Political yard signs and bumper stickers are plentiful in Wisconsin these days. They just don’t carry the names Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum.
Wisconsin Republicans are more focused on protecting their governor, Scott Walker, from recall than on the April 3 presidential primary in their state. Romney and Santorum have to convince party activists to focus some attention on them rather than solely on trying to protect Walker’s job in the recall election tentatively set for June 5, a vote triggered by anger over anti-union legislation the governor signed last year.
“The attention of most of the voters is on the state recall,” said Don Taylor, the Republican chairman in Waukesha County, a suburban area west of Milwaukee that’s a party stronghold. “There isn’t a lot of attention right now on the presidential primary.”
Voters are suffering from “complete political fatigue” from the drama that has played out around Walker, Taylor said. “We’re all sick and tired of it, but we know how important it is.”
A poll released today by the Milwaukee-based Marquette University Law School shows Romney leading Santorum among likely Republican primary voters, 39 percent to 31 percent. U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas had 11 percent and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich 5 percent.
To win on April 3, Romney needs to cut into Santorum’s support among working-class and rural voters, whose proportions are greater in Wisconsin, according to exit polls, than in Illinois, where the former Massachusetts governor scored a 12-percentage-point victory March 20. Restore Our Future, a political action committee supporting Romney, has already poured more than $800,000 into television advertising in the state.
A win for Santorum is critical to keep his underdog campaign credible ahead of a three-week break before the next round of primaries that includes New York and Pennsylvania.
Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican who hasn’t endorsed in the presidential race, told reporters last week that “if Senator Santorum can’t do well in Wisconsin, it’s over.”
The latest figures in the Marquette poll are a reversal from those in a similar survey in mid-February. In that poll, Santorum led Romney in Wisconsin by 16 percentage points. The new poll was conducted March 22-25 and has an error margin of plus-or-minus 5.4 points.
The Wisconsin contest will play out in a state with a tradition of unpredictable political crosscurrents.
Wisconsin elected Republican Joseph McCarthy to the Senate, where his anti-communist campaign in the 1950s ended the careers of some Americans accused of having links to the party. President Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 14 percentage points in 2008; two years later Republicans won the governor’s office and both chambers of the state legislature, and defeated Democratic incumbent Senator Russ Feingold.
Tea Party activists were an important constituency behind Republican Ron Johnson’s Senate win and the movement, which promotes a smaller role for the federal government, remains a force.
Three of the biggest names in Republican politics today call Wisconsin home: Walker, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, whose proposed overhaul of Medicaid and Medicare has become a Democratic rallying cry.
In the recall fight, Romney, 65, and Santorum, 53, are aligning with Walker. Yet getting too close to the governor, who hasn’t endorsed any of the presidential candidates, could be damaging for the eventual Republican nominee in November. A quarter of the state’s voters in 2008 were part of a union household.
The campaign for Wisconsin will play out amid an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent, below the national average of 8.3 percent.
At stake are 42 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination. The statewide winner will get 18 delegates and the rest will also be awarded winner-take-all based on the outcome in each of eight congressional districts.
Santorum will be seeking to break Romney’s Midwestern victory streak in a state where the demographic mix of voters is more favorable to him than it was in neighboring Illinois. Wisconsin is more like Michigan and Ohio, where Santorum held Romney to wins of 3 percentage points and 1 percentage point, than it is to Illinois.
Santorum campaigned in the state on March 24 in a quest to win over voters like Bruce Cook, a retired lift truck mechanic who lives in Racine County and has a pro-Walker bumper sticker on his motorcycle.
“It’s a toss-up for me between Santorum and Romney,” Cook, 63, said late last week while eating an omelet at the Castlewood Restaurant in Sturtevant, Wisconsin. “I like Santorum’s Christian values and upbringing, but he sometimes has a problem of engaging his mouth before his brain.”
Racine County is a fading industrial area squeezed between the suburbs of Milwaukee and the sprawl that creeps north from the Chicago metropolitan area. It’s filled with the kind of working-class voters, those without college degrees or those who earn between $25,000 and $100,000, Santorum won in earlier state contests.
In 2008, 61 percent of Republican primary voters in Wisconsin didn’t have a college degree, according to exit polls. That’s higher than the 55 percent who cast Republican ballots in Ohio’s March 6 primary, and the 51 percent of voters with no college degree in Illinois.
The size of Wisconsin’s working-class vote could be an advantage to Santorum, who beat Romney 39 percent to 34 percent among Ohio Republicans without a college degree.
Santorum’s biggest base of support has been evangelical Christians, a group that represented 38 percent of the 2008 primary vote in Wisconsin, compared with 47 percent in Ohio earlier this month. Rural voters made up 41 percent of voters in the primary four years ago, compared with just 11 percent on March 20 in Illinois.
Romney Courts Wealthy
For Romney, more affluent suburban areas will be critical, as they were for him in Illinois, Ohio and Michigan this year.
Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney PAC, had spent an estimated $832,200 through yesterday to air ads 1,884 times on broadcast stations in the Milwaukee area and elsewhere, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. All have been anti-Santorum.
Romney’s campaign has chimed in with 457 broadcast television ads, at an estimated cost of $146,150, according to CMAG. The majority of the spots have attacked Santorum.
A pro-Santorum PAC -- the Red, White and Blue Fund -- began airing ads in the state today, CMAG reported. No cost estimates are yet available.
Waukesha County, the third-most populous in the state and the county with the highest median household income, is such an important area that Romney’s campaign was shopping for office space there last week in the same strip mall that houses the local party’s offices.
The county provided 12 percent of the statewide Republican vote in the 2010 general election and that proportion tends to be even higher in primary elections.
At Waukesha County Republican headquarters late last week, volunteers were busy working the phones in support of Walker. Among them was Chris Maurer, 62, who said the recall has mobilized Republican voters.
“The Democrats have energized people,” he said, referring to the petition drive they organized to force Walker into a recall election. “They unleashed a torrent of people who never got involved other than to vote.”