July 23, 2004

A View of Wisconsin - ouch

The Economist continues its series on swing states for this fall's presidential elections. This week, they visit Wisconsin.

An interesting place that John Kerry is desperate to cling on to, but where independents tend to prefer George Bush

IT IS a quiet-looking state, a land of rolling hills, family farms and a few medium-sized cities in the middle of the northern stretch of the country. But, when it comes to politics, Wisconsin is more dramatic than it looks.

Then there's this shot of reality (college grad retention and a generally ageing population):
Unfortunately for Mr Kerry, young liberals moving to Wisconsin are the exception rather than the rule in a fast ageing state. Without a smart urban centre of its own to attract young professionals, Wisconsin has seen an exodus of college graduates in the past two decades. It ranks 43rd among the 50 states in the share of college graduates in its workforce, says Terry Ludeman, a jobs expert. Meanwhile births are plummeting in its largely white population, down to about 65,000 a year from 93,000 at the height of the baby boom. As Wisconsin gets greyer, it is probably getting a little more conservative.
Fitting commentary, given my post yesterday on our state politicians poor priority choices.....

Swing states: Wisconsin

It's still the economy

Jul 22nd 2004 | MADISON
From The Economist print edition


An interesting place that John Kerry is desperate to cling on to, but where independents tend to prefer George Bush

IT IS a quiet-looking state, a land of rolling hills, family farms and a few medium-sized cities in the middle of the northern stretch of the country. But, when it comes to politics, Wisconsin is more dramatic than it looks.

A century ago it held the nation's first mandatory presidential primary, in an attempt to curb the power of party bosses who had controlled political king-making until then. Its Progressive movement, led by Teddy Roosevelt's rival Robert LaFollette, stood up for the little guy and continues to influence American politics as far away as California. It has sent more than its share of mavericks and firebrands to the Senate, from Joe McCarthy to Russ Feingold, the only senator who opposed the Patriot Act after September 11th 2001.

This year, Wisconsin looks like having one of the most closely fought battles in the presidential campaign. Al Gore won here by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2000. The latest polls show George Bush and John Kerry in a virtual dead-heat.

At first glance, the wind appears to be blowing the Democrats' way. Wisconsin has not backed a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan won in 1984. The current governor, Jim Doyle, is a Democrat (albeit the first one since 1986). So are both of Wisconsin's senators. Mr Feingold, who opposed the Iraq war and sponsored campaign-finance reform, probably faces another close race for re-election, but most people think he will win.

Some things, though, favour the Republicans. They control both houses of the state legislature. And they may be doing better with independents, who account for one in three voters. A recent survey from the University of Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey Institute shows that nearly half of Wisconsin's independents prefer Mr Bush to Mr Kerry, with fewer than a third leaning the other way; Mr Kerry failed to get much of a bounce here despite picking John Edwards, a supposed favourite of independents, as his vice-presidential running-mate. But it is not quite that simple: once you throw in third-party candidates, including Ralph Nader (see article), they tend to lure more independents away from Mr Bush.

Geographically, the Republicans have most of the countryside; but that tends to be balanced by the Democrats' hold on the two main cities, Milwaukee and Madison, and a cluster of progressive towns on the Minnesota border. The swingiest part is the relatively prosperous but also relatively urban third congressional district, which encompasses La Crosse and Eau Claire in the Mississippi valley.

What are the voters likely to be thinking about most on election day? “People in the middle of the country aren't so security-conscious,” says Jeff Mayers, an analyst with WisPolitics, noting that worries about terrorism and Iraq are not the main issues in this election year. “They don't view themselves as primary targets. So it's about the economy.”

Yet the economic picture is extremely uneven. “John Edwards talks about the two Americas. We would talk about the two Wisconsins,” says Mordecai Lee, a politics professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. And one of them is doing a lot better than the other.

The struggling half is rooted in manufacturing. Although the state is called “America's dairyland”, farms matter less than factories. The manufacturing sector accounts for a bigger percentage of jobs here than in any other state except Indiana. Car parts, machine tools and Harley-Davidson motorcycles are only a few of its products. A north-south slice of eastern Wisconsin, running roughly from Green Bay to Kenosha, has been hit hard by the manufacturing downturn. Milwaukee-Racine, the state's largest metropolitan area, has done especially badly. Although things have been a bit better lately, thanks in part to Mr Doyle's business-friendly policies, the state is still suffering from a net loss of manufacturing jobs—not good news for Mr Bush.

But, as Mr Lee points out, there is also a second Wisconsin which has a much more varied economy—and is faring better. In that crucial third district, both La Crosse and Eau Claire have held up pretty well. So, for instance, is the far north, though this is a thinly populated area where hunters and fishermen predominate, and wealthy people from Illinois and Minnesota own second homes.

The Democrats also have some strongholds in New Wisconsin. Madison, with its high-tech jobs as well as those in government, the service sector and university teaching, is a particularly healthy island. Then there are the fast-growing Wisconsin suburbs which feed Democratic cities outside the state, such as Chicago in Illinois and Minneapolis-St Paul in Minnesota.

Unfortunately for Mr Kerry, young liberals moving to Wisconsin are the exception rather than the rule in a fast ageing state. Without a smart urban centre of its own to attract young professionals, Wisconsin has seen an exodus of college graduates in the past two decades. It ranks 43rd among the 50 states in the share of college graduates in its workforce, says Terry Ludeman, a jobs expert. Meanwhile births are plummeting in its largely white population, down to about 65,000 a year from 93,000 at the height of the baby boom. As Wisconsin gets greyer, it is probably getting a little more conservative.

Out of the mid-western states that Mr Gore won last time, Wisconsin looks the most promising for Mr Bush. Most of the local money is certainly still on Mr Kerry; but few people would bet their homes—or even their cows—on him.

Posted by James Zellmer at July 23, 2004 7:25 AM | Subscribe to this site via RSS:
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