Two new polls of Wisconsin voters bear welcome news for Democrats, suggesting the Paul Ryan effect has worn off on the presidential race in his home state and that an earlier Republican edge in a critical U.S. Senate race has evaporated.
A Marquette University Law School survey of 601 likely Wisconsin voters showed Obama opening up a 54% to 40% lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, a survey of 1,485 likely Wisconsin voters by Quinnipiac University, the New York Times and CBS News gave Obama a more modest but still healthy six-point edge over Romney, 51% to 45%.
The gap measured by Marquette was the widest recorded in polls this year. Obama’s margin had narrowed to three percentage points in mid-August, shortly after Romney picked Ryan, a veteran Wisconsin congressman, as his vice presidential running mate. At around the same time, a Quinnipiac poll found Obama leading in the state by two points over Romney, within the poll’s margin of error.
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In the Senate race, the Marquette survey captured a striking swing to the benefit of Democrat Tammy Baldwin, another veteran Wisconsin House member. Her Republican opponent is Tommy Thompson, a popular former governor who was Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush.
In August, just after Thompson won a tough four-way Republican primary, a Marquette poll showed him the choice of 50% of Wisconsin voters versus 41% for Baldwin. The results are flipped in the new poll, with Baldwin holding a 50% to 41% edge. The CBS/New York Times/Quinnipiac poll, which had showed Thompson ahead 50% to 44% in August, has the race tied now, with both candidates at 47%.
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette survey, said one critical factor in Baldwin’s upward movement could be that over the last month her campaign and the outside groups that support her have been running aggressive TV ad campaigns. Thompson, over the same time frame, has been largely absent from the airwaves.
Franklin said independent voters were a big factor in the shift toward both Obama and Baldwin. The August numbers had Thompson leading Baldwin 47% to 37% among those who identified themselves as political independents. Now it’s Baldwin who holds a 50% to 38% edge with that group.
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Obama leads Romney among Wisconsin independents by 53% to 38% in the Marquette poll, whereas one month ago the two were essentially tied among independents.
Franklin also cautioned that the percentage of poll respondents who identified themselves as Democrats was somewhat higher in this poll than in previous surveys. That could indicate that party identification among some voters has shifted as people contemplate voting for Obama and Baldwin or it could mean that the poll sample randomly picked up more Democrats than normal. If the party balance were readjusted to the average for the year, Franklin said, Obama and Baldwin would still lead, though by smaller margins.
Obama easily won Wisconsin four years ago, but nonstop political turmoil coupled with the victory of Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a bitter statewide recall election in June had raised questions about whether the state was trending in a conservative direction. A tightening of polls in the presidential race coupled with the Ryan pick appeared to have moved the state into toss-up territory.
If the trends in the latest surveys hold up, that assessment may prove premature.
The Senate race, too, has broad national implications. Democrats currently hold the seat, but veteran Sen. Herb Kohl is retiring. A Wisconsin pickup is critical to Republican hopes of regaining control of the Senate.
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