Purple-State Shuffle: How Wisconsin Moved Left Fast

Until this month, the presidential race in Wisconsin looked tight. Polls through September routinely placed the battle within the margin of error and the McCain campaign's "Palin bounce" seemed unlikely to fade. By October, however, Obama had taken a commanding, double-digit lead that has held all month. As the McCain campaign pulls advertising from Wisconsin, it seems unlikely that he will see a late surge in this state.

Wisconsin has long been a purple state, with George Bush losing extremely narrow races in both of his last campaigns -- in 2004, Kerry won by 0.4%. Outside of Milwaukee and Madison, the state largely goes Republican. It is a state that had loved Republican governor Tommy Thompson for 14 years before he moved on to become secretary of Health and Human Services in George W. Bush's first term. So looking at why Wisconsin seems set to break so heavily Democrat this year could be instructive. Looking at the Democratic strategy in the state shows three critical areas in which Obama's ground campaign overtook McCain.

Ideas

Until the economic crisis surfaced, the election had been largely up for grabs. Momentum had been swinging slowly back toward Obama; after losing a lead of 4% in an early May Rasmussen poll, McCain had pulled back to within a statistical dead heat with Obama in September. When other issues were in play, so was McCain.

The economic crisis has changed that dramatically. Hammering on "the economy overwhelmingly," Obama spokesman Matt Lehrich says the Obama campaign took advantage of the lack of public confidence. "How we're going to create affordable jobs [and] health care," Lehrich says, has become the crucial question for Wisconsin voters. "[Voters feel that] problems are being passed along and not solved," Lehrich says. McCain's campaign agrees that "the big message ... is the economy," says Kirsten Kukowski, communications director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin. But the GOP message of "controlling spending, highlighting differences on taxes and spending proposals" that Kukowski laid out has not resounded well so far.

Nor did the "Palin bounce," which seemed to be moving the state back toward McCain, have lasting traction. That bounce may have been responsible for bringing McCain back from a dangerous gap -- Kukowski says GOP voters "felt a new energy" after the Palin nomination -- but her lack of experience has not comforted Wisconsinites. "At the end of the day, she didn't represent a break from John McCain and George W. Bush," says Lehrich. Instead, the choice of Palin has prompted further questions about McCain's judgment, and while it excited some of the base GOP constituents, it has helped to turn off many in the middle who may have voted for McCain, but now worry about the GOP ticket. "Traditionally conservative voters are taking another look [at Obama]," says Lehrich.