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.
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.
Obama’s campaign has also spread into parts of the state previously unchallenged by Democrats. “Many of our offices are in rural areas, in traditionally Republican areas. Reaching out to all types of voters is a major emphasis of our campaign,” Lehrich says. There are holdouts for the GOP — the McCain campaign is focusing on the western and northern parts of the state, and an influx of campaign workers from the closing of the Michigan campaign has given the GOP an increased presence in the hotly contested city of Waukesha.
However, able to mobilize volunteers to penetrate these areas, Obama’s campaign seems to have outpaced McCain’s. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that Obama’s message is seeping into areas traditionally considered a lock for the Republicans. One blogger notes his mother’s conversion to Obama: “When I asked her why [she was voting for Obama], she said that it was the debates that changed her mind and that up until then she had been planning on voting for McCain. She just felt more comfortable with Obama being in charge.” Indeed, former governor Tommy Thompson has complained about the McCain campaign strategy here, saying the candidates aren’t spending enough time in the right parts of the state: “You gotta be on the offense, and I don’t see the campaign giving John McCain the tools and the opportunity to really be on the offense.”
This has been a common theme in the Wisconsin election, with the Obama campaign driving significant turnout in unexpected areas, as well as increasing his numbers in traditional bastions. Student registration drives are “outpacing 2004,” according to Lehrich, and although the student vote cannot always be counted on, “Wisconsin has a tradition of student participation. Here in Wisconsin we were second in the nation in voter participation in 2004; we are certainly going to … have a high turnout [this year],” according to Lehrich.
There may be a hitch to this — with allegations of voter fraud across the country and in Wisconsin, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has launched a lawsuit against the Government Accountability Board to force it to verify the identities of hundreds of thousands of voters registered by mail or by third-party agents. However, this is unlikely to have a major impact on the election: the case almost certainly will not be heard before the election will be held; if it is heard, very little is likely to be found, as there were seven substantiated cases in which voters cast ineligible votes, and 19 votes cast by ineligible voters.
If McCain does win, it will be despite some steep odds. The Republican National Committee has pulled its ads from the state, to focus them elsewhere. And in some key local races, endorsements are going to Democrats. This is especially a concern in parts of the Fox Valley, where Democratic Congressman Steve Kagan won the endorsement of the NRA — both he and his opponent, John Gard, had received “A” grades from that organization. In a traditionally conservative area, a downticket endorsement from a conservative organization could have a real impact on the race.
Certainly, the race is not over. Although it is unlikely that the lawsuit brought by Attorney General Van Hollen will dent Democratic voter registration drives, and Wisconsin voters in local races have reason to consider Democrats, Kukowski expects polls to tighten again and is hopeful that the GOP get-out-the-vote program will work. But with the McCain campaign failing to make headway on economic issues in the state and being challenged as Republicans haven’t been previously for areas of the state traditionally secure for the GOP, Wisconsin seems to be set to go left in this election in significant numbers.