President Barack Obama's modest but consistent edge in Wisconsin has mostly
evaporated in the aftermath of Paul Ryan's selection for the GOP ticket,
making the state a virtual tossup, a raft of new polling suggests.
It's possible the Ryan home-state "bounce" will be temporary. But if it isn't and it endures into the fall, Wisconsin could present the Romney campaign with its best opportunity to play offense in this campaign and pick off a state that Democrats have long relied on to build an electoral majority.
"It's very close," said Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which has Obama leading Romney 49% to 47% in a survey released Thursday. "The question is, does the bump that Romney got in Wisconsin due to Paul Ryan have a lasting effect?"
There's much less evidence of a Ryan bounce in the national polling. But in Ryan's home state, the polls tell a different story. Four surveys by four pollsters, using different polling methods, have two things in common. They all show a somewhat tighter race since Ryan was picked, with a pro-Romney swing of anywhere from two to seven points. And they all show a contest well within the polling margin of error.
"We certainly satisfy any reasonable criteria for calling the state a tossup," said Charles Franklin, who conducts the Marquette Law School Poll, which had Obama up 49% to 46%.
A fifth post-Ryan poll done by CNN/ORC Aug. 13-14 has Obama leading 49% to 45% in Wisconsin, though CNN/ORC didn't poll before the Ryan pick, so it doesn't shed much light on Ryan's impact.
Wisconsin has always vacillated in presidential races between being a true battleground that closely mimics the national vote (as it was in 2000 and 2004) and being a blue-leaning swing state that gives an advantage to Democrats (as it was in 2008).
Until the Ryan pick, Wisconsin looked more like the latter, with Obama running several points ahead of his national numbers in this state and enjoying a consistent lead in the mid to high single digits.
But in the immediate aftermath of the Ryan pick -- and on the eve of the national conventions -- Wisconsin looks more like the former. It looks truly in play.
Of five polls done since the Ryan pick, the three traditional phone surveys that include cellphone users (Marquette and Quinnipiac and CNN/ORC) have Obama up by two to four points. The two automated polls that don't call cellphone users (Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen Reports) have Romney up by one, a difference that could be due to polling methods (cellphone-only users tend to be younger, and younger voters skew Democratic).
Romney image problems
The electoral implications of a full-fledged fight for Wisconsin are big. And they were underscored by the new Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS poll released Thursday. Quinnipiac polled simultaneously in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida. While Obama led by two points in Wisconsin, he led by five in Ohio and three in Florida.
The idea that Wisconsin could be as good or better for Romney than Ohio is an unexpected development, and makes the state hugely attractive to the GOP.
"We always saw Wisconsin as a circuit-breaker to control Ohio," Ryan told me in a 2010 interview, referring to the way Republicans viewed Wisconsin's strategic importance in presidential races. "If Ohio goes down, you better get Iowa and Wisconsin. That was the story in 2000 and 2004."
In fact, in 2004, it almost worked out that way, with Republicans nearly losing Ohio, but coming within a fraction of a percentage point of winning Wisconsin.
The news in the Wisconsin polling is hardly all good for Romney. In Marquette's surveys, his personal image has remained more negative than positive in 10 straight Wisconsin polls over the course of 2012, and hasn't improved much since April. In the Marquette poll released Thursday, 35% of likely voters viewed Romney favorably, but 45% viewed him unfavorably.
"He really has personal image problems in the state that he really needs to overcome," Franklin said.
But Romney's image is a little more positive in the other Wisconsin polls, and Obama's standing also is very mixed. In the Marquette poll, slightly more voters approve than disapprove of his performance. In the Quinnipiac and PPP surveys, it's the other way around.
In the Quinnipiac poll, Obama has an advantage with voters on health care, Medicare and foreign policy, but Romney has an edge on the economy and budget deficit.
Few ads so far
The one ingredient Wisconsin is missing right now -- and it's a big one -- is the full-throated engagement of the two campaigns. Neither the Obama nor the Romney campaign has been targeting Wisconsin in its battleground broadcast ad buys, which is the best indicator of which states are being truly contested. Obama has only been in the state once this year. The Republican Party and conservative groups have bought more than $1.5 million in TV time in recent weeks in the state, according to a GOP ad buyer.
But the candidates have bypassed the state while spending large sums in six or seven other battlegrounds, including Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Colorado.
As Franklin notes, Wisconsin's history for Republicans in presidential contests has been "like Lucy pulling the football way" from Charlie Brown: "It looks close but Democrats win every time."
But Franklin said:
"I think would we should be considered a battleground until proven otherwise. The 2010 result plus the recall results (both big GOP wins) make me think the state has become a little more competitive over the last few years."
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