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Election 2008: Previewing the Wisconsin Primaries

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Jeff Mayers
President, WisPolitics.com
Tuesday, February 19, 2008; 12:00 PM

WisPolitics.com president Jeff Mayers was online Tuesday, Feb. 19 at noon ET to take your questions on the Democratic and Republican primaries in Wisconsin on Tuesday and how things look in the state for November.

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The transcript follows.

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Alexandria, Va.: What do the robocalls look like out there? What are your thoughts on the recent Robocall Privacy Act introduced by Sens. Feinstein and Specter?

Jeff Mayers: The robocalls are streaming in from unions and the candidate campaigns. American Federation of Teachers is strong here for Hillary Clinton.

I don't take positions on bills, as we don't have an editorial policy, but Feingold is probably responding to complaints.

If you're on a list, you get a lot.

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Near Yosemite, Calif.: What is the latest from Wisconsin voting? Please update as frequently as possible.

Jeff Mayers: The polls are open and it is cold across the state, but sunny, so turnout is predicted to be high for a primary -- in the 35 percent range statewide and maybe as high as 60 percent in some Democratic counties like Dane, surrounding Madison.

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Tampa, Fla.: Who you think will win today and Wisconsin and why?

Jeff Mayers: I don't do predictions, but judging by Hillary Clinton's campaign ads and mailers and the public polls, she was perceived as behind going into the weekend. Obama also has been outspending Clinton in terms of ads.

But Wisconsin is an unpredictable state.

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Arlington, Va.: I love how, coming into Tuesday, instead of focusing on the fact that Barack plagiarized his inspirational speeches, that the media consistently chooses to highlight Hillary's campaigning as negative attacking. What about her pamphlet on the issues that she posted to her site? Why no discussion of her stances on policy? This just goes hand-in-hand with the continued posting of bad pictures of her and the not-so-subversive promotion of Barack by the media at large. It's disgusting the way the media controls this race. A media dominated by men. Shocker.

Jeff Mayers: I have heard this complaint from women, too, and I think Hillary Clinton, because of her history, is treated differently. She has been vetted over and over, and that is a long time to be in the spotlight.

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Green Bay, Wis.: How do you think the edgier, more negative Hillary campaign will play state-wide? I know that among the people I talk to, it's not going over well at all. She's picking at nits.

washingtonpost.com: Clinton Steps Up Attacks on Obama (Post, Feb. 19)

Jeff Mayers: Wisconsinites don't particularly like negative campaigning, but I've also seen it work many times.

The Clinton ads and mailers are not hard, personal negatives, however -- more comparison debate about the issues, particularly health care.

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Richmond, Va.: Hello Jeff and thank you for taking questions. Can you describe how vigorously the Clinton campaign has contested Wisconsin? Early on it sort of was ignored. Have they put as much time and effort in the state as they did some of the Super Tuesday states? Thank you.

Jeff Mayers: The perception here -- and I saw a Los Angeles Times headline to this effect  -- is that the Clinton campaign has been looking down the chessboard to Ohio and Texas and has not devoted all the resources it could have to Wisconsin, which should be a good state for her.

A week ago, Obama had a rally at the University of Wisconsin basketball arena; she was in Texas. That dismayed Clinton supporters some in Wisconsin.

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Lusby, Md.: Hi Jeff. What would wins in Wisconsin and Hawaii mean for Barack Obama today? Each primary, everyone thinks that primary will decide the race, but it doesn't. Last week here in the Potomac primary we were supposed to decide what happened next, but still no conclusion. And yes, I voted for him here last week.

Jeff Mayers: Momentum is a big thing in politics, and if Obama wins big here and Hawaii, he'd extend his winning streak and spur more questions about the Clinton campaign.

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Milwaukee: Please help me out here. Where does Hillary get off with this "35 years of experience" stuff and any traction for her argument that she's all that more seasoned than Obama? She only has been an elected official a few more years than Obama.

Jeff Mayers: Clinton is an acknowledged policy wonk, and she was a White House adviser in addition to being a ceremonial first lady.

