Wisconsin, the land of persuadable voters

Pam and Bill Haaker are making a pilgrimage to the legendary home of the Green Bay Packers, Lambeau Field (or “Lambert Field,” as presidential candidate John F. Kerry called it in a moment of unsportsmanlike conduct in 2004). They pause to chat about politics. A few steps away, a bronzed Vince Lombardi stares down at them as though eavesdropping.

Pam is a retired nurse; Bill is a truck driver. Like most Wisconsin voters, they faithfully go to the polls on Election Day. Pam intends to vote for Mitt Romney, but Bill is still agonizing. “I just don’t think the poor guy can relate to the common man. He just can’t,” he says of Romney.

“You didn’t listen to the interview with the man and his wife. They had some hard times,” Pam tells him.

Bill says he’d like to see a “more middle-of-the-roadish” president. He says of President Obama, “He hasn’t done a great job, but he hasn’t totally flubbed everything either.”

Voters here tend to be relatively reserved in their political discourse by modern standards, with “flubbed” being a typical f-word. Some won’t talk politics at all. Ask their opinion and they shake their heads as though a response would be unseemly.

This is shaping up to be another close presidential election that will be decided in part by the mysterious calculations of swing voters in places such as Wisconsin. These voters are what strategists refer to as the “persuadables.” About 10 to 15 percent of Badger State voters have no strong allegiance to the major political parties and are truly up for grabs, said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll.

The Wisconsin persuadables, on average, “are younger, less ideological, less partisan, pay less attention to politics,” he said.

Interviews in the state bear that out: It’s easy to find undecided voters who remain in play, are hard to peg as liberal or conservative, and seem to be ready to go on gut instinct if necessary when they mark their ballots. Which brings up another fact about Wisconsin: Wisconsinites vote in droves. They believe in being good citizens. In 2008, more than 72 percent cast a presidential ballot, a turnout second only to Minnesota’s.

“I’m one of those swing voters, you know? And if I don’t like a politician, I don’t like him,” said Jeff Benske, who owns the Top Shelf Guitar Shop in Milwaukee.

The state has an abundance of “Bush-Obama voters,” who supported Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and then voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.

No other state has as many Bush-Obama counties, as graphically detailed by the Web site BushObamaAmerica.com. Some states, such as Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee, have zero. Florida, the biggest swing state, has one. Same with Missouri. But the Upper Midwest is blistered with Bush-Obama counties, and Wisconsin is covered with them, particularly near Green Bay and the Fox River Valley.

A typical Bush-Obama persuadable is Mary Shultis, 65, who works at the Door County Confectionery in Sturgeon Bay, a vacation town northeast of Green Bay. Taking a break from making caramel apples, she went over her history as a voter: Richard M. Nixon in ’72, Jimmy Carter in ’76, Ronald Reagan in ’80 and ’84, George H.W. Bush in ’88, Bill Clinton in ’92 and ’96, George W. Bush in 2000 and ’04, and Obama in ’08.

That happens to be a list of the winners. The confectioner is a bellwether. She said she had been leaning strongly toward Obama until she watched the presidential debate on Oct. 3.

“I was definitely for Obama, but I think Romney came in with both guns ready to fire and he knew his stuff,” she said. “And Romney said things I hadn’t heard before. Now he’s all concerned about middle-class families. Wow, I don’t know who I want now.”

Obama’s lead in the polls appears razor thin, if it exists at all. A new Washington Post-ABC News survey this week shows Obama locked in a virtual dead heat nationally with Romney, as he was two weeks ago. Several polls of likely voters in Wisconsin taken after the debate showed the president with a lead of two or three percentage points, smaller than the surveys’ margins of error. The other big Wisconsin contest is the Senate race, in which former governor Tommy G. Thompson (R) is in a close battle with Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D).

In addition to Bush-Obama voters, there are also Obama-Walker voters — those who voted for Obama and then supported Republican Scott Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial contest and in a bitter recall election in June.

Although they may not follow politics closely, they do vote.

“Clearly those folks are not driven by ideology, clearly they’re not driven by party,” said Marquette University’s Franklin.

“They do their civic duty,” he said. “And the last bit is: ‘Wisconsin nice.’ They’re just nice people.”

The Go-Figure State

Any exploration of the mind of the American voter is likely to be a perilous and disorienting enterprise. People can say all sorts of strange things, contradict themselves, spout conspiracy theories, echo manufactured talking points. But they also can dispense common sense and be good judges of character.

In Wisconsin, voters aren’t registered by party. Most self-identify in surveys as Democrat or Republican or say they lean one way or the other, but a chunk of the electorate is truly nonaligned. Many people will declare in an interview that they don’t vote for the party but for the person. They’ll say they just want whoever can do the best job. It’s the opposite of a battle cry — more like a plea for help.

Historically it has been a hard state to peg. Its nickname might well be the Go-Figure State. It has produced conservative icons such as Joseph McCarthy and, lately, Walker and Paul Ryan — and for that matter, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who has an authentically unspellable Wisconsin name. But it also is the birthplace of many progressive, worker-friendly ideas, producing such prominent liberals as William Proxmire and Russell Feingold.

Not long ago, Milwaukee had a string of socialist mayors. Among the most iconic Wisconsinites was the crusading Robert La Follette, a governor and senator who, as the nominee of the Progressive Party, won 17 percent of the national vote in the 1924 presidential election.

