Mitt Romney took the historically rare step Saturday of selecting a running mate from one of the most competitive states in the presidential race.
But it's unclear that the pick will -- or was even designed to -- help Romney secure the vote in Wisconsin.
Rep. Paul Ryan, after all, represents just one of eight congressional districts in the state. And while he is a major player on the national stage and among political insiders, he remains something of an unknown quantity -- even to many Wisconsinites.
A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 46 percent of Americans were familiar enough with Ryan to rate him (27 percent favorably, 19 percent unfavorably). In Wisconsin, though, he's a little more known; a recent Marquette University Law School poll showed 36 percent of Wisconsinites rate Ryan favorably, compared to 29 percent who rate him unfavorably.
A recent automated poll from Democratic-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling also found that Ryan had slightly positive marks in the state -- 44 percent positive and 39 percent negative.
(Automated polls tend to push survey respondents to pick sides more than other polls, which explains why both numbers are higher. But the Marquette poll is probably a better reflection of the number of Wisconsin voters who actually have formed a solid opinion of Ryan.)
More illuminating, though: The PPP poll actually shows Ryan helps Romney close the gap in the Badger State. While President Obama led Romney in a straight head-to-head matchup, 50 percent to 44 percent, adding Ryan to the GOP ticket reduced the margin to one point, 47 percent to 46 percent.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), meanwhile, didn't help Romney close the gap at all in the poll. Romney still trailed 49 percent to 43 percent.
In Wisconsin, Romney is trying to win a state which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1984. But the 28-year blue streak has been colored with shades of of purple. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush lost the state by less than one percent of the vote.
The state’s recently concluded recall election — which Walker won — has boosted Republicans’ hopes of turning the state red at the presidential level. Republicans see common ground between the budget reform measures Walker instituted at the state level, and what Ryan is proposing at the federal level. In their view, Walker’s win means Ryan’s message has the potential to keep the GOP base fired up in the fall, in what is already a very polarized state.
“The GOP base is absolutely on fire over [the selection of Ryan],” added R.J. Johnson, a Walker campaign strategist. “That's the same base that delivered Walker a better win against [Democrat Tom] Barrett in the 2011 recall than 2010. The ground game just grew exponentially in Wisconsin.”
But there is also evidence to suggest that the way voters viewed the recall is different from their perspective on the White House race.
While Walker defeated his Democratic opponent by 7 points, voters preferred Obama over Romney by 7 points, according to exit polling conducted the day of the recall. (It’s worth noting that early on the night of the recall election, exit polling showed the recall race to be closer than it was.) An early August Marquette Law School poll reaffirmed Obama’s slight advantage, showing him with a 5-point lead over Romney. So Democrats reamin confident about Obama’s chances. One dismissed Romney’s selection of Ryan as a desperation move.
“This is a 4th and long pass, and Charles Woodson is poised to intercept it,” suggested Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who is working for Ryan’s opponent in the 1st District. (Ryan’s name will appear on the ballot twice in his district, as a House candidate and a vice presidential candidate).
Polls generally show vice presidential picks only affect outcomes marginally in their home states, and in many cases, voters in those states say they don't necessarily want their politicians running for higher office. Romney is wagering that he can break this mold this November. If he manages to win Wisconsin, he’ll be the first Republican since Ronald Reagan to do so.