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.)
But while Walker has been campaigning for Romney-Ryan, he has also been a bit of a scold. Over the summer, he urged Romney to be more aggressive in attacking the Obama record. After the Ryan pick, Walker urged Romney to give Ryan more prominence in the campaign, believing the talented congressman was being underutilized. Soon, Ryan began to settle into a comfort zone, using his trademark PowerPoint presentations at campaign events. (A Ryan rally without budget charts is like a Journey concert without “Don’t Stop Believin’.”)
Also affecting the presidential race is a contentious U.S. Senate race in which former governor Tommy Thompson, a lock for Wisconsin’s Mount Rushmore of historic political figures, is running against Representative Tammy Baldwin, an extreme liberal from Madison. The race, believed to be extremely tight, has gotten ugly, with Thompson running ads criticizing Baldwin for voting against a resolution honoring the victims of 9/11. Baldwin has shot back, noting Thompson owned stock in companies that partnered with Iran to mine uranium in Africa. National ad-watching groups have called the Thompson–Baldwin race the most negative in the nation.
It is unclear whether Thompson is buttressing Romney’s numbers, or vice versa. But when I sat down with Thompson three weeks ago, he urged Romney to spend more time and money in the state, likely recognizing the help a rising tide could give his own campaign. In most polls, Thompson is running a couple of points ahead of Romney; a strong Romney vote will almost certainly send Thompson to the Senate.
Very few early presidential-election models had Wisconsin in play, but its ten electoral votes have become an important prize. If Romney wins Wisconsin, he can even lose Ohio’s 18 electoral votes, provided he wins Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Nevada.
That is, Romney can still win the presidency if he loses Wisconsin, but it is almost certain that if he wins Wisconsin, he will be the next president. If the state tips in Romney’s direction, it will be the sign of a larger trend — one that could also sweep in other Midwestern states, including Minnesota and Michigan, both of which appear to be closer than expected.
On October 28, 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was joined by singer Bruce Springsteen at a campaign rally down the street from the state capitol in Madison. The rally drew tens of thousands of people; Kerry ended up winning Wisconsin by only 11,384 votes.
On Monday, Obama will be joined by Springsteen in Madison, hoping to recapture some of the last-minute magic that The Boss contributed eight years ago. If the Wisconsin public sees this recycled campaign stunt as a metaphor for Obama’s lack of new ideas since he took office, he could find himself on the evening of November 6 left with nothing but boring stories of glory days.
— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.