Democrats own the Medicare issue. Voters are already primed to think the Nasty Party wants to cut Medicare benefits, and they are also primed to believe – in part because Republicans are always complaining about it – that Democrats won’t budge on “entitlements”.
This will be an uphill battle for the GOP, for two reasons.
First, Democrats are more trusted to handle the issue of Medicare. That is, they “own” the issue. See, for example, my piece on campaign agendas (especially Figure 1). To cite some more recent data, a February GW Battleground Poll found that 52% of respondents trusted Democrats to handle “Social Security and Medicare,” while 43% trusted Republicans. A June 2011 poll found that 47% of respondents had “more confidence” in the Democrats’ ability to handle Medicare, while 40% had more confidence in Republicans.
Second, although perceptions of which party owns an issue can change, they usually will not change during the short window of a campaign. Take 1988 for example. In this election, Michael Dukakis tried to emphasize national defense. George H.W. Bush emphasized jobs and declared that he would be the “education president.” Both were attempting to “trespass” on the other party’s territory. How’d that work out for them? Political scientists Bruce Buchanan and Helmut Norpoth studied those strategies and found:
Our findings raise serious doubts that “issue trespassing” pays electoral dividends. Voters tend to rely too much on party stereotypes to notice such attempts.