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Obama’s Wisconsin emphasis reflects national political strategy

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Arthur I. Cyr
January 31, 2011

President Barack Obama’s visit to Manitowoc the day after his State of the Union address is the latest in a series to this important swing state. He carried Wisconsin in 2008, but Republicans were the victors in 2010.


Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Janesville delivered the formal rebuttal to the State of the Union, underscoring his influence and prestige.


In Manitowoc, the president addressed workers at Orion Energy Systems, a manufacturer of energy-efficient lighting, and emphasized advanced technology as key for economic development.


Last July, Obama held a lively town hall meeting in Racine, an area with long-term economic problems predating the severe economic recession. He effectively underscored traditional Democratic Party imagery of champion of the poor.


Southeast Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan has earned a solid reputation for detailed economic analysis. In our electronic age, where pols reduce policy complexities to TV sound bites, Ryan is notably old-school serious in approach.


This region traditionally elects congressional representatives noted for specific policy interests. Long-term Democratic Congressman Les Aspin developed a very well-deserved reputation as an expert on defense.


Democrat Peter Barca succeeded Aspin for one term, and both before and since has been elected to the state Legislature. Throughout his career, Barca has demonstrated sustained commitment to detailed policies to alleviate the problems of disabled children.


Republican Mark Neumann, who served two terms in the House after defeating Barca, developed specific initiatives regarding budget and defense policies. In sum, the local area has a deserved reputation for electing serious policy advocates, a reputation that transcends partisanship.


At the strategic level, the Midwest politically is crucial to Obama’s re-election. Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser develop this theme in detail in the superb book “How Barack Obama Won.” He is from Illinois; the Iowa caucuses provided initial presidential campaign success; Missouri gave him an important victory on Super Tuesday; the Wisconsin primary maintained election momentum, and Indiana cemented his nomination.


Wisconsin remains a lynchpin for Democratic election strategists. The state went for Vice President Al Gore over Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 by 4,000 votes, for Sen. John Kerry over President Bush in 2004 by 12,000, but for Obama over Sen. John McCain by more than 400,000 votes. Obama won 56.2 percent of the state presidential vote.


Obama secured the White House without a southerner on the ticket, the only time since World War II that Democrats have won a presidential election without that region represented in either the top slot or by the vice presidential nominee, an indirect legacy of Richard Nixon’s long-term “Southern Strategy” to bring that region into the Republican fold.


With the Northeast and West Coast strongly Democratic, and the South and West strongly Republican, the Midwest will play a particularly important role in the 2012 election.


Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.

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