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Lessons from Wisconsin

Writing before primary day, to be read afterward, presents some real challenges. With no contests this week, we can get out from behind the curve and catch up.

That’s particularly important because the shape of the Democratic nominating contests was altered in Wisconsin.

As I argued last week, despite commentary to the contrary, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) largely maintained their respective coalitions in the Potomac Primaries. In Wisconsin, really for the first time, Obama launched a successful assault on key elements of the Clinton coalition.

Through Maryland and Virginia, white women and non-college-educated white men formed the core of Clinton’s constituency. In Wisconsin, Obama racked up substantial margins in those segments.

While Clinton won white women by 18 points in Maryland and by six in Virginia, in Wisconsin Obama carried that segment by a stunning 29-point margin. Last week, Clinton also lost white men without a college degree by 22 points.

Behind these demographics lurks another important thread from last week. I noted that Sen. Clinton’s real strength was with (white) Democrats and she was therefore disadvantaged in open primaries.

Such was clearly the case in Wisconsin. Clinton won white Democrats, albeit by an exceedingly narrow three points.

However, they made up just 53 percent of the primary electorate. Eight percent were African-Americans, who supported Obama by 91 percent to 8 percent. Independents (28 percent of the turnout) constituted another building block in Obama’s landslide, giving him a 31-point margin. Among the 9 percent who considered themselves Republicans, Obama won by 44 points.

Why was Clinton able to hold her base, even in the midst of defeat in the Potomac states, while losing it in Wisconsin?

Explanation naturally turns first to Obama’s own tremendous talents. In fairness, though, he brought the same strengths to losing California as he did to winning Wisconsin.

It’s also tempting to cite the rules, which seem ready-made for Obama — an open primary with same-day registration.

However, he won Democrats overall and defeated Clinton by a landslide margin among veteran primary participants.

Some saw momentum from decisive victories the week before lifting Obama higher in Wisconsin. While Iowa momentum put Obama on the field in Wisconsin — no Badger State poll before Iowa had him above 30 percent and no poll after had him below 41 percent — there is little evidence for the impact of “Potomentum.” In the three Wisconsin polls just before the Feb. 12 contests Obama averaged 45 percent, while in the three afterward, he averaged 46. His lead turned to landslide just shortly before primary day.

Three other factors do seem significant. First, Obama benefited from the active support of extraordinarily effective leaders like Gov. Jim Doyle (D), Rep. David Obey (D) and Rep. Gwen Moore (D).

 Second, Obama crushed Clinton in ad spending. In a business where volume counts, the winner outspent the loser on TV by an astonishing 5 to 1.

Third, while Obama’s message was both focused and on-target, Clinton’s was muddled and largely irrelevant. In a state where 54 percent said they most wanted a candidate who would bring change, Obama’s ads mentioned that word over 1,800 times. Clinton failed to mention change once.

In Wisconsin, Barack Obama proved he can win the kinds of voters he needs to take Ohio and Texas. However, achieving that feat in a neighboring state, with the support of the political leadership and a huge financial advantage, is not the same thing as actually doing it in the states to come.

Some mystery remains.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.