1. Why is Wisconsin significant in the presidential nominating process?
Wisconsin is a state with a reputation for breaking hearts. As John Nichols of the Madison Capital Times newspaper pointed out in a recent article, disappointing finishes in Wisconsin – one of the earliest states to adopt the primary to determine presidential preferences – have scuttled the White House hopes of more than one candidate over the years.
“No state has so regularly convinced contenders that they do not stand a chance as Wisconsin,” Nichols said.
Among those previous hopefuls are Wendell Willkie, the Republicans’ 1940 challenger to Democratic incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt, who quit his comeback bid in 1944 after an early loss in the state’s April 5 primary; and Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, the Republican Party’s “Mr. Conservative,” who finished first in Wisconsin’s 1952 primary, held April 1 that year, but with a disappointing 41 percent of the vote, paving the way for World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower to emerge as the front-runner for the GOP nomination.
More recently, the Feb. 17, 2004, Wisconsin Democratic primary brought an end to the competitive phase of the party’s nominating campaign, as both then-North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean staged unsuccessful last stands. Edwards ran a vigorous campaign and held Kerry to a 5 percentage-point margin, but needed a win to stay viable. Dean finished a distant third, concluding a topsy-turvy bid in which he sprinted to the top of the Democratic field on a wave of opposition to the Iraq War, only to see his campaign unravel with his loss in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus – and the famous televised “Dean scream” at a post-caucus rally.
2. Who will be heading to the polls on Tuesday?
A whole lot of cheeseheads, as some residents of the Dairy State self-mockingly call themselves. Wisconsin officials have increased their initial predictions for turnout in light of the massive upsurge in participation seen through Super Tuesday and beyond – especially with the nominating contest for the Democratic Party, which has drawn the much bigger crowds nationwide, still hanging in the balance.
Spokesman Kyle Richmond of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board said the panel, which oversees elections in the state, increased its projection for turnout to 35 percent of registered voters, up from an earlier estimate of 20 percent. About a quarter of the state’s registered voters participated in the 2004 primary, in which only the Democrats had a competitive contest because President Bush was opposed for renomination on the Republican side.
“There seems to be a lot of interest in Wisconsin now, and we really didn’t expect that two or three weeks ago,” Richmond said.
Since voters in Wisconsin do not register by party, Tuesday’s event will be an “open” primary, meaning that any registered voter can participate in either party’s primary. The state also has Election Day voter registration, which means a Wisconsin resident can decide at the last minute to participate, head to the polls Tuesday, register on the spot, and then vote in the primary. Some 414,000 people took advantage of this option in the general election in 2006 that included a race for governor, Richmond said.
3. Who holds the advantage in each party’s primary?
The leaders in pre-primary polls are Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is close to clinching the Republican Party’s nomination, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who is on a recent winning streak that has enabled him to take a slight edge over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in what is very much an undecided contest.
Wisconsin would seem natural turf for Obama and McCain because of the state’s open primary process, since both candidates tend to do well among independent voters. Clinton’s camp has sought to lower expectations for the outcome in Wisconsin (as well as in Tuesday’s Hawaii caucuses and a non-binding “beauty contest” primary in the state of Washington, where Obama dominated Democratic caucuses held Feb. 9), and instead has shifted its focus to the big Texas and Ohio primaries upcoming on March 4.
Despite the momentum and raw numbers in McCain’s favor nationwide, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – McCain’s last remaining major rival – has made Wisconsin a top focus with three days of events planned in the Badger State. He planned to campaign in Waukesha, Madison, Green Bay, Wausau and Eau Claire or La Crosse, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
“Even though Wisconsin is a 50-50 state [in general elections], the Republican voters are conservative, and Governor Huckabee has demonstrated he’s the most conservative Republican in the primary,” said Tim Michels, the candidate’s state campaign chairman, the Journal Sentinel reported. “We’re going to win Wisconsin.”
4. Who’s on the ballot?
Sixteen people are listed on the presidential primary ballot, including a dozen candidates who no longer actively are seeking their parties’ nominations.
The Democratic side includes Obama and Clinton, as well as Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee; Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich; and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.
The Republican slate includes McCain, Huckabee and the only other active candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, as well as campaign dropouts Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson; and Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado. Richmond, of the Wisconsin Accountability Board, said that none of the candidates who have dropped out of the presidential race took the steps to officially remove their names from the ballot by the early January deadline.