The Clinton campaign has made it pretty clear how it wants its candidate to be seen in Wisconsin. Underdog. It has suggested publicly and...
MILWAUKEE — The Clinton campaign has made it pretty clear how it wants its candidate to be seen in Wisconsin.
It has suggested publicly and privately that Barack Obama enjoys built-in advantages here — not just because he has the state’s second-term governor in his corner, but also because of the nature of Wisconsin’s open primary and the mix of voters who will turn out next Tuesday.
And there’s something to that.
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Combine a big campus vote with oodles of independents and a heaping of reform-minded, anti-war liberals, and this electorate sounds tailor-made for the youthful senator from the state next door.
But the recent history of the Wisconsin primary suggests a more level playing field than that.
Take a turnout that will be majority female, add an oversize union vote and large numbers of working-class whites, and the political turf begins to look a little friendlier to the former first lady.
Then consider the fact that the strongest predictors of success for Obama over the 30-plus contests so far have been: primaries with a huge African-American vote, and caucuses that generate low turnouts dominated by high-intensity supporters.
Neither remotely describes the contest in Wisconsin.
So where does that leave the point spread?
“The truth is I think this is a great battleground for the two of them. They each have some advantages here,” said Wisconsin pollster Paul Maslin, who worked on Bill Richardson’s White House bid until the New Mexico governor dropped out.
“I think there is the, quote, conventional wisdom that this is an Obama state. But I don’t think you can really give a leg up to anybody between the two of them,” said Mike Tate, who ran the Howard Dean campaign here four years ago and, like Maslin, hasn’t taken sides in this primary.
Demographics aside, two broad features have defined the Wisconsin primary over the decades.
One is a big independent vote, which would seem to help Obama.
The other is an unusually broad electorate, the product of routinely robust turnouts, which means that no single demographic feature or activist subgroup is likely to dictate the outcome.
“I am more interested in what happens when a large number of people get to vote,” Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week, citing her preference for high-turnout primaries over the low-turnout caucuses that Obama has dominated. “The primary gives people a much better idea of what would happen in a general election.”
By those standards, Clinton should love Wisconsin, which boasted the highest primary turnout in the country in 1988 (39 percent of the voting-age population) and the third-highest in 2004. The projection for this year is about 35 percent. That would put it behind only New Hampshire and Massachusetts of all of the states to vote this year. (Clinton won both of those big-turnout primaries.)
Turnouts that large have a moderating effect because they dilute the impact of the party’s activist and ideological wing.
Obama has claimed the insurgent mantle, and the profile of his support fits the historical insurgent-vs.-establishment pattern. David Plouffe, his campaign manager, said last week that one reason Wisconsin is good for Obama is it “has a history of supporting insurgent candidates, supporting candidates who were on the reform side of the equation.”
But when it comes to this state’s presidential primary, that history is a mixed one.
Insurgent winners include Gary Hart over Walter Mondale in 1984 and George McGovern over Hubert Humphrey in 1972. Insurgent losers include Jesse Jackson to Michael Dukakis in 1988, Jerry Brown to Bill Clinton in 1992 and Dean to John Kerry in his failed last stand here four years ago.
The ’88 primary might be worth recalling for another reason. Dukakis beat Jackson handily, 48 percent to 28 percent, in a field that included Al Gore and Paul Simon.
Although Obama has shown far greater appeal among white voters than Jackson did, questions still linger about the willingness of some white voters to support an African American for the highest office. In some Southern states this year, Obama’s support among whites has run below 30 percent. The fact that white voters in Wisconsin 20 years ago gave at least that much support to Jackson is arguably a good sign for Obama in this race.
With the primary six days away, the question of whether Obama or Clinton has the advantage going into the Wisconsin primary is already a very politicized one, because it influences how the outcome will be perceived.
“I think the Obama campaign has quite a few advantages. … We are under no illusions it’s going to be an easy campaign in Wisconsin,” Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said last week.
“The Clinton campaign is becoming quickly famous for downplaying expectations,” Steve Hildebrand, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said Friday, before engaging in his own expectation-setting. “Hillary Clinton is the front-runner in this campaign. She and her husband are better-known among Democratic primary voters in any state in this nation.”