At an appearance last week at a high school in Cascade, Iowa, a half hour drive from the Wisconsin border, Barack Obama told the crowd gathered to see him that he’d take questions from anyone who had one. There was one exception – a gentleman wearing a Green Bay Packers t-shirt.
“I generally don’t interact with Packer fans,” Obama joked, “except when I’m in Wisconsin.”
Pretty funny—for a Bears fan.
It’s been awhile since Obama has interacted with Packer fans. His last trip here was in February.
Obama hasn’t interacted with Packer fans, at least those in Wisconsin, since February 15, when he visited a Master Lock facility in Milwaukee. Obama has made dozens of trips to other swing states since then, but has shown little urgency about a return to Wisconsin. His schedule next week includes stops in two battleground states – Nevada and Ohio – and over the weekend he stopped in New Hampshire, but there’s no sign of Wisconsin visit.
That’s odd. Not only is Wisconsin not a sure thing for Obama, it’s at least a toss-up, and one could argue it actually leans slightly toward the Republicans.
Obama won Wisconsin 56-42. That alone probably accounts for the assumption that the president will win it again. And Republicans haven’t won the state in a presidential contest since 1984 – quite a dry spell.
But those numbers are deceiving and recent history suggests that the state is moving to the right.
It’s true that the Republican presidential ticket lost Wisconsin in 2000 and 2004. But it did so by a total of 17,500 out of 5.5 million votes cast – or .003 percent. In 2000, Al Gore beat George W. Bush by just 5,500 votes, out of 2.5 million. And in 2004, John Kerry defeated George W. Bush by a margin of just 12,000 votes, out of nearly 3 million.
Ten years ago, Scott Walker, a conservative reformer, won a special election to serve as Milwaukee county executive. He was reelected – in Wisconsin’s most populous county and one of its bluest – in 2004 with 57 percent of the vote and in 2008 with 59 percent. (Milwaukee, it should be noted, had a socialist mayor as late as 1960.)
Over that same time period, the Wisconsin legislature moved rightward. In 2001, Democrats had an 18-15 majority in the state senate and Republicans had a 56-43 majority in the state assembly. In 2009, Democrats had that same majority in the state senate (18-15) but had won the state assembly, with a 52-46 majority there. But by 2011, Republicans had majorities in both chambers – 19-14 in the state senate and a whopping 60-38 in the assembly.
In 2010, of course, Walker was elected governor, defeating Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett 52.3-46.5. After the passage of Walker’s budget repair bill led to massive protests, Republicans lost two state senate races in marginal districts in recall elections, but in a statewide race seen as a proxy for support for Walker, conservative supreme court justice David Prosser narrowly defeated liberal challenger JoAnne Kloppenberg.
Most important, however, was Scott Walker’s victory this year in the gubernatorial recall election on June 5. In a rematch against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker, heavily targeted by national unions and Democratic special interests, not only won, but in fact increased his 2010 margin of victory, 53.1 to 46.3.
That contest also left Republicans in the state with a strong organization tested in an actual election just 5 months before the 2012 election. The Walker recall offices immediately became RNC victory centers after the recall election.
The upcoming U.S. Senate race could also help the top of the ticket. Tommy Thompson, the well-known former governor, will face Representative Tammy Baldwin from Madison. Baldwin’s major advantage will be money. She’s a good fundraiser and national Democrats are keen to retain the seat being vacated by Democratic senator Herb Kohl. Her liability is a voting record that places her well to the left of Barack Obama. While it’s possible that her presence on the ballot could have the effect of making Obama look more moderate by comparison, it’ll certainly make it easier for Republicans in the state to portray Democrats as out of touch with Wisconsin voters.
Thompson, by contrast, not only gives Republicans a well regarded candidate down ballot, but someone who performs well in a part of the state where Republicans often struggle. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert, Thompson barely beat newcomer Eric Hovde in the Milwaukee media market (32.2 percent to 31.3 percent), which accounted for nearly half of the total vote, and lost to him in Green Bay (37.1 percent to 26.6 percent), which was nearly a quarter. But Thompson dominated in western Wisconsin – winning media markets in Madison, LaCross-Eau Claire, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Duluth-Superior – with percentages of the vote that ranged from 42 percent to 50 percent.
And then there’s Paul Ryan. Ryan represents the state’s first congressional district, which runs across southern Wisconsin and includes parts of suburban Milwaukee. He is well known and well regarded there. Before Ryan was announced as Romney’s running mate, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that adding the native son would make “the southeastern part of the state probably more competitive.” It doesn’t happen often, but Barrett’s right.
Add to that the fact that Obama did six fundraisers for himself in surrounding states rather than come to Wisconsin for Barrett in the closing days of the recall—generating lots sniping from national and local Democrats.
There are some counter-indicators here. Jim Doyle, a liberal, special interest Democrat, won the governor’s race in 2002 and again in 2006. But in 2002, he faced a weak candidate in Scott McCallum, who had taken over as governor after Tommy Thompson moved to Washington to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration. Doyle beat a good candidate in 2006, in former congressman Mark Green, but that victory came in a year that saw every incumbent Democratic governor win reelection.
And, as Gilbert points out, “Obama has led in almost all the public polling in Wisconsin this year despite the GOP’s huge electoral gains two years ago and its galvanizing recall victory June 5.”
And Ryan, in an interview with Gilbert before he was selected, warned Republicans not to get too optimistic. "It's clearly in the 50/50 category now with the great possibility of a (Republican) trend, but I don't think you can within 15 months identify a trend," said Ryan. "If Nov. 6 goes well in Wisconsin, that - combined with 2010 - identifies a trend. (But) it's too soon to say whether we have a trend or not. It could be the yo-yo going back and forth."
The Obama campaign seems strangely confident of a win here. In December 2011, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina taped a video message to supporters in which he laid out several electoral paths to 270 and an Obama victory in November. Each one of his scenarios assumed a win in Wisconsin. And though Messina later counted Wisconsin as competitive, the fact that Obama hasn’t been here in six months suggests that his campaign didn’t think he needed to be.
After waiting to go on air until after the June recall and the August GOP Senate primary, the Republican National Committee is now airing two ads in the state. Republican officials tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the RNC commitment to winning Wisconsin is significant—something that should surprise no one, since the chairman of the national party, Reince Priebus, is a former Wisconsin state party chair and grew up in Kenosha.
"The RNC went all in on the recall effort this June to reelect Scott Walker and the same operation that made 5 million voter contacts and out muscled OFA is solely focused on defeating Barack Obama this fall," Priebus tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
And then there is the biggest intangible of all. With Paul Ryan’s Green Bay Packers as a favorite to reach the Super Bowl, and excitement about the team at a fever pitch, Wisconsin’s not a very welcome place for a Chicago Bears fan.
PPP reports that Romney now has a slight lead over Obama in Wisconsin:
Mitt Romney ever so slightly in the lead on our Wisconsin poll. Results out tomorrow— PublicPolicyPolling (@ppppolls) August 20, 2012