Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, which Obama had won in 2008 by 14 percentage points, were thrown into play after Romney selected seven-term U.S. Representative Paul Ryan of Janesville as his running mate. The win by Obama marked another political shift in this polarized state of 5.7 million people, where Republican Governor Scott Walker survived a recall vote in June.
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Obama’s projected win stalls the state’s Republican resurgence that began in 2010, when voters elected Walker and turned out Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, replacing him with Tea Party-backed Republican Ron Johnson. Walker used Republican legislative majorities to obtain curbs on public employee collective bargaining in 2011, triggering recall campaigns and more than 15 months of political turmoil.
In surviving the recall challenge earlier this year, Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, 53 percent to 46 percent.
Both Walker and his opponents had “highly effective” mobilization campaigns during the recall election, yielding prospects of higher turnout for both Romney and Obama in today’s balloting, said Tom Holbrook, chairman of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Turnout during the recall was higher in Republican counties, he said, yet that tracked historical patterns and suggested that mobilization efforts in lower-turnout Democratic strongholds can balance out any advantage.
The last time Wisconsin voted for a Republican in the race for the White House was 1984, when Ronald Reagan carried the state in his re-election against Democrat Walter Mondale, who won only his home state of Minnesota. The presidential victory drought has masked its historically competitive nature -- in the 2000 and 2004 contests, George W. Bush twice came within a half- percentage point of winning the state.
Romney won Wisconsin’s April presidential primary, defeating former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum 44 percent to 37 percent.
Wisconsin weathered the recession with jobless rates consistently lower than the national average. The September unemployment figure was 7.3 percent, below that month’s national measurement of 7.8 percent.
Economic unhappiness that helped fuel Republican victories in 2010 has dwindled somewhat, said Charles Franklin, a political scientist who runs the Marquette Law School Poll.
“Views of the economy have been heavily shaped by partisanship, but prospectively they are quite positive,” Franklin said, pointing to a Oct. 25-28 poll that had 52 percent saying they felt the economy will get better in the next year.
With few candidate visits, the state hadn’t been viewed by either campaign as a battleground state until Romney selected Ryan on Aug. 11. Public opinion polls showed the contest tightening in mid-August and in the final week of the race Obama stumped in Green Bay Nov. 1 while Romney held a rally in suburban Milwaukee a day later.
Ryan’s homegrown status and his role in the quest to win in the state were on display in the campaign’s closing days. Last week, the vice presidential nominee led get-out-the-vote events for the Romney ticket in Eau Claire, Green Bay and Racine before taking his family and a Secret Service detail trick-or-treating in Janesville.
Ryan has easily held onto power in his congressional district, a region of rolling farmland south of Milwaukee that stretches from Janesville eastward to the small cities of Racine and Kenosha on the shore of Lake Michigan. He’s been popular even amid a loss of manufacturing jobs, including 2,500 when a General Motors plant closed in his hometown four years ago.
Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, won his most recent election in 2010 with 68 percent of the vote and hasn’t dipped below 63 percent since his first election in 1998, when he garnered 57 percent.
Ryan’s House candidacy -- the $4.9 million he raised by Sept. 30 for his re-election -- offered dual benefits for the Republican ticket. As he traveled the U.S. as Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin voters viewed a stream of television ads for Ryan’s House race that blanketed 60 percent of the state. The ads in the $2 million effort didn’t mention Ryan’s Democratic opponent, Rob Zerban, and the House race until a disclosure statement at the end.
Meanwhile, both presidential campaigns spent heavily in the state as it looked more competitive. Romney’s campaign spent an estimated $3.3 million on 6,975 ads in Wisconsin from April 10 to Oct. 27, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks campaign advertising. In that period, Obama’s campaign spent $7 million on 14,580 ads in Wisconsin, CMAG says.
Obama returned to the state yesterday for a Madison rally featuring rock star Bruce Springsteen.
Even with Romney’s loss, Ryan will return to the House and assume the mantle of standard-bearer for his party, analysts said.