Of all the states where Romney and Obama declined to air advertisements, none stood out more than Wisconsin. In 2000 and 2004, Kerry and Gore won by only the narrowest margins, and it’s a state where Obama depends on the support of a near majority of the white working class voters who have proven skeptical of his performance. But even though Obama has suffered big losses in Wisconsin since 2008, he appears to have retained just enough support to keep the state leaning toward Obama. But tomorrow night, Romney and Ryan head to Ryan’s home-state of Wisconsin for a rally that might be the beginning of an effort to jumpstart the Romney campaign’s effort in the Badger State. Could Ryan really move Wisconsin into the toss-up column?
The short answer is: Yes. While vice presidential candidates don’t usually swing states, historically, vice president's help the ticket by about two points in their home state. That can matter in a close election, as it did in Texas in 1960, but would 2 points be enough to flip Wisconsin? Not right now: The RealClearPolitics average shows Obama with a 5.4 point lead and 49.8 percent of the vote. Obama’s high tally—near fifty percent—was enough to make Obama a clear favorite, and it probably had something to do with both campaign’s decisions to forsake advertising in the state.
But remember that although Obama’s up by 5 or 6 points in the state, Obama was also up by about 3 points nationally over approximately the same time period as the RCP Wisconsin average. So if Romney makes a comeback and fights to a rough tie nationally (as he would need to for the electoral college to matter), he would probably only lose Wisconsin by a few points. But that’s where Paul Ryan can potentially make a difference. If a Vice Presidential candidate can make a 2 point difference, then suddenly Obama’s modest advantage in Wisconsin looks quite tenuous, since that would essentially move Wisconsin in line with the national average.
Although some might argue that Ryan doesn’t have the appeal necessary to give Romney 2 additional points in Wisconsin, it’s worth recalling that a recent PPP poll showed that Obama’s 6 point lead in Wisconsin fell to just 1 point if Romney decided to put Paul Ryan on the ticket. Moreover, Wisconsin is clearly willing to support controversial conservative reformist politicians like Scott Walker, so there’s no reason to presume that Ryan will be especially unpopular. And although Ryan’s statewide net-popularity rating is relatively low, that’s because a large number of undecided voters haven’t heard of him, which is hardly surprising for a congressional candidate. So there’s reason to wait and see how Ryan’s favorability numbers move in Wisconsin over the next few weeks, especially since Romney and Ryan will be campaigning in the conservative Milwaukee suburbs, where voters will probably learn to like Ryan a lot, even if they don’t know him yet.
On the other hand, Ryan is a relative unknown, even in Wisconsin, so it’s not as clear whether he could put the state in play to the same extent that he could if he were a statewide politician, since he hasn't necessarily forged a lasting connection with the state's voters. And since Obama’s near fifty percent in Wisconsin, the burden on Ryan to produce gains for Romney is larger than the margin makes it seem. Ryan needs to peel away voters who already support Obama, and while I could easily be convinced that Ryan could prove an asset to Romney in swaying undecided Wisconsin voters, it’s harder to imagine voters who approve of Obama’s performance choosing to move to Romney due to a vice presidential candidate. So while Ryan certainly could move Wisconsin into the toss-up category, it is far from assured.
Of course, none of this will matter if the Ryan budget devastates Romney's chances or provides a message that sweeps him to a Reagan-esque landslide. But in the event of a close national election, Romney’s electoral map starts to look more impressive with Wisconsin in the toss-up column. Obama is historically weak among white working class voters, but that hasn't translated into historic weakness in overwhelmingly white states that lean Democratic, like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, or Michigan. At the same time, Obama has translated his strengths into real electoral opportunities in the Mid-Atlantic and Southwest. So for the moment, Obama has the benefits of his “new coalition” without suffering the costs. That would change if Paul Ryan could move Wisconsin into the toss-up column. A win in Wisconsin, as well as neighboring Iowa, could even allow Romney to overcome losses in both Colorado and Virginia. Since I’ve always been pessimistic about Romney’s chances in Virginia, Wisconsin has always stood out as a missing piece in Romney’s electoral strategy. So whatever Paul Ryan's other costs and benefits, he comes from a useful state, and that might help put Romney on the offensive or compensate for losses in traditionally Republican states.