MILWAUKEE – The fight for president is in full sway in the swing states, as both sides batter each other with waves of withering TV ads.
But in the vaunted battleground of Wisconsin, it is strangely quiet.
Neither President Barack Obama’s nor Mitt Romney’s campaign is running broadcast television ads here.
Why have the presidential ad wars, raging in more than half a dozen other states since May, largely bypassed Wisconsin so far?
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Could it be that Wisconsin is not quite the battleground it has been in the past?
“It’s not in the first tier,” said Ken Goldstein, a political scientist who heads Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks campaign advertising.
He says the campaigns’ TV buys show that Wisconsin, where Obama leads in the polls, currently ranks behind seven or eight other states in competitiveness – among them Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Republicans dispute any suggestion that the state isn’t up for grabs. They say that Wisconsin is a winnable target and high priority for them, but that the state’s historic recall fight has effectively delayed the buildup of the presidential contest.
Ben Sparks, the Romney campaign’s spokesman in Wisconsin, cited both “recall hangover” – the notion that Wisconsin voters needed respite from political ads – and the state’s escalating GOP U.S. Senate primary as reasons for advertising later in Wisconsin. He said the recall also pushed back the campaign’s organizational timeline in Wisconsin compared with other states.
Romney himself told the Toledo Blade recently that “there are just many places we can’t afford to be running ads,” because much of the money his campaign has been raising this summer can’t be spent by law until after the national convention. But Sparks did not count that among the factors in play in Wisconsin.
“We will be on the air through the summer and fall,” said GOP national chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsinite who has made clear his deep desire to end his party’s long presidential losing streak in the state that dates back to the 1980s. “In the end, Wisconsin will resume the familiar role in the battleground pole position.”
But some Democrats argue that if Wisconsin were as competitive for president as Republicans say it is, they would have been advertising heavily by now on television.
“No Democrat would ever take Wisconsin for granted, but given Mitt Romney’s repeated boasts about how competitive the state is, you’d think he’d actually compete there,” said Bill Burton of Priorities USA, a pro-Obama political action committee.
“The recall thing, yes, one can reasonably say that pushed back the start date. But we’re now weeks (past) the recall,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “All the evidence from the exit polls in the recall to most of the post (recall) polling suggests the president is doing pretty well in Wisconsin. My guess is both campaigns recognize that and that despite all the brave talk by Republicans about Wisconsin, neither campaign is that interested in wasting resources. . The president is running somewhere around even or plus two nationally and plus six or seven in Wisconsin. That’s four to five points better than the national average.”
Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said Wisconsin is “not at the level of Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, Florida” as an electoral target right now. “It’s in the next batch.”
In the end, what the campaigns, the parties and the big-spending outside groups do with their advertising buys in the coming weeks and months will answer the question of how competitive they believe Wisconsin is in 2012. As Tad Devine, strategist for John Kerry’s 2004 president campaign, said during that race, “If you want to understand the strategic intent of a presidential campaign, look at what they do with their media buy.” That’s the “tell.”
The Obama campaign wouldn’t comment for this story about their advertising decisions.
“Despite the president’s 14-point win in Wisconsin in 2008, we aren’t taking a single vote here for granted. That’s why we’ve been investing time, resources and energy in the state for over a year and continue to grow our organization one neighborhood at a time,” said Gillian Morris, press secretary for the Obama campaign in the state.
In polls by Marquette University Law School taken in May, June and July, Obama led Romney by 8, 6 and 8 points among likely voters. In 18 public surveys this year by Marquette, Public Policy Polling, Rasmussen, NBC/Marist, St. Norbert College and Edison Research (which conducted the June 5 exit poll), Obama has led in 16, been tied in one, and trailed Romney in just one, a mid-June Rasmussen poll.
But Republicans say Gov. Scott Walker’s performance in the recall election, the ground game the party constructed for the recall, the intensity of the GOP base in the state and Obama’s much softer support compared with 2008 make the state both attractive and winnable for them. The state GOP kept open its field offices after the recall to transition to the November races.
“It’s a very hyper-engaged political environment. You don’t have to do lot of early work you might have to elsewhere. The recall set the table. . I don’t think anyone who looks at Wisconsin with cold-eyed analysis has concluded anything other than it’s a true tossup,” said D.C.-based GOP strategist Brad Todd.
“Mitt Romney has the strongest ground game we’ve ever had in the history of Wisconsin in place and working for him, the same ground game that helped carry Governor Walker across the finish line in June,” said Sparks, the Romney spokesman, who noted that the Obama campaign not too long ago characterized the state as a tossup.
Dave Beightol, a Wisconsin native, former GOP White House aide and member of Romney’s national finance team, said the Romney camp is “definitely bullish” on Wisconsin.
Asked why he thinks Romney hasn’t advertised yet in Wisconsin, Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville said:
“Hiatus from the recall, the Senate primary taking up what little oxygen is left politically speaking. It’s Wisconsin in the summer, everybody is going to the lake, going water-skiing, you know, Brewer games. Wait until the dust settles on the (Aug. 14) Senate primary, then kick it in, is my understanding. As it’s been explained to me, since I’ve asked that question, it’s just, ‘Give the people a breather in Wisconsin.’ “
Ryan said he has “no doubt” the GOP will make an all-out effort in the state.
“We’ve been bullish before in Wisconsin and been disappointed, but this time, there are a lot of differences,” said Ryan.
A major pro-Romney PAC, Restore our Future, is reportedly planning an ad offensive in Wisconsin during the Olympics in early August. But neither presidential campaign is saying when they plan to buy TV time in state. (TV viewers in Wisconsin can currently see presidential ads that have been aired nationwide on cable, but the presidential campaigns haven’t been buying local broadcast and cable time in Wisconsin as they have in states such as Ohio and Virginia).
“It’s really been an unusual year in Wisconsin politics. Not only did you have a recall, but you now have a Republican Senate primary that has become fully engaged,” said Goldstein, the ad expert. “That said, at some point and some point soon, if Wisconsin is truly competitive (for president), we’re going to see advertising there.”