Wisconsin recall vote: Why didn't Obama campaign there?

Wisconsin holds its recall vote Tuesday without any campaign appearances by President Obama. He apparently didn't want to risk damaging his brand in a potentially losing effort for Democrats.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
President Obama, seen here returning to the White House in Washington Sunday, has elected not to campaign for the Democratic candidate in the Wisconsin recall.

On the eve of Tuesday’s Wisconsin recall vote, a major “what if” burns brightly: Should President Obama have gone to the Badger State to campaign?

After all, the outcome of the battle between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, will be seen as a harbinger of the result in November’s presidential race. So shouldn’t Mr. Obama have wanted to defend his turf in person?

Not necessarily. Here’s why:

• The Wisconsin recall is in fact not a true microcosm of the November election. It is a special election, driven by local factors and personalities. The spark was Governor Walker’s move to cut collective bargaining rights for most public workers, but it has morphed into a rematch of the 2010 gubernatorial race.

• The recall election has become highly polarized. Given Wisconsin’s status as a battleground state in presidential politics, Obama can ill afford to alienate the critical independent vote.

• Walker has led in the polls all along, albeit not by a wide margin. If Obama chose to campaign in Wisconsin in person, that would raise the stakes for him personally in a race that is already an uphill battle. Team Obama’s calculation appears to be that there’s less upside than downside to his jumping in.

• Obama has not been able to turn around losing efforts in past high-profile campaigns, and he doesn’t want to risk adding to that narrative. In 2009, he campaigned for both then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds, both of whom lost. His highest-profile flop may have been Massachusetts, where he campaigned for state Attorney General Martha Coakley only to see her lose to now-Sen. Scott Brown (R).

The counterargument is that Obama could come in and help energize the Democratic base – useful both for the recall election and for November. Certainly, the Republicans are thrilled that the recall has provided a rallying point to get organized for the presidential contest. If Walker wins, that will give Wisconsin Republicans a burst of energy and optimism that Mitt Romney can win their state’s electoral votes for the first time since President Reagan won Wisconsin in 1984.

Wisconsin isn’t a must-win for Mr. Romney, but if Obama starts to lose altitude there, it’s a sign that he’s in trouble broadly across the map of battleground states. He won Wisconsin in 2008 by 14 percentage points.

Some on-scene observers say Obama’s involvement would have been a no-lose prospect. Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who is based in Wisconsin’s capital, Madison, notes to The Washington Post that Obama and Walker are both campaigning on signs of improvement in the economy.

“In that context, sure he should have come, and yes he will be blamed. But it won’t matter all that much in the end,” Mr. Maslin told the Post. “Everybody is overplaying the national implications of this.”

In other words, the argument goes, Obama might as well have dipped into Wisconsin for an appearance or two. After all, he was in nearby Chicago and Minneapolis for fundraisers just last week. There are fully five months until the November election, and what happens in Wisconsin on June 5 won’t make or break the presidential race either way. And besides, a presidential visit would certainly have bucked up organized labor, a critical piece of Obama’s base and ground forces.

But the president has proved to be a cautious political player, in some respects, and made a calculation that he should sit this one out.

Top Obama strategist David Axelrod argues that the president is “well-represented” in Wisconsin. Speaking with reporters on Sunday, Mr. Axelrod noted that former President Clinton and Democratic chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz were in Wisconsin. And the Democrats have “an army of lawyers there ready to protect the vote on Tuesday,” he told reporters.

In addition, Obama’s team has opened at least a dozen offices around the state, according to news reports.

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