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Upper Midwest Politics — As Blue as the Great Lakes

Still, John Kerry only managed to win the state by less than half a percentage point. Returning to our map, Democrats seem to be consolidated everywhere: in the Milwaukee area, huge college towns like Madison, and especially in the west close to the Mississippi River. Why then was 2004 so close? And will this be the case in 2008 as well?

To find answers, we traveled through the Wisconsin's Northernwoods, then down into Central Wisconsin. Scenes were very patriotic and conservative. Farms dotted undulating hills, while roaring rapids dominated the lush terrain below. "Pro-life Across America" signs, celebrating the annual summer walk, were every few miles along the highways. Like neighboring Minnesota, nearly 30% of Wisconsinites are Catholic, and churches of all denominations were abundant.

While eating delicious Italian beef at his country restaurant, "Denny," a Democrat with a Chicago/Polish accent and a dangling cross, informed me that he supports Obama, while his wife Ellen, an Independent, was undecided. They both admire McCain's experience, but fear a "third term for Bush." Ellen also added that as a religious person, she's "offended by Obama supporters who wear his face on shirts and treat him as God." "That's wrong," she said angrily. "We came up by our bootstraps and love this nation, for the record."

As you move south and west however, approaching the Great Lakes and flatlands toward the Chicago area, Volvos and Subarus begin to replace trucks and domestic sedans. Welcome to Madison: the Berkeley of the Midwest. As we moved toward campus on a 90 degree day, scantily-clad summer school students were headed to nearby Lake Mendota en masse. We went onto the beautiful campus where the usual college suspects were found; some distributing anti-war material, others skating and playing hacky sack. Obama stickers abound. He spoke before 16,000 here in February, and one guy I talked with said, "They could have filled up Camp Randall (football stadium with over 100,000 seats) for him but it was wintertime." Inside the university bookstore, greeting cards mocked Bush and even the Clintons, but not Obama, who was displayed basically as a "BaRock Star." There were "ImpeachMints" and "NationalEmbarrassMints" with the president's face on them by the registers.

Noteworthy is that Madison, the most liberal city in Midwest outside Chicago, was the subject of a fascinating recent NY Times article bemoaning "the end of the 60s" on college campuses. But is Madison representative of the entire Badger State? The economy is good, as per the president of the Wisconsin Bankers Association, who told a local station we were listening to that "Wisconsin banks tend to be more conservative than the industry...our banks outperformed their peers out of state as we didn't participate in any risky mortgage lending."

This might help McCain. We spoke with a young construction worker who makes $13 per hour when in Michigan, but when in Wisconsin, he pulls down $31.50 per hour working 20 hour days for the fire department assisting residents during recent floods. With $355 per week unemployment in the winter, "Jim" is not complaining. When I inquired, the non-union member told me he is for McCain, but many of his colleagues support Obama. Most of them are union members.


Michigan is only a tad different from its brethren to the west. The Wolverine State is extremely liberal in its cities and southeast population centers, and indeed has nearly twice the population of its western neighbors. Catholicism is less prevalent, while Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam is more the norm.

According to one local: "In light of the sad economic situation, and as a result of the near collapse of the auto industry, unionism maintains a stranglehold on those living in the big cities. Not only in Detroit's metro area, but other major cities like Flint, Saginaw, Jackson and Ypsilanti." Those cities, along with college towns, will vote for Obama. But up in the northern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, politics are very conservative. A different world in many ways is found, with Dutch ancestry being common instead of Scandinavian. Though the Dutch are liberal in the Old World, in America they veer to the right politically.

A friend we visit each summer claims the GOP "runs unopposed" in these areas. However, Michiganders still selected Kerry by more than three percent four years ago. The outcome was perhaps determined by the remote Upper Peninsula. Although rural, the people tend to vote Democratic. The "U.P" contains almost one-third of the land area of Michigan but just three percent of the total population. Residents, frequently called "Yoopers" (derived from "U.P.-ers"), have a strong regional identity.

As in Vermont, there is a longstanding proposal involving the secession of the rustic Upper Peninsula. This new 51st state would be named "Superior" for Lake Superior, which forms the entire northern border.

I spoke about this topic to "Mark" at a KFC, and he said, "The idea gained attention at times, but no way will it come to fruition in my lifetime. Once the Mackinac Bridge {which gave the peninsula a direct highway link to the rest of the state} was constructed 50 years ago, we felt connections to the Lowlands of the state instead of just Wisconsin."

We hiked in Porcupine Mountains State Park at the western edge of the UP on a pleasant day, noting that these particular Michiganders were hard working folks, especially during the summer tourist season. We noticed lots of flags on barnsides, but while these homogenous folks are patriotic, socially conservative, and fiscally too, politics are mixed. Three of the four state Representatives from the U.P. Peninsula are Democrats.

Economic issues are essential in Michigan, and have people uneasy. Governor Jennifer Granholm is unpopular, with recall petitions on the table. The state's largest city has a corrupt mayor buried in a sex scandal. That said, Kerry won Michael Moore's home state by more than three points.

How can Sen. McCain make Michigan, a very blue state, emerge red, especially considering Mitt Romney defeated him here? If blue-collar "FDR Democrats," who will decide this election in many states, steer clear of the most liberal Senator in America, it's possible. But many, especially union members, reiterate they'll "never vote for a Republican."

For more information, I contacted "Earl," a retired local college professor who makes his summer home on a Northern Michigan farm.

"Ninety percent of the counties will vote McCain, but the key counties with large cities, aside from the state's second largest city (Grand Rapids) will likely cause Michigan's electoral votes to go to Obama," he said. "McCain must satisfy the economic concerns of a huge population in this state which, for the most part, shares his strong stand on international terrorism."

In my final analysis, after four days and 2,200 miles through these three states, I believe Obama, like Kerry in 2004, will keep them as blue as the splendid Great Lakes, with Michigan likely being the closest. Though they'll be close, there are too many Democrats -- not willing to be wooed by McCain's centrism or turned off by Obama's inexperience --- in the major cities, suburbs, in college and river towns, for Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota to flip, even in 2008.