012, so if you go back 6 years, you’re in 2006, and 2006 was a big Democratic landslide—they ran the table, basically. They won all the close races in places such as Montana and Virginia; they won surprise victories that went down to the wire with very close results. Many of those seats are now either up for grabs or tilting in the opposite direction. I think the three that people focus the most on are Montana, Virginia and Missouri. In Montana, Jon Tester won that race; Jim Webb won the Virginia race in 2006; and Claire McCaskill won in Missouri. Those three seats all looked to be in trouble going into 2012. So back in November or December of 2011, Tester was far behind in the polls in Montana, McCaskill was behind in the polls in Missouri, and Webb had decided to retire. So it looked as though all those seats were going to go over, and there weren’t any obvious Democratic pickups, and given that, it looked like the Democrats were more likely than not to lose control of the Senate.

Then things started to happen. [laughs]

DJ: We had some comments from Rep. Todd Akin . . .

SA: Exactly. And Olympia Snowe decided to retire, and a seat that was safe for Republicans suddenly became a toss-up. After the alignment of who in Maine would run was settled, it became clear that Angus King was going to be the odds-on favorite to win Snowe’s seat, and he’s more likely than not to caucus with the Democrats. So that’s actually a seat that people are treating as a likely Democratic pickup.

DJ: He’s an independent like Lieberman?

SA: He’s an independent like Lieberman. He was the governor of Maine and ran the state as an independent. So he would be like Lieberman.

Then Richard Lugar lost to Joe Murdoch in Indiana, and Murdoch is a Tea Party backer and state treasurer. Lugar was expected to win by a landslide over Joe Donnelly, who’s a U.S. House representative, and now the polls put that race as dead even. So Indiana, now, has become a competitive race. In Virginia, Tim Kane, who was a popular governor of the state, decided to run, so that made that a competitive race, and one that went from a likely Republican pickup to leaning slightly Democratic. And Claire McCaskill benefited from the primary election there, where Congressman Akin beat out a moderate Republican businessman for the nomination and then proceeded to say fairly controversial comments about rape and abortion. That race has become competitive, maybe leaning Democratic, based on some of the polls since that election happened. So all of those factors have now pushed the Senate towards a 50-50 split, or maybe toward a slight Democratic advantage in line with the current lineup, which is a 51-seat Democratic majority.

DJ: Are there any other races you’re especially focused on?

SA: Well, there are other Senate races of note. The Florida Senate race is very competitive. The Wisconsin Senate race is also very competitive—that’s a seat where the Democrat retired and Congressman Tammy Baldwin is running against ex-Governor Tommy Thompson. Thompson’s very popular, and it’s going to be a competitive race, but people think that leans in the Republican’s favor. And of course the other big one that everyone’s watching is the Massachusetts Senate race, which has really been neck-and-neck and is key to the Democrats holding on to control of the Senate. The last couple of polls have put it either dead even or Elizabeth Warren up by a couple points. So neither candidate’s breaking away.

As for the House, I think some of the interesting things have to do with redistricting and reapportionment. The Northeast lost six seats due to population changes over the course of the past decade. Four of those seats ended up in Texas and two of them ended up in Florida. So there’s a big population shift, especially in the direction of Texas. And the redistricting there is actually still up in the air in the courts. There are two court cases that are pending in the federal district courts and we’re waiting to see what happens. But the scenario could be like 2006, when the federal courts made a decision pretty late in the process and forced an immediate special election for several of the seats in the House. The same thing could happen in Texas this time, depending on what the federal district courts decide to do about the voting rights claims there. And Florida’s redistricting is in the state courts because the state constitution governs districting there. There are two outstanding cases: one’s a congressional race and one’s a state senate race, and the trial on those is slated for early 2013, so we could see the Florida districts changed in the middle of the redistricting year. So we’re watching those closely to see what happens, because that would be a pretty sizable number of districts affected. Those are two of the most populous states, and they might have to go back to the drawing board and start drawing new maps and having special elections.

DJ: Do you plan to watch the conventions?

SA: I likely will. It depends on what else is going on. We have our professional association [American Political Science Association] meeting at about the same time in New Orleans, but we could all be shut down by the hurricane.

DJ: Turning to the Obama campaign, is there anything we should be focusing on? Obviously there are still economic numbers to come out, but is the dynamic of the contest pretty much set for November? Should he be worried about any other possible news in the pipeline?

SA: The presidential debates are going to be very important this time. I think it’s going to be a very substantive campaign. It was always going to be that way, but the choice of Ryan focuses this election even more so on fiscal and economic issues. And the social issues keep coming back up. Much as Romney’s tried to keep them out, they keep resurfacing. I think that was the third time this year that social issues have come to the fore, most recently because of Akin’s comments about rape and abortion. Romney’s doing pretty badly among women, and I think that might end up being a big factor in this election because women vote at a slightly higher rate than men do. About 52 percent of the electorate in 2008 was female. And if that’s the case this time, then Obama’s got a huge edge, and that’s kind of a quiet undertone to the contest. So if women are voting more, and they’re really strongly pushed or pulled toward the Democrats, then that’s going to be an important dynamic to watch. That’s going to be across the board—it affects every state.

The other thing worth noting about the election right now—though it might be an oddity of early polling, because pollsters don’t have a very good sense of who is likely to vote—is that Obama seems to have a tiny Electoral College edge. That is, he’s ahead in the right places. The Electoral College map slightly favors him. It looks like there’s no way Romney can win without Ohio, while Obama can. So that asymmetry is essential. Ohio is going to be a focal point.

DJ: Have you followed the money race at all?

SA: I have. It’s become very hard to follow the total amount being raised in the Senate this year because of day-by-day decisions about what’s allowed and not allowed. The Federal Elections Commission has had to offer extra advisory opinions (that’s the way they govern campaign finance regulation) to clarify what can and can’t be done through super PACs, through coordinated expenditures, and so forth, as well as other matters, such as whether you can raise money through texting and other new technologies that the campaigns have been experimenting with. So that’s made it very hard to track the money race.

To the extent that we are able to track it, Romney appears to have an edge in total amount of money, but if you go to the swing states, they’ve both been advertising in them for months already. So I think by the time October rolls around, people are going to feel saturated. They will have heard everything, and they’re going to be pretty tired. So my sense is, if you’re in one of the key states, you’re going to be inundated with advertising. And if you’re not, you’re probably not going to hear much.

DJ: One more question: there’s been a lot of discussion about voter-identification laws and whether they’ll have an impact on the elections. Do you have an impression of whether these laws will have an effect on the race in, say, Pennsylvania or other states?

SA: Voter ID laws are really complicated and difficult to assess because a lot of the actual effects depend on their administration, and different states have different rules for how they’ll be implemented and administered. Then there’s the further question about the discretion of poll workers: if the poll workers aren’t trained properly, you could see some abuses. I think voter protection is one of the areas where the campaigns are going to have to spend an enormous amount of resources. And states will also have to spend money on training. The other thing that the voter ID laws do is create a nuisance for everybody. All voters in a state where you’re required to show ID are going to have to wait in line longer. It’s not clear what the effects of those lines might be. If you create a lot of congestion problems, you might turn some people away, and it’s not clear where those lines will happen. I think it’s an issue we’re going to watch closely in 2012, because this is the first presidential election in which we’ve had these very strict voter ID laws in place in more than one state.