Hurricane Sandy may be a safe distance from Wisconsin, but the Frankenstorm has upended Mitt Romney’s late push to claim the Badger State’s 10 electoral votes.
The Republican presidential nominee was compelled to ax an event in suburban Milwaukee, a GOP stronghold, Monday evening as his team (like President Obama’s) apparently decided to stop politicking with flooding, power outages, and even deaths on the horizon.
But a Romney visit may not have made all that much difference, as just a few months removed from the conservative movement’s resounding victory over organized labor in the bitter Scott Walker recall fight, Wisconsin seems to have reverted to its old left-of-center self when it comes to national politics.
Not only do polls show President Obama still ahead (albeit by far less than his 14-point margin from four years ago), but Tammy Baldwin, a liberal Democratic congresswoman who represents the college town of Madison and was assumed to have an uphill battle on her hands, has drawn even in the polls in her bid to take out popular former Republican governor Tommy Thompson in the U.S. Senate race.
The Republicans predictions of a new era of conservative hegemony after public-sector unions failed to recall Gov. Scott Walker now seem were more than a little premature in a state that lasted backed a Republican presidential candidate in 1984.
Wisconsin political insiders and longtime observers of the state’s elections don’t dismiss out of hand the possibility of a Romney upset, but given that George W. Bush came up a few thousand votes short here both in 2000 and 2004 (while winning neighbor Ohio), a last-minute sprint by Romney suggests fear that the electoral college math just isn’t adding up in some of the swing states he originally intended to win, like Ohio, Iowa, and Virginia.
“Given the makeup of the electorate, if Romney can't win Ohio, it's even more unlikely that he could win Wisconsin,” says former governor Jim Doyle, Walker’s predecessor and the last Democrat (besides Secretary of State Doug La Follette, whose family name is a huge political asset in the state) to win statewide here.
Indeed, the Romney push in Wisconsin might prove to have been something of a bluff. Operatives on both sides of the aisle compared it to Dick Cheney’s bizarre visit to Hawaii in the final days of the 2004 presidential race (John Kerry won the state easily) or Karl Rove airing millions of dollars of ads on the California airwaves in 2000 and sending George W. Bush to campaign there. Al Gore would indeed be drawn to the state to lock it down in the campaign’s final week, but he wound up with a healthy margin there on Election Day.
The difference in this case is that Romney may actually need Wisconsin to gain the presidency, as Obama has been buoyed in Ohio by the success of the auto bailout in a state where one of every eight jobs is related to the car business.
Team Romney, having picked Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as their candidate’s runningmate, can hope for a native-son boost in this polarized battleground. Vice-presidential candidates have historically tended to provide a bump of about 2 percentage points in their home state—which would have been plenty to flip Wisconsin in 2004 or 2000.
But some Republicans insist that the Romney campaign’s Wisconsin drive represents a genuine effort, and that if nothing else, forcing the president to expend resources defending a Democratic state is a victory.
Flush with cash, they say, there’s no harm in Romney making a play for the state. “If they can keep the heat on, it can help them won the overall war of attrition,” says Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist.
In that sense, the Badger State gambit is already bearing fruit, as TV advertising by the president’s reelection campaign has ramped up since his advantage in the national polls nearly disappeared after his much-criticized performance in the first debate. Obama went so far as to schedule an appearance in Green Bay Tuesday (though he, too, canceled the event, citing the storm).
And Charles Franklin, the University of Wisconsin political sage and longtime pollster in the state who accurately predicted the margin of Scott Walker’s recall win in June, has yet to release his final, authoritative poll, which will come Wednesday.
What we do know is that Wisconsinites tend to vote in exceptionally high numbers and to be relatively “high-information” citizens, and thus less susceptible to being swayed by 30-second television spots. What’s more, they have a maverick streak of swinging wildly from one election to the next.
Even “Mike Dukakis won Wisconsin,” noted Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who has worked on several of his party’s presidential campaigns over the past 20 years.
A candidate’s time is a precious commodity in the final week before an election, and whether Romney decides to come back here (and whether Democrats determine they need to bring back the president) is an open question. Former president Bill Clinton, Obama’s “explainer-in-chief,” will appear in the state sometime in the next week to help maintain Democratic enthusiasm as voters head to the polls.
GOP optimists are also citing Walker’s robust campaign organization and millions of dollars spent by outside groups like Americans for Prosperity on the airwaves and on the ground during the recall to make their case that the state is in play. Walker racked up impressive totals in traditionally Democratic turf in the rural northwest of the state near the Minnesota border as he fended off the onslaught in June.
But a Democratic operative familiar with research conducted after the recall points out that there was a sizable chunk of Obama voters among those who pulled the lever for Walker. Exit polls taken at the recall, which Walker won by just under seven points, showed Obama leading by the same margin. Some moderates, uncomfortable with the idea of ejecting a governor who hadn’t been convicted of a crime, seemed to feel similarly about President Obama, said the operative—essentially, that in the face of strident opposition, the incumbent is doing his level-best and sticking to his guns, and shouldn’t be tossed to the curb just yet.
“People were not happy with the idea of a gubernatorial recall itself,” said Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor who lost the recall to Scott Walker in June. “But that doesn’t change how they feel about other things,” especially social issues, where the state tends to tilt leftward.
Even the prospect of Romney making a hard play for Wisconsin speaks to Obama’s enduring strength in Ohio, the state many expect to decide the election.
“After the hurricane goes through, [the Romney camp still] won’t have a clear idea of how they’re going to get to 270 on the Thursday before the election,” said John Weaver, a Republican strategist who helmed John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000 and that of Jon Huntsman this cycle. “That’s not a good place to be.”