Their experiences as elected officials aren't that much different in the number of years, but it's an effective tact, as I hear voters repeating it often. Sometimes a message works best when it gets traction.

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Philadelphia: Hi. I've seen Sen. Clinton recently step up her efforts to illustrate "distinctions" from Sen. Obama, and read a poll yesterday showing her leading in Wisconsin. What do you hear? Is there any likelihood whatsoever of a Clinton upset, or a significantly stronger than expected showing? Thanks!

Jeff Mayers: Most public polls and political pros judged her as running behind here, but both campaigns say it will be close. A Clinton win here would be judged an upset.

Check out the WisPolitics.com Primary Election Blog at www.wispolitics.com for more on the polls.

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Madison, Wis.: What sense are you getting with regard to voter turnout throughout the state? Where are you seeing heaviest and lightest turnout? What does this turnout suggest in terms of predicted outcomes for each of the candidates?

Jeff Mayers: I don't have any good turnout numbers at my fingertips now, but my staff is always watching, and you can see reports later today at the WisPolitics.com Primary Election Blog

Obama is perceived strong in Dane County around Madison and the biggest University of Wisconsin campus, as well as Milwaukee, so if he rolls up big numbers there that will help him. Green Bay is a good swing area to watch.

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Yorktown, Va.: How does Michelle Obama's comment that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" play in Wisconsin? It seems like that kind of America-hatred is better suited for the coasts. Any blowback in Wisconsin?

Jeff Mayers: Conservative talk radio is playing it up, but the focus here, as elsewhere, is on the candidates themselves.

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Arlington, Va.: What will a win for either candidate mean at this point? If it is a narrow win, probably nothing, but if it is another big one for Obama, does that hurt Hillary more given that she really tried this time in Wisconsin? And would a win for her switch the momentum talk?

Jeff Mayers: A win in Wisconsin would help Clinton a great deal, by breaking that Obama streak. Going into Ohio and Texas with a big winning streak will help Obama. Momentum is a big factor in primary voting, which can be largely emotional.

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Portsmouth, N.H.: What national issues resonate most at the moment with Wisconsin voters? Are there local considerations that will affect the perceptions of either candidate?

Jeff Mayers: The economy is big here, as well as the Iraq war. The state's economy, largely manufacturing base, is in transition, like Ohio. And there's a lot of economic angst out there relating to the housing slump and health care.

Both candidates have adopted some of John Edwards's rhetoric here, probably to get at the economic angst. Edwards finished a strong second to Kerry here 4 years ago.

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Who do you think has more "baggage" for November -- Hillary or Obama?

Jeff Mayers: Hillary Clinton has been on the national stage for a lot longer, thus her higher negatives. Republican opposition researchers, I'm sure, are busy looking at what Clinton campaign is saying and doing their own digging. Most of the vetting of Obama is yet to come.

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Grapevine, Texas: Do voters in Wisconsin seem to buy the specious argument that Hillary Clinton is more "experienced" than Obama? She has only been an elected official a few years more than him. I continually am amazed that Clinton campaign can get any kind of traction on this. Her "experience" as first lady amounted to leading a failed effort at comprehensive health care and standing by her man.

Jeff Mayers: The experience tack also goes to detailed policy positions. Clinton for example handed out a big 12-page booklet at one event. So I see it as an effort to undermine the emotional response to Obama's celebrity and inspirational speeches.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Will Obama's attempts to "guilt trip" people backfire? We're constantly being told that we're "racist" if we don't support him. Can I dislike him for his half-baked policy ideas, or does that make me bigot?

Jeff Mayers: Obama's race no doubt will affect some voters' attitudes, as pollsters are aware.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Having grown up in Wisconsin, it seemed that even with an open primary, few Republicans "crossed over" to vote in the Democratic primary, either because they liked a candidate or they wanted to "support" a more easily beatable foe. Any sense of what Republican voters may be doing this time?

Jeff Mayers: Hello fellow Badger.

