By Paul Kane and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
After the Super Tuesday primaries two weeks ago, Sen. Barack Obama faced continuing questions about the support he could draw from lower-income white voters and those with less education, who had to that point proved to be the bedrock of support for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But yesterday the senator from Illinois broke deep into Clinton's base in Wisconsin. He solidified gains he made in last week's Potomac Primary, proving competitive among some key Wisconsin voting blocs that had been backing the senator from New York and overtaking her among others.
"He's making a real assault on the Clinton coalition for the first time," said Mark Mellman, an independent Democratic pollster whose Wisconsin clients date to the 1980s.
In a state in which nearly 9 in 10 Democratic voters are white, Obama won more than 6 in 10 of the votes of white men, while Clinton held only a narrow edge among white women. And he defeated her by double-digit margins among those voters with family incomes less than $50,000 and among those without college degrees, exit polling shows.
Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz said it is not surprising that Obama did well in his city, which is heavily blanketed with upper-income liberals and University of Wisconsin students. But Obama also did well in parts of the state that are home to a lower-income demographic, union households that build Harley-Davidson motorcycles and work in breweries. Clinton has previously been perceived as the candidate who is more comfortable talking about the economy, jobs and health care.
Cieslewicz said Obama was also able to defy Wisconsin's long history of keeping presidential campaigns competitive by delivering blows to the perceived front-runners, most recently in 2004 when Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) barely survived a strong challenge from former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.).
Obama blunted Clinton's margins among some of her most reliable voters. Clinton held only a narrow edge among white women in Wisconsin -- of the 24 previous contests with Democratic exit polls (not counting Michigan), Clinton beat Obama by double-digit margins 19 times and lost by that wide a margin in only one, Obama's home state of Illinois.
Obama also beat Clinton among those voters concerned about the nation's economy, and divided the vote of union members evenly. "If those things hold true, then this could be a significant turning point," Cieslewicz said.
These gains for Obama follow the movement he showed last week in primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District among groups that have been firmly in Clinton's camp throughout the campaign and during the first two months of balloting. But more important, Mellman said, upcoming primaries favor Obama because in both Texas and Ohio, non-Democrats are allowed to vote.
Those voters continue to skew dramatically toward Obama.
In Wisconsin, where nearly 4 in 10 who identified as either independents or Republicans, Obama won each by about 2 to 1. He held a slimmer, seven-percentage-point edge among Democrats.
"She's narrowly winning her base. He's overwhelmingly winning his," Mellman said. "There's no question that Senator Clinton is on the defensive. Senator Obama has proven that he can win the kinds of voters that he needs to win" in states such as Texas and Ohio.
But Obama also had an edge in Wisconsin because of the state's long progressive tradition among the Democratic voters there, where his appeals based on his original opposition to the Iraq war contrasted well with Clinton's original support for the conflict.
The most key establishment figures in the party rallied around his candidacy, including Gov. Jim Doyle and the mayors of the state's largest cities. Clinton's most prominent supporter, Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison, did little to stem the Obama tide.
Doyle said Obama was able to win over white voters because he could focus on the state almost exclusively for a week, unlike other large states that voted on Super Tuesday.
"We had this campaign essentially to ourselves for the last week," he said last night.
Doyle recalled Obama's first major foray into Wisconsin politics, in 2006. Obama campaigned for Doyle in Milwaukee in his gubernatorial bid. Obama proved a natural fit for the state, drawing 5,000 supporters on a midweek morning. "I could see then that something very special was happening," Doyle said.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.