The Grain Exchange Room in Milwaukee's old Chamber of Commerce building is a dazzling display of Gilded Age opulence. Its ornate faux-marble columns soar three stories high, and an intricately carved balcony overlooks what is believed to have been the world's first commodities-exchange trading pit. This temple to business and success was a fitting location for Mitt Romney's victory speech after the Wisconsin primary a year ago, on the night he eclipsed his last remaining rival for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney used the occasion to lay out his vision of an "opportunity society led by free people and free enterprises." Barack Obama, he charged, didn't believe in opportunity: When the president went after the "1 percent," he wanted only to turn the United States into "one of those societies that attack success." Romney's supporters cheered.
In Chicago, the Obama team cheered, too.
Led by Obama's chief pollster, Joel Benenson, the campaign had spent 2011 examining Americans' views on economic security and the American Dream. They concluded that something fundamental had changed. It used to be political gospel that a candidate couldn't risk talking about inequality because such a stance was so easily caricatured as an attack on the rich and because even working-class Americans believed they had an opportunity to be rich someday. But as Benenson explained in a recent interview, "There has been a recalibration of the American mind-set when it comes to economic change."