Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The stakes in the cheesehead primary

Ah Wisconsin, birthplace of the presidential primary (yes, nearly a century ago) and a state where so many candidacies have come to ruin (Hubert Humphrey in 1960, Mo Udall in 1976, John Edwards and Howard Dean in 2004, among many others). For the 2008 Democratic finalists, Wisconsin might ultimately prove to be a mere pit stop, but at the moment it looks like a potential fork in the long and winding road.

If Hillary Clinton wins tonight (defying most of the polls, as in New Hampshire), she would slow Barack Obama's momentum ahead of the Texas and Ohio showdowns on March 4, and calm the nerves of fans who have been laboring to come up with rationales for why she should be awarded the nomination in the absence of voter approval. If she loses narrowly and essentially splits the 74 Wisconsin delegates with Obama, she can always try to spin it as a comeback and insist that she always knew Wisconsin would be a tough state, that she nearly won even though Obama vastly outspent her, and that she is pleased with where she is in the race.

If Obama wins tonight in cheesehead territory (along with a victory in his native Hawaii), he heads toward Texas and Ohio with a 10-game victory streak and the aura of a winner - which matters in politics, because voters torn between two candidates often are tempted to go with a perceived winner. And if he wins big tonight - in a state, after all, where the demographics would seem to be friendly to Hillary - then he can spin it as further evidence (coupled with Virginia and Maryland last week) that he is steadily broadening his appeal to the greater Democratic electorate.

To gauge his appeal, I plan to check out these demographics, some of which overlap:

White working-class Democrats. They have been loyal to Hillary in most contests thus far, and they're numerous in Wisconsin (in the 2004 Democratic primary, 50 percent of the voters earned less than $50,000 a year), particularly in the old manufacturing towns on the east side of the state. The potential problem for Hillary, however, is that they've suffered heavy job losses and they blame NAFTA for accelerating the exodus of jobs overseas...the same NAFTA that Hillary's husband signed into law. One of the strongest NAFTA critics is Wisconsin Congressman David Obey, who represents a heavily blue-collar district and is stumping his turf heavily for Obama.

(In February 2004, during the Wisconsin primary campaign, I was visiting a laid-off union worker named Gary Miller, in the town of Manitowoc, when his phone rang. Miller's side of the conversation went like this: "Hello?...OK, you should know that our local went out of existence...Yup, a few months ago...The company we worked at is gone, took all the jobs to China and Mexico, we have no members now. We do nothing...Wish I could help you more, sorry." Then Miller hung up. The caller was a John Kerry organizer, looking for labor help.)

Voters who didn't go to, or finish, college. Despite Wisconsin's general reputation as a liberal academic bastion - thanks largely to its university in Madison - it's worth noting that, in the 2004 Democratic primary, 55 percent of the voters did not have a college degree. Hillary has generally outdueled Obama for these voters (although not in Virginia and Maryland), and if she can't hold them in Wisconsin, it will be evidence of further base erosion.

The golden-age voters. Hillary has generally fared better than Obama among seniors (although, again, not last week), and voters over age 65 are expected to comprise roughly 20 percent of the Wisconsin electorate. Supposedly, they would be strongly attracted to Hillary's detailed policy prescriptives for health care and other kitchen-table staples, as practical correctives to Obamamania.

Catholics. Close to 4 in 10 Wisconsin voters are expected to be members of the faith, and Hillary was routinely beating Obama among Catholics until last week. If they tilt to Obama in Wisconsin (or not), it probably wouldn't be attributable to anything he has said (or hasn't said) about religion, because there has been very little faith talk lately on the Democratic side. Catholics will likely be voting on the same grounds as everybody else - with respect to their wallets/pocketbooks, their impressions of the two candidates, and their thoughts about candidate electability.

Then there are the reliable Obama demographics. We all know that young voters will favor Obama; the question is whether they will turn out in greater numbers than before, particularly in the university towns (in the Wisconsin primary four years ago, voters aged 18 to 29 were 11 percent of the elecrorate). We all know that blacks will vote overwhelmingly for Obama in Milwaukee; the question is by how much they will exceed their '04 turnout (six percent of the electorate).

And since Wisconsin's primary is open to all voters, I plan to track the size of the independent turnout, and its share of the total electorate. This too is reliable Obama turf - many of the Wisconsin independents are downstate affluent professionals who commute to Chicago - and they are one big reason why Obama is favored to win. Wisconsin has been a tough state for the Democrats in the last two general elections - Al Gore and John Kerry barely won it in 2000 and 2004 - and a huge independent turnout tonight might provide clues about a candidate's autumn viability.

The Clinton campaign has been working hard to lower expectations in Wisconsin, but I think that Jeff Greenfield, the seasoned CBS political commentator, put it best the other day: "If Clinton cannot rally the beer-drinking Democrats in the state that gave us Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller, where can she?"


As I noted yesterday, the Clinton people apparently assumed they'd wrap up the nomination on Tsunami Tuesday, thereby obviating the need for a Plan B if the race went longer. They never bothered to learn about the complex Texas delegate rules that could work against them on March 4. And now, as we see from this report (hat tip, John Baer), they couldn't even get their act together last week to file a complete slate of delegates for the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Even though the state filing deadline was helpfully extended for a day and a half by their ally-in-chief, Gov. Ed Rendell (official reason for the extension: bad weather), the campaign still came up short by around 10 delegates. By contrast, Obama's camp had no such problems.

For their own sake, while there is still time, the Clinton people might want to shake off the last vestiges of their coronation mentality and focus on nuts and bolts.