The crossover vote factor is much talked about but rarely significant. The thinking today is that with McCain as the presumptive nominee, Republican-minded independents may want to play in a more meaningful race on the Democratic side.

Obama brags about Republican supporters, and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest there are some, but how many and whether they stick around in November is unclear.

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Annandale, Va.: What are the candidates' policies on outsourcing to Asian countries, including India and China?

Jeff Mayers: Obama has made NAFTA an issue here, going to outsourcing. He made that pitch first at a GM plant in Janesville in Rock County, a key Democratic county south of Madison.

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First Things First: When will results start coming in tonight from Wisconsin and Hawaii? And will this be the last state contest before the "next" Super Tuesday in two weeks?

Jeff Mayers: Wisconsin is central time, so at about 9 p.m. some results will filter in.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Beyond poetic speech, what is Barack Obama's position on immigration? What will he do about Iraq? Is this the new politics?

Jeff Mayers: People talk more about Obama's rhetoric and style than his specific policies, and Clinton keeps trying to get people to think about specifics. That is the nature of the race right now, and she'll continue to try to get media and others to get Obama talking more about specifics.

She wanted to debate Obama here, and one was set up, but Obama passed, the campaign noting there have been 18 debates so far and one was coming up soon in Texas.

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La Vale, Md.: Thanks for chatting. If Obama ends up winning Wisconsin by a really narrow margin, will it turn out to be a big mistake for Clinton to have gone to Texas right after the Potomac Primaries, rather than to Wisconsin? Why does the Clinton team think Ohio is so friendly to them and not Wisconsin? It seems like they have some similar demographics.

Jeff Mayers: There's a lot of that same analysis going on in Wisconsin media and political circles.

If Obama wins here and then goes on to win Ohio, I think some of the second-guessing of the Clinton campaign will center on why it didn't throw more resources at Wisconsin, setting up Ohio -- but Wisconsin, of course, doesn't have the number of delegates those states do.

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Port of Spain, Trinidad: Sen. Obama won Minnesota by quite a large margin. Pardon the possibly insensitive question, but speaking as some one who has visited Minnesota frequently but never Wisconsin, why would the result there be any different?

Jeff Mayers: Obama has won the border states of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

Minnesota and Iowa are caucus states -- different dynamics. Illinois is a primary state. Wisconsin is an open primary state, meaning anybody can vote in whichever primary they choose.

The conventional wisdom is that independents not drawn to McCain likely would vote for Obama.

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Rolla, Mo.: What is your take on the recent description by some in the media of Obama's followers being "cult-like"? Could it simply be that the electorate (particularly young people) has not been this excited about a candidate in decades and the media just doesn't know what to make of it?

Jeff Mayers: Often media doesn't report the context, but this is a phenomenon many in the media, including myself, haven't seen first-hand in presidential politics.

Obama has in many ways eclipsed Bill Clinton as the Democratic Party star, and that is a significant thing. Obama must keep those young people engaged and voting to win, and that is a significant task.

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Los Angeles: Thanks a lot for your time and analysis. Can you give us your expert predication on the outcome, percentages, etc.? Thanks again.

Jeff Mayers: That's dangerous, but I can say that Obama has been the anointed front-runner here -- and Clinton has been doing soft negative ads and negative mailers and asking for debates, so I assume their polling must have showed her behind too.

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Chicagoan in exile: The African American population of Wisconsin is smaller than in many of the states that have held primaries recently (Virginia, Maryland and Missouri, for example). What do you think will be the turnout in largely black districts, and what will be the impact of that turnout on the primary results today?

Jeff Mayers: As you say, the state's African-American population is relatively small and concentrated in Milwaukee -- but because many of the delegates are awarded based on congressional districts, that could be significant.

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Arlington, Va.: "The focus here as elsewhere is on the candidates themselves." Only until Bill Clinton says something.

Jeff Mayers: Shot and a goal!

