Know Your Battleground States 5/9: Wisconsin

Cheese, beer and beef are what Wisconsin is best known for in America. Milwaukee’s professional baseball team is named the Brewers. The dairy industry dominates Wisconsin’s landscape, with idyllic pastureland giving way in the north and west to rocky glacial hills, covered in forests, which resemble the middle Germany many Wisconsinites’ ancestors came from, and glacial lakes which resemble the Scandinavia of many others’.

Wisconsin is a contradictory state – a European ethic of social solidarity and religious moderation sits together with a deeply patriotic and rough-hewn Americanism epitomised by the Badger State’s most iconic product, the Harley Davidson motorcycle. Wisconsin shares many of its Midwestern neighbours’ dependence on the automotive industry, but is less reliant on cars. Other vehicles, from Harleys to fire-engines to farm machinery are the big thing here, especially in Greater Milwaukee, a significant American metropolis, and home to Wisconsin’s greatest televisual exports, Laverne & Shirley.

The Little White Schoolhouse in Ripon, where the Republican Party was born

As befits its contradictory nature, Wisconsin gave birth to the modern Republican party and was home to the most successful Socialist political experiment on American soil. These days the state is a deeply politically polarised place. Republican Governor Scott Walker remains the darling of the tea party movement, surviving a recall election despite radical reforms and, unlike near comparator John Kasich in Ohio, remaining quite popular. But Democratic efforts to force recall elections on Republican State Senators in marginal districts, specifically to act as a brake on Walker, knocked the State’s upper house back into Democratic control this summer. Liberal Tammy Baldwin is neck-and-neck going into the last few days of a barnburner of a closely fought election race against moderate former GOP Governor Tommy Thompson, seeking to become the US Senate’s first openly lesbian member.

No Democratic presidential candidate has lost Wisconsin since Walter Mondale in 1984, but George W Bush came within half a point in both his elections.

Obama did better in the Upper Midwest in 2008 than any Democrat in recent history, fuelling a 14 point win in Wisconsin. Ignored early in the campaign, the selection of Janesville’s Paul Ryan as the GOP’s Vice Presidential pick changed the game, and Wisconsin was catapulted from being a possible battleground to an actual one. What was particularly interesting about Ryan was his ability to get elected by 2-to-1 margins on a very conservative agenda, in a district that has only the slightest of Republican leans and voted narrowly for Obama in 2008. Republicans who can win over moderate Democrats often win big in Wisconsin.

The Prairie du Chien

Having been ignored by both campaigns in the spring and summer, money started pouring into Wisconsin once the conventions were over. For the final week of the campaign, Obama is spending $3.2M on commercials in the state, Romney $1.6M, Republican political action committees $4.3M and one of their Democratic equivalents, Priorities USA Action another $1.5M. In contrast to the other eight battlegrounds, voters in Wisconsin have not been bludgeoned by four months of wall-to-wall campaign ads, and it will be interesting to see if the last minute rush has any effect.

The bulk of Wisconsin’s residents come from the same European ethnic portmanteau common to the near Midwest. The state has one of the largest populations of German ancestry in the Union, reflected in its brewing tradition, as well as well as large communities of Irish, Polish, Norwegian and Italian origin. This is also reflected in a religious heritage still dominated by Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, especially Lutheranism, and a rapidly growing population not identifying with any faith.

The bulk of the state’s relatively small African American population lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s metropolis and a majority-minority city (40% Black). Up in Green Bay, the old canard runs that if you’re black, you’re either a Packer or you’re just passing through. Wisconsin’s Asian population is growing rapidly, and like many other parts of the Upper Midwest, has a high proportion of Hmong refugees from Laos, who like many other communities of Indo-Chinese origin, have a history of anti-Communism reflected in strong support for the GOP, at least among those who vote.

Beer Festival in Milwaukee

Milwaukee County, like most core cities of large metropolises, is the most important Democratic stronghold in the state. Although it has a large suburban GOP vote even in good Democratic years, the Blue side will usually pile up a lead of 150,000 votes or so from this county alone. Another huge Democratic lead is also generated around the state capital and decidedly leftish university city of Madison. The third real Democratic powerhouse, although thinly populated, is the far northern counties around the lakeside port of Superior, with a long history of trade unionism and a large Native population.

Republicans fight back in the commuterbelt counties to the north and west of Milwaukee, with heavily populated Waukesha County probably the most politically conservative in the state – even John McCain managed over 60% and a 60,000 vote cushion in this county alone as part of a weak Badger State effort. Waukesha County is home to Elmbrook Church, one of the largest conservative megachurches in the US with a weekly attendance of around 7,000.

The Driftless Area

And apart from a few conservative rural pockets with a particular religious or ethnic context and a few Indian reservations which produce monolithic votes for Democrats, the rest of the state is true swing territory. Like Iowa, this is a state with many genuine swing voters, even in a politically polarised era. The rural southwest of the state nearly always votes Democrat in federal elections, but only by very thin margins in weak Democrat years. The miles of rolling dairy pastures that blanket the centre and northwest of the state are true bellweathers, the vast majority of which voted for Obama in 2008 but for Bush in 2004 and 2000, and in all three cases by relatively small margins. Farm policy matters as much as the big national and global issues here.

The lake shore south of Milwaukee, as much in Chicago’s orbit as in the Brew City’s, is densely populated and politically marginal. This is Paul Ryan’s political heartland, but it also votes for popular left-wing Democrats in statewide elections.

The shore of Green Bay

But perhaps the most crucial region in a tight election is the Fox Valley, centred on Green Bay and the heartland of the Packers’ fanatical cheesehead fans. Farms, food plants and paper mills are the big employers in this blue-collar region. This is the sort of area where each party has serious image problems – the Democrats seen as soft, bureaucratic and unpatriotic, the Republicans as greedy religious fanatics. It’s also the sort of place where men, in particular, are responsive to Republican attacks on national security, and women, in particular, responsive to Democrat attacks on social issues. Bush swept every county in the region twice and Obama did last time. There is a particularly large bloc of swing voters here.

The gap in polling in the state closed dramatically after Romney’s strong first debate performance, and suddenly the state began to see serious campaigning. Polls have widened recently, and the incumbent now commands a 5.0% lead in the RealClearPolitics.com polling average, wider than in Pennsylvania. But both candidates will visit the Badger State in the final days, a sign that both regard its 10 Electoral Votes as very much in play.

Perhaps surprisingly, Paul Ryan has not added all that much to the ticket’s strength. Romney was only narrowly behind here throughout the spring and early summer, before Ryan’s selection. Remember, though that Ryan has never held statewide office and his district is as much a part of Chicagoland as it is of Wisconsin. He may not have much more appeal to people in Appleton or Green Bay than he does in other parts of America. But also remember this – Barack Obama is not coming here in the last days of a tough campaign because he thinks Wisconsin is in the bag.