The political geography is quirky: Wisconsin doesn’t have a typical urban-rural divide in voting patterns. In many states, Republicans win all the counties that have a lot of cows, to put it simply. Democrats have owned the cities. Obama in 2008 did, indeed, rack up huge majorities in Milwaukee, the largest city, and Madison, the capital and home of the state’s flagship university. But he also won many of the rural counties, that picturesque territory with dairy farms and Holsteins and shops selling cheese curds that squeak when you chew them.

In the past six presidential elections, Wisconsin was in the Democratic column; the last Republican to win the state (which has 10 electoral votes) was Reagan in 1984. But it’s hardly a Democratic lock. In 2000, Al Gore won the state by 0.2 percent of the vote, and Kerry in 2004 won by 0.4 percent. Obama then won by a whopping 13.9 percent in 2008.

The state has been trending Republican. Walker entered office after the 2010 election, in which Republicans claimed the majority in the state legislature. Facing a budget shortfall, he and his allies took aim at public employee unions (other than police and firefighters), advocating an end to their collective-bargaining rights. The battle was joined, reaching into every community as schoolteachers rallied to their defense. Next came the recall election, with money surging into Wisconsin from ideological brethren nationwide. Democrats fielded the same candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom Walker beat in 2010.

Walker survived. Some Wisconsinites didn’t care much for him but thought he beat Barrett fair and square the first time and therefore the recall election was a waste of time and money. Just about everyone emerged from the process feeling battered and bruised.

“It was very raw for people,” said Kathy Walsh, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who specializes in interviewing voters. “A lot of people had the uncomfortable conversations and don’t want to experience it again.”

‘You don’t know what to do’

The strategy for Democrats is to win big majorities in major cities and try to come close to a draw in the Fox River Valley, which leans slightly Republican. The GOP strongholds are the collar counties of Milwaukee — the western suburbs and exurbs, where McCain clobbered Obama in 2008.

In Washington County, northwest of Milwaukee, Tim Bechwar, 59, sells cheese, sausage and beef jerky at Held’s, a 126-year-old business just off Route 41. He says of the president: “I don’t think he’s done a damn thing. I think the stimulus was a bust, and I think he’s run the deficit up to astronomical proportions.”

Farther up the road, in Fond du Lac, Pete Gust, 60, a union advocate, says the burnout from the Walker recall effort has made it harder to get people to stump for Obama and other Democrats endorsed by unions, saying: “Week after week, e-mail after e-mail, request after request, eventually you got to the point where people who weren’t as deeply committed, they ran out of steam.” He says people tell him, “Don’t got it. Tired. Going hunting. Going fishing.”

In Oshkosh, Debbie Freiberg, 50, a mammography technologist who has worked at Mercy Hospital for 27 years, said she’s a Bush-Obama voter. She’s someone who by age 21 had saved $10,000 so she could someday buy a house. She worries about the government going bankrupt; she worries about people who are on disability when they’re still of working age.

“I want someone who’s for the middle-class people. I’ve worked hard all my life, and I don’t want to see everything taken away from me,” she says. Of the candidates, “You like little things of both of them and you don’t know what to do.”

In Appleton, Lawrence Jensen, 60, who describes himself as a musician who is between careers, steps onto the sidewalk outside Jack’s Apple Pub to complain about his choices in the election: “We have 300 million people in America. Why are we reduced to voting for only two? . . . I wish Ross Perot was coming back, though that dates me a bit.”

There are other notes of dissatisfaction. Amy Dwyer, 30, visiting Lambeau Field, can’t work, because she's taking care of a disabled son: “I have very little respect for the politicians. They can’t take into consideration what it means to be average. Because they don’t live average. They don’t understand — they can’t understand. I don’t know what it’s like to make $250,000 or $300,000 a year. I’m lucky to bring home $15,000 a year.”

Vote-canceling effect

The nature of the American electorate these days is that roughly half the country cancels out the other half, resulting in close elections decided by a small number of people who are in the dead center ideologically or are compelled by unpredictable political currents.

This vote-canceling effect happens even within families. Such is the case with sisters Shirley Plesha, 59, and Linda Schulz, 60, who showed up recently for lunch at Polonez, a Polish restaurant in St. Francis, just south of Milwaukee.

They had put flowers on their parents’ graves that morning — their parents’ wedding anniversary. They’re Polish Americans, like nearly 10 percent of Wisconsinites. They remember when you bought a duck and the butcher handed over a pint of duck’s blood for the soup known as czarnina.

The two sisters were among four girls and a boy in a family dominated by their father and in which it was understood that only the son would attend college. The girls were supposed to graduate from high school and get married as soon as possible. They were Democrats then, but Plesha says she became a Republican after she got married. She cites her husband’s beliefs multiple times during the interview.

“We stand behind our men. And my man is Romney,” she says. “He’s wonderful. My husband loves him.”

Her older sister, Schulz, says she’s undecided, but her comments suggest that she is sympathetic to Obama (because he inherited a mess) and that she doesn’t trust Romney (because he represents corporate interests). She tries not to contradict her sister or get in an argument.

But as she’s leaving the restaurant, she turns and takes a step back to let her views be known: “Let’s face it, Obama is sticking up for the working man.”

Whitney Shefte contributed to this report.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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