Despite what you may have heard, the Badger State wasn't really in play before. Romney's running-mate choice has changed that.
Neither Republican Mitt Romney nor President Obama believed the hype. Polls consistently showed Obama out front. And while both campaigns lavished tens of millions of dollars on other battleground states, they didn't air a single television ad in Wisconsin.
That's about to change.
The presidential race was barreling into Waukesha on Sunday night for a "homecoming rally" headlined by Romney and his new running mate, Paul Ryan. With the seven-term Wisconsin congressman on the ticket, Republicans may get their race after all in a state that's voted Democratic in presidential races for two decades.
"We've gone from a blue state to a purple state overnight," said longtime Republican consultant Todd Robert Murphy. "No one knows for sure until the dust settles. But knowing Paul Ryan's personality and how Wisconsin voters tend to be parochial, Barack Obama should be gearing up for a race."
Ryan won reelection in his southeastern Wisconsin district with 68 percent of the vote in 2010 and with 64 percent in 2008. "If the Republican ticket performs in that district as well as Ryan did, that could be enough to tilt the state," said Democratic consultant Evan Zeppos.
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When Marquette University asked questions about Ryan in a July poll, the results suggested he could make a difference. The survey found that more voters have a favorable than an unfavorable view of the congressman; the opposite is true for Romney. The starkest contrast is among those crucial independent voters. Of Ryan, 40 percent have a favorable view, while 25 percent hold an unfavorable view. Views of Romney are 31 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable.
"That's the reason Ryan brings something valuable to the ticket," said Marquette University pollster Charles Franklin. "Both of them are polarizing among Democrats and liked by the Republican base. The difference is among independents."
But the July survey also showed 35 percent don't know the House Budget Committee chairman noted for his proposed overhaul of federal spending. "Political geeks need to be reminded that even famous congressmen are not really well known," Franklin said.
Obama led Romney by 8 points in Marquette's July poll and by 5 points in a more recent survey this month. A Quinnipiac University/New York Times poll in July found Obama with a 6-point edge in the state.
Drilling down into the Quinnipiac numbers explains why Obama is ahead in Wisconsin even though voters are evenly split over which candidate would do a better job overseeing the economy. Asked whether Obama cares about the needs and problems of "people like you,'' 57 percent said yes. Only 41 percent thought that was true of Romney.
That disconnect between the buttoned-down, well-heeled former corporate executive and ordinary Americans is where Ryan comes in. Ryan was born and raised in Janesville, a blue-collar community where he lives with his wife and three children. His father died when he was in high school, which "forced him to grow up earlier than any young man should," Romney said when he introduced him in Norfolk on Saturday.
"Ryan comes across as having those Midwestern, humble values, that Kennedy-esque Catholicism, and that really appeals to people," Murphy said.
Democrats, however, portray Ryan much differently: as the architect of a plan to "do away with Medicare as we know it." Future recipients would receive government vouchers to buy coverage from private insurance companies or traditional Medicare, but critics say the capped vouchers won't keep up with rising medical costs.
"Ryan is a higher-risk, higher-reward candidate than many people thought Romney would pick,'' said Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown. "He could help the ticket in Wisconsin and in other states, too, but only if they are able to convince people that the Medicare changes won't hurt them."