Highway 270: Wisconsin

This article is part of an ongoing biweekly series called “Highway 270,” which profiles heavily contested states in the 2012 election season. This week, I will examine the current political climate in Wisconsin, which has 10 electoral votes.

Unlike perennial toss-up states Florida and Ohio, Wisconsin hasn’t gone Republican since 1984 (though many of its ultimately Democratic victories were narrow) and is fairly new to being a swing state. Predictably, then, its electoral votes seemed virtually guaranteed for Obama at the beginning of the year and even throughout most of the summer.

The “game change” (to borrow a phrase used to describe another VP candidate with significant electoral ramifications) came in mid-August when Mitt Romney nominated Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential candidate. Before the nomination, Obama led Romney in the Badger State by about six percentage points, which seemed “too wide for a vice-presidential boost to overcome,” according to The Guardian.

This was apparently not the case. Romney’s numbers in Wisconsin began to rise, albeit slowly, from the moment of Ryan’s nomination. This increase leaves the two candidates virtually tied as of November 1; according to a NBC/WSJ/Marist poll released today, Obama leads Romney by three points—within the poll’s margin of error. A Rasmussen Reports poll released today put each candidate at 49%.

Wisconsin has strategic importance beyond its mere number of electoral votes: if Obama wins Ohio, argues Scott Rasmussen, a Romney victory necessitates winning Wisconsin. Naturally, then, an Obama victory necessitates that Romney lose Wisconsin, especially considering that the latest numbers from the Buckeye State, a virtual tie, are by no means comforting to either camp.

Obama spent today stumping in Green Bay and Ryan returned home for Halloween, but it will obviously take more than speeches and photo ops this late in the game to win what has become one of the country’s most hotly contested states.

Obama, for example, ought to exploit his advantages with Wisconsin’s independents—who favor him by a 7-point margin—not in terms of centrist ad time, but by an aggressive get-out-the-vote ground game.

Luckily for the president, it seems like he just may have it. In 2008 and 2012 alike, Obama was known for his widespread grassroots support, which translated into sophisticated field organization. According to Molly Ball of The Atlantic, there is “little reason to believe Romney commands anything comparable to Obama’s ground operation.” Because these field offices work primarily to motivate voters to turn out at the polls, Wisconsin field support will make-or-break the Badger State for the Democrats. If anything can motivate the contingent of Wisconsin independent voters who are leaning towards Obama to get to the polls, Obama’s ground game can.

But the Romney team has been anything but oblivious to the importance of Wisconsin for overall victory, and if their field support is lacking in other parts of the country, they have nonetheless redoubled their efforts to bulk up get-out-the-vote in Wisconsin. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina called Romney’s Badger State ground game “robust” in a September interview with ABC, and it seems unlikely that the Romney campaign will leave any phone call unmade in the days leading up to the election.

Where some states are arms races of aggressive ad campaigns, Wisconsin looks more like arm wrestling—each candidate has thrown all of his grassroots support into this race, and it is on the ground, not on the airwaves, where its ten electoral votes will be won.