University at Albany

Doctoral Student’s Research Looks at Romney Running Mate Paul Ryan

Michael Armato, a doctoral candidate in the Rockefeller College Department of Political Science, has been studying Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as one of the subjects of his dissertation, “Practicing Representation: The Influence of Political Competition on the Home Styles of U.S. Representatives.”

Michael Armato

In particular, Michael Armato has collected and analyzed the material that Ryan has distributed to constituents through use of what is known as the franking privilege. This material includes newsletters, position papers on public policy, and other correspondence that Representative Ryan has mailed to constituents at taxpayer expense.

“Representative Ryan has been able to comfortably win every election he has competed in with well over 60 percent of the vote since 2002. This is noteworthy as the underlying partisan makeup of his district only favors Republican presidential candidates by either one or two percentage points compared to the nation,” said Armato. “Since the purpose of this project is to illustrate and explain if and how political competition influences how members of Congress present themselves to voters, the dissertation explores whether Ryan acts differently than other members of Congress in similar and opposite situations.  What is particularly evident from Ryan’s government printed material designed for his constituents, is that he communicates a great deal through use of the franking privilege more than many other subjects in the study, that he explains policy positions often to his voters, and that he spends a great deal of time meeting with his constituents.  Some very prominent policy themes he discusses in his data include balancing the federal budget and paying down the deficit, changing the makeup of Social Security while keeping benefits currently in place for those 55 and older without a major tax increase, and keeping Medicare solvent. These are not new issues to Ryan; he has been talking about them since at least 2002.”

In a Q&A with Michael Armato conducted shortly after the announcement of Paul Ryan as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s running mate,  Armato was asked the following questions:

Question:  Why did you choose to include Paul Ryan among the members of Congress you reviewed in your research?

Armato:  My dissertation classifies every member of Congress into one of six possible dimensions based on his or her election returns and underlying district partisanship. Within each dimension I strove for a particular mixture of tenure within the chamber, party and region. With trying to satisfy the variety the project was yearning for, Representative Ryan was chosen randomly. It was simply the luck of the draw based on the methodological diversity the dissertation was looking to meet.

Question:  What has your research shown about Ryan?

Armato:  My project is exploring whether or not political competition influences how members of Congress present themselves to their voters. It is using a theoretical lens that focuses on the behaviors of U.S. Representatives within and towards their districts. The project has thus far analyzed primary public source material collected from the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. The material includes newsletters, policy position papers and meeting notices distributed through utilization of what is known as the franking privilege. The franked material I studied is solely intended as a communication between Paul Ryan and his constituents.
The material shows many interesting facts about Representative Ryan, but foremost, it chronicles the story of a member of Congress that spends a great deal of time and energy meeting with constituents; communicates policy positions often; avoids strong partisan or ideological rhetoric; and with one exception, ignores social issues entirely.

One piece in 2005 illustrates that Representative Ryan had 35 town hall meetings in one month. That is an extraordinary number. Further, much of Ryan’s franked material includes meeting notices, including town halls held with a Spanish interpreter present.

As a part of a larger newsletter that he disseminates, Ryan allows constituents to indicate on a post card if they would like more information on a particular policy topic. When citizens return the postcard to his office, staffers send out a rather in-depth policy paper from Representative Ryan about his thoughts on an issue. He doesn’t ignore policy as we might expect in a district that has an almost evenly split partisan distribution. He addresses the issues very directly and very consistently. The lack of a partisan or ideological discourse is also noticeable. I doubt anyone would argue Ryan isn’t conservative; he just never labels himself such. The only instances that he mentions party, he does so in a very bipartisan manner. 

Finally, Representative Ryan avoids social issues in dialogue with his constituents, with the exception of one piece written specifically for hunters. 

Question:  Going forward, any thoughts on what you expect we’ll see or hear from Ryan, again based on your knowledge of how he operates, reaches out to his constituents, etc.?

Armato:  Ryan finds himself in a rather complicated situation. In addition to running for Vice President, he is also running for re-election to the House of Representatives since Wisconsin law allows him to do so. Interestingly, he is also running against his most formidable and well-funded challenger since 2002. I would think that the Romney Campaign is also running his re-election campaign as well, or at least approving everything put out by it. That is a rather difficult situation to be in for Ryan, essentially running two races at once and probably being told what to say in his own district.  If Ryan continues to behave the way he has, and it is probable that he will, you will see a heavy policy conversation focusing on the budget, the economy and aging programs. The details of Ryan’s past proposals may be adjusted to be more in line with Governor Romney’s thoughts.

For more information on Michael Armato’s research, you can contact Michael at (917) 693-3062 or