Does President Obama have a Wisconsin problem?

September 17, 2012

President Obama's trip to Milwaukee this coming Saturday -- his first to Wisconsin since February -- should rightly raise eyebrows in the political world regarding his campaign's chances in the state.

The simple fact is that with 50 days to go before the election, the president never -- repeat,  never -- travels to a state just, well, because. Every trip is for a reason -- and that reason almost always is because the campaign wants to generate a major free media boost in a place where the numbers are either lagging or already very close.

And that's why Obama to Wisconsin intrigues us.  It shows -- without the Obama team needing to say anything -- that a state no Republican presidential nominee has won since 1984 is now very much in play. (President Bush came close -- twice -- to winning Wisconsin; in 2004 he lost it by just over 11,000 votes.)

The polling in the state --as detailed by Real Clear Politics -- bears out that competitiveness.

What the trend lines suggest is that until mid-August President Obama had a comfortable mid to high single digit lead in the state. That lead has all but disappeared since that time -- a shrinkage that seems directly attributable to Mitt Romney's selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate.

"Pre-Ryan the average was a pretty solid +6 Obama," said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster based in Madison. "Post Ryan and thru Tampa the average had dipped to about +1.5."

Brad Todd, a Republican consultant who helped elect Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin in 2010, said the problem for Democrats in the state goes well beyond just Ryan on the ticket.

"The Democrat[ic] brand is worse there than anywhere north of the Ohio River," said Todd.
"The Wisconsin Democrats have shed gallons of blood defending the unreasonable notion that government spending should be unlimited -- that puts them squarely against the approach of independent voters and thats why obama's problems are magnified there."

Todd is referring to the extended battle over collective bargaining rights sparked by Gov. Scott Walker (R) soon after he was elected in 2010. Democratic outrage over a Walker-led bill that stripped public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights led to a recall election of the governor this summer, which he won convincingly. The issue was re-vivified late last week when a Wisconsin judge struck down the collective bargaining law.

"The GOP wave here in 2010 and Walker's win in the recall, especially in regions of the state that have often been at least light blue, is the strongest evidence that the state might be ready for a Republican presidential victory," said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll. "The ground game the Walker campaign created will then battle the Obama organization which is also well established here."

(Franklin noted that there will be a slew of Wisconsin polling released this week, which should tell us more about the race in the state in the wake of the two parties' conventions. Automated Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling has the race a dead heat -- Obama 49 percent, Romney 48 percent among likely voters -- and both Franklin's Marquette Law School poll and a Quinnipiac University survey are set to be released mid-week.)

Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who has done extensive work in Wisconsin, argued that Obama's trip to the Badger State is more out of an abundance of caution that any sign that the state is slipping.

"I think Wisconsin is still a swing state -- albeit leaning Democratic -- and I think it makes sense to hit it now," wrote Yang in an email to the Fix.  "If this was last weekend in October then I'd think they were REALLY worried."

If Romney can win Wisconsin -- and to be clear that's a big "if" -- it would give him some freedom from what is currently a very narrow path to an electoral college victory.  While Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes aren't the treasure trove of Ohio (18), Michigan (16) or Pennsylvania (20), it would allow Romney to lose, say, New Hampshire and Iowa (10 total electoral votes) without too much long-term damage to his prospects of getting to 270.

It would also demonstrate an ability to expand the electoral map beyond the 2004 Bush victory that Romney has, to date, been unable to do. And that's a positive storyline for a campaign desperately in need of one at the moment.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · September 17, 2012