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Can Reince turn Wisconsin Red in 2012?

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Opinion Zone,Christopher Murray

During his successful campaign for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus touted his record of helping elect a spate of Republicans in Wisconsin as one reason why he should be given the responsibility of overseeing the party’s national efforts in the 2012 campaign. 

In the 2010 cycle, Wisconsin underwent one of the largest partisan shifts of any state as the GOP captured a Senate seat, two House seats, the governor’s mansion, plus both houses of the state legislature.  While one can certainly debate how much of a role Priebus himself (or any other state party head across the country) actually played in the 2010 landslide, what isn’t mistakable is the importance of Wisconsin and other midwestern battleground states to the Republicans’ hope of recapturing the White House and increasing their numbers in Congress. 

In fact, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the top four contenders in last week’s RNC vote—not counting the clearly doomed yet resilient Michael Steele—hailed from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri.  All four of these states are crucial for both parties’ attempts to cobble together the requisite 270 electoral votes.

 As a native Wisconsinite and longtime observer of its politics I think I can shed some light on what Priebus and the GOP need to do to bring Wisconsin to the GOP side.  Wisconsin has long been a state heavily targeted by both parties, but nonetheless one that Republicans have had a tough time capturing in recent presidential races. 

While usually quite close, Wisconsin hasn’t voted Republican since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide.  In both 2000 and 2004, Democrats captured the state with margins of 5,000 and 11,000 votes respectively.  However, as the Democratic wave crested in 2006 and 2008, Wisconsin voting moved signficantly leftward.  In 2006, Democrats captured a House seat and the state legislature and 2008 saw President Obama outperform his national average in the Badger State.  Whereas Obama received just under 53% nationwide, he garnered over 56% of the popular vote in Wisconsin.  Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, Obama won an impressive 59 (John Kerry, for example, only won 27).

 How did Obama do this and what bearing might this have on 2012? 

Despite much of the hand wringing among Democrats that took place at the time, the extended 2008 primary season allowed candidate Obama to mobilize voters across states, counties, and communities to a degree that was unheard of in previous contests.  This was certainly true in Wisconsin. 

No doubt assisted by vast resources, volunteer hours, and enthusiasm, what Obama was able to do was reach into pockets of voters that had, for most previous candidates, either been too difficult to reach or, because the nomination had been secured, not necessary to reach. Because Wisconsin has traditionally had one of the later (and thus irrelevant) primaries, it never really received the attention it did by Obama in 2008.  Given how much effort Obama put into Wisconsin—and conversely how little John McCain put into it during the Republican primary season—its results in 2008 shouldn’t surprise us. 

What Priebus and other Wisconsin Republicans must hope for is a primary season in which Wisconsin plays a more important role than it has in the past.  While the GOP primary calendar hasn’t been finalized yet, this will be one dynamic to watch.  Whether Republicans want to endure a drawn out nomination fight, something they may have to as they move to a more proportional allocation of delegates, is another question.

 In 2010, what Republicans were able to do to achieve such dramatic gains was to upset some of the traditional assumptions that underlie how voting takes place in Wisconsin.  Typically, it is assumed that there is a “60% rule” for Democrats.  As long as Democrats win 60% of the vote in Wisconsin’s two largest counties—Milwaukee and Dane (Madison)—and turnout remains constant throughout the rest of the state, they should be fine. 

In fact, while Democratic Senator Russ Feingold and gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett were able to get the requisite numbers in these counties, what propelled the GOP was a massive turnout surge in a cluster of counties that has always been the base of modern Wisconsin Republicanism, coupled with better than normal performance in the outlying rural counties of the west and northwest.  These base Republican counties begin in the Milwaukee suburbs and proceed northward into the Fox River Valley.  It is in Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee, Dodge, and finally Fond du Lac counties that Republicans traditionally run up their numbers.  These are relatively large counties that have some of the state’s highest levels of income and education and that consistently elect Republicans to the state legislature.  The greater turnout here allowed Republicans like newly sworn in Senators Ron Johnson and Governor Scott Walker to cut deeper into the losses they suffered in Milwaukee and Madison than previous losing GOP candidates had.  Because turnout was flat across the rest of the state, those areas that have helped Democrats in the past (Eau Claire, LaCrosse, Kenosha, Racine, Rock counties) weren’t able to save the Democratic ticket.  

 For Republicans to win the White House in 2012 they don’t need to win Wisconsin. 

However, should they figure out the correct formula for winning the Badger State they’ll probably be well on their way to a convincing win.  I’d bet that a win in Wisconsin would be coupled with wins in some of the other rust belt states that have proven elusive to recent GOP nominees.  However, I wouldn’t predict 2012 results based on what transpired in November.  These midwestern states, and Wisconsin especially, tend to have a strong progressive/Democratic tradition that won’t be wiped away by one election.  Should Democratic organization, enthusiasm, and turnout rebound to levels seen in 2008, it’s a sure bet that Wisconsin will be harder for Republicans to capture than it may seem now.

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