When Wisconsin residents awoke on the morning of November 5, 2008, the news that Barack Obama had won the state by 14 percentage points had to be a bit of a shock. In the two previous presidential elections, Wisconsin had been the “swingiest” of the blue states, with George W. Bush losing by less than one percentage point in 2000 and 2004.
But perhaps just as surprising as Obama’s big win in the Badger State four years ago is that he is desperately clinging to a slim lead there now. In the closing days of the 2012 election, some reputable polls have shown as much as an eight-point lead for Obama. But the attention that the candidates are paying Wisconsin tells a different story; both are looking at it like my dog looks at me when I’m eating popcorn.
If how candidates use scarce public appearances in the run-up to Election Day is any indication of where Mitt Romney and the president stand in Wisconsin, then the race is a tie. (Rasmussen agrees, with its most recent poll showing each candidate at 49 percent.) Obama visited Madison the day after his catastrophic performance in the first debate against Romney; in the last five days before Tuesday, he will have visited Green Bay on Thursday, Milwaukee on Saturday (where he will be joined by noted political observer Katy Perry), and Madison again on Monday. Bill Clinton has made recent stops in Eau Claire and Green Bay, and Joe Biden is scheduled to be in Superior on Friday.
Romney, who canceled an appearance in Milwaukee on Monday out of respect to Hurricane Sandy victims, has rescheduled his event for Friday. Of course, native son Paul Ryan has been ubiquitous in his home state, hoping to do for Wisconsin what he did for his home district: turn it from a 50–50 partisan proposition to a GOP stronghold.
Ryan has certainly boosted Romney’s fortunes in the state. The “Ryan effect” prompted Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki to puzzlingly claim Romney was making headway because Ryan had “basically moved into the state and put a great deal of time in there.” (According to reports, Ryan’s home remains in Janesville, where it has been for decades.)
But the Romney-Ryan bromance isn’t the only reason for the Republican surge there. Since 2008, the state has swung strongly to the right at the ballot box. In 2010, both houses of the state legislature lurched from Democratic to Republican control, GOP governor Scott Walker was elected, and Republican businessman Ron Johnson defeated the 18-year incumbent and liberal stalwart, Russ Feingold, for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
The two years of tumult that followed in Wisconsin will be pored over by political historians for decades. Scott Walker made national news by limiting government-employee collective bargaining, casting the state into bedlam that ended only in June 2012, when he won a recall election by a greater margin than he had won by originally in 2010.
At the time, both parties knew how important to the presidential race it would be if Walker remained in office. With the infrastructure of the governorship in their hands, Republicans knew Wisconsin could once again be in play as a swing state. Democrats feared the possibility.
Both sides’ hopes and worries have been realized. Walker has been indefatigable in traveling the state for Romney and his friend Ryan, and the lists of volunteers, supporters, and donors built during the summer’s recall election are all being maxed out. (If there is one downside of the recall election, however, it’s that it may have vacuumed up every Republican dollar in the state.)