Reality Check: Wisconsin


The second of four posts in which Stumper reality-checks the Democratic contest. Stay tuned for Texas and Ohio over the weekend.

UPDATE, 11.19.08: Up until late last week, Hillary Clinton looked like she was ducking Wisconsin in favor of later contests in Texas and Ohio. Whether she was simply lowering expectations or actually planning to leapfrog the Badger State, who knows. But she's clearly contesting it now. In addition to Friday's sharply negative ad (above), Clinton has spent every day since Saturday stumping in the state. And she's added a new attack to her arsenal, accusing Obama of plagiarizing speeches by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. The charge is sort of ridiculous: as Obama's national co-chair, not to mention his friend (and a former client of guru David Axelrod), Patrick has said that he and Obama regularly discuss language--and even that he instructed Obama's speechwriters to appropriate the phrases in question. Regardless, Clinton has effectively shifted the harsh media spotlight from her flailing bid to her opponent's "misstep" in the waning hours of the Wisconsin campaign. One poll out Sunday even shows her leading 49 to 43. We'll see this evening whether her efforts have paid off.


If the Beltway bloviators are to believed, Barack Obama is a lock to win next Tuesday's Wisconsin primary. In his favor, according to

Here's why. Despite the whole upscale, egghead, Feingoldian stereotype, Wisconsin in reality looks a lot like, well, Ohio--where Clinton currently leads by 17 points. Yes, any state that's home to the excitable, ultraliberal student enclave of Madison and a progressive tradition stretching from Robert La Follette through the down-with-the-system Sixties probably boasts more than few Obamaniacs. But as Jeff Greenfield points out, 57 percent of primary voters in 2004 called themselves moderates or conservatives; half earned less than $50,000 a year, half had no college education, a third were Catholic and more than one in five were union members. Like Ohio, Wisconsin is an increasingly purple swing state with higher-than-average unemployment and a population that's whiter and older than the nation as a whole. In other words, it's a prime place for Clinton, the persistent problem-solver, to test her enduring appeal to white working-class voters. Think PC--and by that I mean "punch card"--instead of Apple.

Both campaigns are acutely aware of this. Despite winning every contest since Feb. 5--that's eight straight for folks keeping score at home--Obama's Badger State lead is stalled at a meager four percent, and a source tells NEWSWEEK that the campaign's internal polls are just as close, if not closer.  "By [the Clinton's] own definition, Wisconsin would be a state you would think would be prime turf with them," campaign manager David Plouffe recently told the Wall Street Journal. Of course, Team Obama could just be raising expectations for its rival. (Last week, an internal Obama memo  predicted a seven point victory.) But if so, that's only because the Clintonistas have set them so low. Since losing the Potomac Primary, Hillary has barely uttered the word "Wisconsin," insisting that she would focus her efforts on the March 4 states of Texas and Ohio instead. Obama arrived in Madison on Tuesday night and only left for Valentine's Day; Clinton won't touch down until Saturday-- and even then her campaign says the goal is to ensure that she gets as many delegates as possible, not to win.

Baloney. The delay was clearly a stutter step--a move intended, as Greenfield writes, "to turn a strong Clinton showing—much less a victory—into one of those 'Oh my God, what a shocker!' reactions that changes the whole tenor of the political conversation." The press is already calling it a "missed opportunity." Just imagine what the headlines will say if she actually gives Obama a run for his money.

Don't believe my "expectations game" hypothesis? Take a gander at Clinton's latest ad (above). Called "Deserves," it's the second in a series taking Obama to task for refusing to participate in a Wisconsin debate (Obama, for his, part, says 20 is enough--and we tend to agree). But this spot goes much further than the first, twisting the Illinois senator's statements on health care, energy and social security in a way the New York Times calls "spine-chilling." That might be a bit much. But at the very least, it's first real negative ad of the cycle. And trust me--Clinton wouldn't bother offending gentle midwestern sensibilities unless she knew she had a shot.

Game on.