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2 Great Lakes States Could Be Pivotal

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page A29

OSHKOSH, Wis. -- The famously idiosyncratic voters of Robert La Follette's Wisconsin and Hubert H. Humphrey's Minnesota are offering President Bush the rarest of opportunities in this election: a chance to win where he lost four years ago.

Recent polls and interviews with voters and strategists from both parties suggest Bush's twin strategies of painting Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as a waffler and of rousing conservatives by opposing gay marriage are proving more effective in these two states than many other battlegrounds, especially those Al Gore won in 2000.

Whoever wins the majority in Minnesota and Wisconsin will pick up 21 potentially key electoral votes. President Bush has made special appeals to rural voters. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

At the same time, Kerry's plan of attack -- exploiting job loss and a weak economy -- is complicated by low unemployment numbers in Minnesota and even more so by talk of a full-blown recovery in Wisconsin, strategists say. The Aug. 20 headline from the Badger State's largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, captured the mood: "State jobless rate drops below 5%; Experts see hope in 48,800 positions added in past year."

Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst, said, "It's hard to put your finger on why Bush is doing better in these western Great Lakes states," but he surmised it is a combination of a more gentle economic downturn than elsewhere and a larger number of rural voters receptive to the president's views on guns, God and gays. A new Los Angeles Times poll seemed to support this theory. The poll found Bush gaining ground nationally with rural voters, ubiquitous in the upper Midwest, and pulling ahead in Wisconsin, 48 percent to 44 percent.

To understand the importance of these trends, consider the electoral map and the latest economic developments. Although analysts often talk about national polls, what really matters is what is happening in the 18 or so states where neither Bush nor Kerry is a lock to win.

In several of the states that hold the biggest chunk of up-for-grabs electoral votes, Bush is suffering politically from lackluster economies that are not producing many new good-paying jobs. These include Ohio, a state every GOP president has won, and Pennsylvania, a state some Republicans are privately starting to write off because it is trending Democratic. Ohio's unemployment rate stands at 5.9 percent; Pennsylvania's is 5.3 percent. Florida is looking as tight as it did in 2000. Many political analysts say whoever wins two of these three states will win the presidency.

Cook, however, said it would be possible for Bush to pull off a "back-door victory" if he loses two of the three, but only if he claims the combined 21 electoral votes of Wisconsin and Minnesota, matching Ohio's total.

This explains why Bush and Kerry are making Wisconsin and Minnesota a focus of their election strategies. Kerry hit Green Bay, 50 miles north of here, and then the Twin Cities last week, days after the president's bus rolled through the rural reaches of both states. Major media markets in both states are flooded with political ads. According to Cook's research of where the candidates and their allies are spending the most money, Wisconsin ranks sixth ($12.2 million), Minnesota, seventh ($11.4 million). Bush has run more ads in the Green Bay media market, which feeds Oshkosh, than in all but four other markets, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The debate over Kerry's war record has also played out on Wisconsin's airwaves, and the candidate defended himself in person in both states last week.

This city, most famous for the OshKosh B'Gosh line of clothing, offers a microcosm of the dynamics shaping the fight for the western Great Lakes.

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