Sunday, August 12, 2012

Does Ryan Put Wisconsin in Play?

Politically, Wisconsin is a fascinating place.

(I'm sure it is fascinating in other ways, too. I have never lived there, but, in the interest of full disclosure, I have been a Green Bay Packers fan all my life.)

It is mostly regarded as a progressive "blue" state, having produced Robert La Follette, 1924 presidential nominee of the Progressive Party. La Follette got nearly 17% of the national vote that year, the best showing for a third–party candidate between 1912 and 1992.

La Follette began his political life as a Republican. Joe McCarthy, a controversial right–wing Republican senator, came from Wisconsin, too. In fact, although Wisconsin is often thought of as a Democratic state today, the truth is that the Republican Party got its start in a meeting at a school in Ripon, Wisconsin, in the mid–19th century. Opposition to slavery was the unifying theme at the time.

In 2008, Barack Obama won Wisconsin by more than 400,000 votes. Obama's 56% share of the vote was the highest in that state for any presidential candidate since 1964.

With the exception of the southeastern corner of the state (where Milwaukee is — although Milwaukee County itself voted 2 to 1 for Obama), the Democratic ticket cruised to victory in just about every county.

Based on that — and the fact that Democrats have carried Wisconsin in every election since 1988 — Wisconsin has acquired a reputation as a decidedly blue state.

But that six–election streak is a bit deceiving. Before 2008, Wisconsin was more of a purple state.

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry beat Republican George W. Bush in Wisconsin by about 11,000 votes. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore beat Bush there by about 5,000 votes.

Prior to that, Bill Clinton did win the state by comparatively comfortable margins, and Michael Dukakis did get a majority of the vote against George H.W. Bush (even though his margin was less than 100,000 votes).

But Republicans won Wisconsin in four of the five elections prior to the Bush–Dukakis race — and the only exception was a narrow victory for Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Wisconsin's political allegiance seems to shift every couple of decades. The state often seems determined to march to the beat of a different drum. It even voted against Franklin Roosevelt the fourth time he sought the presidency in 1944.

There were indications in the midterms of 2010 that such a shift could be happening in Wisconsin now. Wisconsin's House delegation went from being majority Democrat to majority Republican, Republican Scott Walker was elected governor and survived a recall election in June of this year, and Ron Johnson upset three–term Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold, becoming the first duly elected Republican senator from Wisconsin in a quarter of a century.

Obama is still popular in Wisconsin, but consider this: Ryan's district re–elected him with 64% of the vote in 2008. In the same election, that district gave Obama 51% of its vote. Clearly, many of the residents of that district who voted for Obama also voted for Ryan.

In fact, even if one assumes that every voter in the district who voted for John McCain also voted for Ryan — and experience tells me that some did not — the conclusion that more than one–fourth of Obama's supporters must have voted for Ryan, too, is inescapable.

But Ryan has never been in a statewide race before. The elections of Walker and Johnson two years ago suggest that Wisconsin is receptive to the idea, but the most recent polls I have seen indicate that Obama is poised for a narrow victory in the state. Marquette University's latest poll shows Obama leading Romney, 50 to 45, which is about what most polls have been showing.

And conventional wisdom holds that, in an election involving an incumbent, undecided voters usually (but not unanimously) tend to break for the challenger. In that pre–Ryan environment, Democrats could anticipate a slim win in Wisconsin.

Of course, none of the polls were taken after Ryan was introduced as Romney's running mate.

Presumably, new surveys are being conducted now, which will give us some context for comparison as we get closer to Election Day.

If subsequent polls show the race tightening, Democrats may be forced to fight for Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes.

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