Bill Clinton did campaign here and did not draw well in metro Milwaukee, but did okay on UW-Madison campus and in La Crosse.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Why hasn't the Clinton campaign been more called for its racially-tinted Willie Horton-style campaign against Obama? I guarantee if this were a Republican theme they'd be called on it, and rightly so. In this case, don't think I've heard "Willie Horton" once.

Jeff Mayers: Example?

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San Diego: When, if ever, is Obama going to point to the Clintons' illegal behavior while in Arkansas that was the subject of inquiry during the Clinton presidency (e.g., Whitewater)? As far as the Wisconsin primary is concerned, I can't believe that Hillary is getting the poll numbers she is. If Obama were to look back at what happened in the '90s during the Clinton presidency, you would see conditions ripe for the Bush II presidency. That's something to brag about?

Jeff Mayers: Obama is the perceived front-runner now, so engaging in such negativity would show him to be practicing "the old politics."

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Washington: I recently was in Wisconsin, and when I tried to praise their history of good government, they assured me that was in the past. I certainly hope not for our sakes.

Jeff Mayers: Wisconsin has been hit by its share of scandals since WisPolitics.com was founded in 2000. The most prominent one was a "causus scandal" that forced legislative leaders of both parties out of office and resulted in some jail time.

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Birmingham, Ala.: When will exit polls start to trickle out, and where is the best place to find them first?

Jeff Mayers: Exit polling done by the national consortium usually pops up a little after poll-closing time on the network and cable Web sites. We'll link to whatever emerges at the WisPolitics.com Primary Election Blog.

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Annandale, Va.: I was looking at WisPolitics.com and was interested in Sen. Clinton's job interview analogy ... my brother-in-law from New Hampshire and I had this exact same conversation this past Thanksgiving. We concluded that if you were hiring purely on the basis of the resume, that you'd hire Hillary, but that after interviews with both senators, that you'd be convinced that Barack was the person you'd most want to work with. Any thoughts on how they've connected in person with Wisconsin voters?

Jeff Mayers: That's a very interesting analysis, something I haven't thought of. Wisconsin likes approachable politicians: Feingold, Tommy Thompson, Gaylord Nelson, Mel Laird. Likability is a factor.

Obama seems very approachable up there on stage, and people react well to that. But Clinton has become a very effective campaigner since Iowa; she is connecting in her own way, but her history is polarizing. He's more of "clean slate," meaning he doesn't have to account so much for his political history -- at least not yet.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I see Hillary Clinton just released a booklet of her economic policies on her Web site. Have there been any articles or analysis, positive or negative, on her economic policies, or any contrasts with her economic policies and Obama's policies? I ask in order to gage the extent to which the media is focusing on the details of candidates' positions.

Jeff Mayers: The media, and I'll plead guilty to this, mostly are focusing on the horse race -- but candidate positions on high-profile issues like health care and NAFTA and the economy are a major part of the reporting this week.

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Atlanta: Wisconsin's electorate is said to skew blue collar, but it also is said that Democrats are quite antiwar in the state. Do you find that Iraq is something that is important to a lot of Wisconsin Democrats?

Jeff Mayers: Iraq is definitely important, but I think the economy has surpassed it as the housing slump (even though not as bad as national), health care accessibility and cost (even though Wisconsin has relatively lower number of unemployed) and the jobless rate (even though it's about what national rate is) are influencing voters' attitudes.

The slowing economy right now is on the minds of people and state government, which is projecting a $650 million deficit in the current two-year cycle.

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New Brunswick, N.J.: With all this recent talk about debates and "plagiarism," the contest has seemed more like a campaign for assistant principal of the regional middle school than president of the United States. Are these issues actually resonating with voters in Wisconsin?

Jeff Mayers: The debate issue became part of an ad exchange between the two campaigns.

Obama's use of phrases from his friend probably has more impact in Washington circles than here. Even if he had attributed them fully, I think it still would have gotten a big rise from the Democratic Party activist audience Saturday night in Milwaukee.

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Ashland, Ore.: Hi Jeff. When do the polls close tonight?

Jeff Mayers: 8 p.m.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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