If your only frame of reference for the 2012 presidential election was the Republican National Convention, you would likely walk away with the impression that Wisconsin was a bastion of conservative thought and a wellspring of Republican leadership. Having survived a fierce recall election, Scott Walker is now the star of conservative policy innovation in the states. Reince Priebus, former chairman of the Republican Party in Wisconsin, is now chair of the Republican National Committee. Senator Ron Johnson defeated the longtime liberal pillar Russ Feingold. And, Paul Ryan reigns as the chief architect of GOP budgeting and domestic policy. The narrative, it might seem, is that Wisconsin is a purple state on its way to becoming red.
However, it is likely that the tidal wave of GOP success in Wisconsin since 2010 was more of a temporary departure than a trend. Consider the following: Wisconsin has voted for Democratic candidates in every presidential election since 1984, and in 2008 fifty-six percent of votes cast went to Obama. While Walker handily defended his seat in the recall election, turnout was considerably higher (by about 460,000 votes) in the 2008 presidential election, suggesting that part of the reason for Walker’s success was Democrats who stayed home. Moreover, recall exit polls conducted by Edison Research, which correctly reported the lopsided Walker victory, also showed that voters preferred Obama to Romney by a 51-44 margin.
Of course, this was all before the Paul Ryan ascendency to the Republican ticket. This is the logic of a vice presidential selection: choose a candidate who can balance the ticket (with youth and considerable policy-making experience), shore up the base, and deliver a state that would otherwise be just out of reach. In Ryan’s native Janesville and the surrounding first congressional district, his candidacy has certainly generated this type of enthusiasm. As Ryan said at his official VP rollout in his hometown high school, “You know I think I recognize just about every face in this room.”
However, Ryan’s popularity in Wisconsin is likely confined to regional enthusiasm and conservative Republicans unlikely to sway to Obama under any circumstance. Shortly after Ryan was announced as the vice presidential candidate, a Marquette University Law School poll had forty-one percent of voters registering a “favorable” opinion of Ryan, thirty-four percent unfavorable, with the rest unsure or not knowing enough about Ryan to have an opinion. These aren’t terrible numbers, and indicate reasonably high name recognition for a candidate who had never held statewide office. However, Marquette’s September poll suggests that the more Wisconsin swing voters get to know Ryan, the less they like him. Ryan’s favorables have hit a ceiling at forty-one percent, and his unfavorables have crept up to match them. Romney stands at thirty-six percent in the same poll, and Obama is at a comfortable fifty-five percent favorability rating. A Wisconsin-raised Packer-backer is losing the likeability contest to a Bears fan from across the border.
Perhaps given these mixed signals, both Obama and Romney appear to be approaching Wisconsin cautiously. Despite Wisconsin’s heftier electoral prize, both campaigns are making considerably larger ad buys in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Colorado. The Ryan selection certainly suggests that Wisconsin is “in play” for the Romney campaign. However, the absence of a sustained bump in the polls following the Paul Ryan announcement may be the dog that didn’t bark, indicating that for Wisconsinites policy considerations trump state allegiance. Romney should have looked to the results from the GOP Senate primary election, where voters opted for the (relatively) more moderate Tommy Thompson over a cadre of purist conservatives. Walker and Priebus notwithstanding, most Wisconsinites are simply not ready to adopt as their own policies usually identified with the far-right of the Republican Party, even if it means turning down the opportunity to have a Cheesehead in the White House.
Chapp is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. He is the author of Religious Rhetoric and American Politics: The Endurance of Civil Religion in Electoral Campaigns, recently published by Cornell University Press.