Romney: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin Are Looking Within Reach

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Published on: June 13, 2012

Original Article - Romney: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin Are Looking Within Reach

For much of the presidential campaign, President Obama’s top strategists have outlined their numerous paths to 270 electoral votes: win Florida, sweep the Southwest, or pick off a Southern state or two. But they didn’t prepare for the possibility that working-class white voters in the Rust Belt could abandon the president en masse, throwing his well-laid plans into disarray.

With the economy struggling to pick up steam, three must-win “blue-wall” states are looking increasingly winnable for the Romney campaign: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Both election results (from the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall) and reputable polling show that all three states are shaping up to be highly competitive, and that both campaigns will be devoting significant resources there.

Three new polls underscore why Team Obama has reason to be concerned about their standing in the Rust Belt. An EPIC/MRA poll of Michigan registered voters released last week shows Romney leading Obama, 46 to 45 percent, with only 41 percent viewing the president favorably. In Pennsylvania, a newly-released Quinnipiac poll shows Obama with a 46 percent job-approval rating—in the danger zone for a sitting president—and leading Romney 46 percent to 40 percent. And in Wisconsin, exit polls conducted for the gubernatorial race showed Obama with a 51 percent to 45 percent lead, too close for comfort in a must-win blue-wall state.

Let’s take them one at a time. Michigan at first glance seems like one of the unlikelier battlegrounds, given that it’s ground zero for the American auto industry, which Obama helped rescue with his auto bailout. Republican strategists concede that Obama holds a political advantage on the bailout itself, but believe that on the broader view of government spending and intervening in the private economy, they hold an equally sizable advantage—and can message it to a draw.

Even with the auto industry on the mend, blue-collar voters are facing the growing reality of reduced wages and benefits—working longer hours for less money. There aren’t many states where that’s more salient than in Michigan. Macomb County was home base for Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg’s seminal 1985 analysis of Reagan Democrats, which concluded that they were leaving the Democratic fold over cultural issues. Democrats have made significant inroads since then—Obama won the county 53 to 45 percent in 2008—but the sentiments of working-class whites are changing due to the weak economy.

“They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle—and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand,” wrote Democratic strategists Greenberg and James Carville this week, assessing the results of their focus group among working-class voters in Columbus, Ohio.  “They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way—not just focusing on finishing up the work of the recovery.”

(RELATED: Obama Voters Disillusioned in Swing State)

Those sentiments translate to Pennsylvania, a blue-collar state where Obama underperformed in 2008 relative to his national gains. The crosstabs of the Quinnipiac poll showed that the economy is taking a toll on the president: 49 percent of Pennsylvania voters believed Romney would do a better job on the economy, compared to 41 percent who sided with Obama.  Among independents, Romney holds a 17-point lead over Obama in economic stewardship. This in a state where Romney’s favorable ratings are underwater (35 percent favorable/42 percent unfavorable).

“I think it is definitely in play,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said at a Bloomberg News roundtable last week. “I said from the beginning, Mitt Romney is the only candidate who had a chance to do well enough in the Philadelphia suburbs to carry the state.”

And in Wisconsin, Obama is holding a lead but there are several telltale signs that suggest the presidential race will be close come November. In the recall election, non-college-educated whites flocked to Gov. Scott Walker’s camp in droves, giving him 61 percent of the gubernatorial vote—an improvement on his 2010 performance. Meanwhile, the turnout for Walker in the Republican-heavy Milwaukee suburbs was astronomical; he won more than 70 percent of the vote in Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee counties.

The combination of white-hot Republican enthusiasm combined with Democratic struggles to win over the working class ensures that Wisconsin will be a battleground. In the wake of the recall, Romney’s campaign is moving resources into the state, and Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina publicly ranked it as a toss-up for November in a video to supporters. Romney is expected to perform as strongly as Walker with the Republican suburbanites; his big challenge is to maintain Walker’s sizable edge with the working-class voters as well.

It’s no coincidence that Mitt Romney’s “Every Town Counts” bus tour, which kicks off on Friday, is focused on winning over working-class whites, hitting the blue-wall battlegrounds along with three other blue-collar bastions: Ohio, Iowa, and New Hampshire. Romney, despite his privileged pedigree, knows that winning over the working-class voters dissatisfied with Obama’s record on the economy is a prerequisite for winning the election.

Given the attention paid to the Hispanic boomlet making the Southwest friendlier turf for Democrats, it’s easy to forget that the Rust Belt battlegrounds are heading in the opposite direction. The Rust Belt states are also the bigger electoral prize: There are 20 electoral votes combined in the states of Nevada (6), Colorado (9), and New Mexico (5), but 46 electoral votes in Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10), and Pennsylvania (20).

Obama’s team expected that the historic Democratic tilt of those states would keep them in its column. But the slow-growing economy is putting them squarely in play, one of the biggest reasons why Obama’s reelection now looks in jeopardy.

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