DES MOINES, Iowa – No matter how long the nation’s unemployment rate hovered around 8 percent, the Northeast and the West Coast were never in doubt for Barack Obama. No matter how far it might have fallen before Election Day, Mitt Romney was always sure to win the South and rural Great Plains.
Nothing was so certain in the Midwest.
Iowa and the states along the shores of the Great Lakes from Minnesota to Ohio put Obama in the White House in 2008. Two years later, with voters in a foul mood as the Great Recession lingered, the GOP went five-for-five in races for the U.S. Senate, took over governor’s mansions in four states and state legislatures in five.
Yet on Tuesday, Obama beat Romney by again winning every state in the region save one. Wisconsin voters who elected a tea party Republican to the Senate in 2010 picked a liberal Democrat to join him, while voters in Minnesota pushed Republicans in the statehouse from power and gave Democrats complete control of state government for the first time in two decades.
That back-and-forth hardly makes for the so-called “Midwest Firewall” that Democrats can supposedly count on to deliver in every election. Instead, Tuesday’s results reaffirmed the future of the Midwest as a political battleground where voters willing to look past party will decide the outcome of elections.
“Voters in this state are independent,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a GOP hero who won election and fought off a recall between Obama’s comfortable wins in 2008 and 2012 in his state.
“They listen race by race to what the candidates have to offer,” Walker said. “And they’re not going to be swung one way or the other, but rather by what they think is important by that given race.”
So if you’re looking for clues about what will be important to voters in the Midwest in two years or four, folks on both sides of the aisle will tell you – perhaps not all that surprisingly – to start and stop with the economy.
“Maybe the auto bailout was part of the shift, and maybe Romney’s failures as a candidate,” said pollster Paul Maslin, an adviser to Democratic Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. “But the biggest determinant is the lack of economic security, causing a constant reassessment of the two political parties.”
Unlike the Northeast and South, where the political culture is deeply rooted in the region’s history and is apt to change at a glacial pace, feelings about party are less engrained in the Midwest. That’s a product of the high concentration of working-class white voters, whom polls show to be deeply focused on the economy and open to persuasion based on economic conditions.
That was evident Tuesday, when Romney’s opposition to the federal bailout of the auto industry – defined by an essay he wrote for The New York Times that the newspaper headlined, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” – echoed loudly in Ohio, where car making and the related parts supply chain are keys to the state’s manufacturing economy.
It kept Romney from ever seriously competing for Michigan, a state where his father served both as an auto company executive and for six years as governor. Obama pounced on Romney’s opposition to the bailout in Wisconsin and Iowa, two states less reliant on the auto industry but where manufacturing is a key part of the states’ economies.
According to exit polls, Obama did much better against Romney among working-class white voters in these states than he did nationally. Where Romney had a 26-point lead among these voters nationally, Obama was within 14 points in Ohio, 8 points in Wisconsin and eked out a 2-point advantage in Iowa.
That Obama benefited from economic arguments doesn’t sit well with Republicans who used high unemployment and rising deficits as an exceptionally effective political hammer in 2010, among them Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who replaced a Democratic governor as part of a class of pro-business, fiscal-hawk Republicans that included Walker, Rick Snyder in Michigan and John Kasich in Ohio.
“Obama got the credit for what we Republican governors have accomplished,” Branstad said. “We’re the ones who have made the tough decisions, and our states are coming back.”
So what happens when those Republican governors are up for re-election in two years?
There’s a clue in how Wisconsin voters treated Walker, who survived a bitter recall spurred by his efforts to strip collective bargaining rights from state workers as part of his plan to balance the state budget. He has focused tightly on job creation ever since, and the GOP kept control of the Wisconsin statehouse on Tuesday.
There’s another in the dance that Kasich performed when campaigning for Romney in Ohio, balancing criticism of Obama’s stewardship of the nation's economy while touting the stronger recovery taking place in his state.
“Just thinking about 2014, the economy’s going to be better. So is the outlook for the state,” said Matt Cox, a Republican strategist in Ohio. “Suddenly, it’s going to be tough for Democrats.”
There are also warnings in Tuesday’s results for candidates in the Midwest who stray from the economic argument – especially for Republicans.
In Iowa, voters also retained a state Supreme Court justice despite a campaign by gay-marriage opponents upset with his role in a 2009 decision that legalized it.
In Minnesota, Republican lawmakers misread the public by trying to ban gay marriage and impose new voter restrictions through ballot measures. Both failed as voters also returned Democrats to power in the statehouse.
“There are three groups that Republicans are failing with: young people, women and minorities,” said Charlie Weaver, a former chief of staff to ex-GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “Those two amendments managed to offend all three of those groups. If Republicans can’t figure out a way to appeal to those three groups, they’re going to become irrelevant.”