Over the past year, Wisconsin voters have gone to the polls to declare a winner in significant, and historic, state elections. As the Republican presidential primary approaches, state voters will once again play a decisive role — this time on a national stage.
After three months since the Iowa caucuses, the GOP primary has essentially narrowed to a two-candidate race between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. On April 3, 42 important delegates from Wisconsin will be up for grabs in a winner-take-all election that could significantly alter the complexion of the Republican primaries moving forward.
Santorum received a bit of a momentum boost on Saturday, with a resounding win in the Louisania primaries, where he took 49 percent of the vote to Romney's 27 percent.
But even with that victory, Santorum still has less than half of the delegates as Romney does. According to RealClearPolitics.com, Romney 565 to Santorum’s 256. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are trailing with 141 and 66 delegates respectively.
”The math is very hard for Santorum, if he doesn't win this state."
With such a huge lead for Romney, Wisconsin has become an absolute must-win for Santorum to have any hope of winning the nomination, experts say.
The last stand?
Political experts in Wisconsin say Romney can basically wrap up the election with a win in the Badger State. Maryland and Washington, D.C., also will hold primaries on April 3. A total of 56 delegates are up for grabs between the two.
“The math is very hard for Santorum if he doesn’t win this state," said Charles Jacobs, an assistant political science professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere. "Not only is it more likely he will not have the needed delegates before (the GOP convention in) Tampa, if he doesn’t win in Wisconsin, he will have lost in three important swing states in the Midwest."
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Romney defeated Santorum in Michigan, Ohio and most recently Illinois on March 20. Romney posted an 11-point victory over Santorum in the “Land of Lincoln” with 47 percent of the vote, and added 42 more delegates to his total. A loss in Wisconsin would be another stain on Santorum’s resume in the Midwest.
“Because of his losses in the Midwest and potentially Wisconsin, he will look like damaged goods for those that contribute to his campaign, the media, and the public,” Jacobs said.
Ted Kanavas, Romney’s campaign co-chairman in Wisconsin, said a Santorum loss in Wisconsin could — and should — spell the end of his campaign.
“This election is a very significant election because people are getting close to saying that we need to just be done with the Republican primary and focus on Barack Obama,” Kanavas added. “Pretty soon he’s going to have to come to the realization that he’s not going to be the nominee. Does he gadfly and continue? Or will he concede and turn the focus of the party onto winning in November?”
It's only halftime
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom for Santorum. His campaign has been building momentum recently, and it could carry over to Wisconsin. Santorum picked up much-needed delegates with wins in Kansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. He also is entering the Wisconsin with a big win in Louisiana.
“Saying his back is against the wall is probably accurate. If he can’t win in Wisconsin it becomes prohibitively impossible for him to get the needed delegates,” said John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University.
Hogan Bibley, Santorum’s communications director, said voters need look no farther than this year’s Super Bowl for evidence that the competition isn’t over until the second half is played. New York rallied in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII and defeated New England.
“The media is so quick to put timelines on this campaign. Louisiana is halftime. We have a whole other second half of football to play. Many in the establishment are saying this race is over just because one team has more first downs than the other,” Bibley said.
“I think it’s a little arrogant for any one side to call the race before it’s over and not allow voters in the 25 other states to have their voices heard," he added.
Polls send mixed message
It possible that Santorum could open up the “second half” strongly in Wisconsin. According to two February polls from Marquette University and Public Policy Polling, Santorum had a 16-point lead over Romney in Wisconsin.
"The more you look at the delegate math, the more it looks to be daunting for Santorum."
However, a gave Romney a 13-point advantage.
The importance of Wisconsin hasn’t been lost on Romney – at least in terms of spending. According to Politico, Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future, has bought roughly $2.4 million worth of media airtime in Wisconsin outspending Santorum by a 55-to-1 margin. Santorum has purchased just $55,000 of ads in the state.
But for Bibely, Santorum’s message is worth more than gold in Wisconsin.
“It’s winner take all. It’s a big state. However, we’re confident in Rick’s message of manufacturing, lower taxes, protecting the family and repealing Obamacare will appeal well there,” Bibley said. “The presidential campaign comes down to the fundamental freedoms that this country was founded on.”
An uphill battle
Even if Santorum posts a victory in Wisconsin, experts agree that there’s still a large uphill battle for him moving to the next round of primaries on the East Coast. Santorum will enter a favorable primary April 24 in his home state of Pennsylvania, where he has a double-digit lead in the polls. He’ll have to post a few upset victories out east to keep hopes alive, however.
“Santorum would have to win in Wisconsin and somehow pull off an upset or two in the remaining primaries. The more you look at the delegate math, the more it looks to be daunting for Santorum,” McAdams said.
New York, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are also holding primaries April 24. A win in one of those states will be needed, but all four are likely Romney strongholds.
“If he can stay in the race through Pennsylvania and Delaware that might take him to the next primaries on May 8 in Indiana and North Carolina, which are state where evagelical voters could carry him,” Jacobs said.
Are the recalls impacting the primary?
According to reports from NPR and the Huffington Post, the Republican primary in Wisconsin might be taking a back seat to the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. There are currently 30 times more Republican activists working to support Walker in the state than there are supporting Romney, according to the Huffington Post report.
With all the political turmoil in Wisconsin, have voters become fatigued? McAdams doesn’t think so.
“All this political stimulus tends to engage people and get them interested. Also, it’s easier to vote if you’ve voted before,” McAdams said. “You know where your polling place is and you’ve registered. Participation does tend to beget participation.”
Dennis Dresang, a University of Wisconsin political science professor, said voters are likely tired of ads, robocalls and mailings. However, that doesn’t seem to dissuade them from going to the polls.
Bibely said the recall elections will likely work to the advantage of the candidates as they pass through Wisconsin.
"Wisconsin is unique too in the fact that they are highly engaged right now,” Bibely said.v“They have a political fight going on in the state, and it will bring awareness to the presidential campaign."