Barack Obama is clearly the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. He could, if things line up right, essentially eliminate his only remaining rival, Hillary Clinton, in exactly two weeks, when the voters of Ohio and Texas go to the polls. He maintains a strong lead in committed delegates, while Senator Clinton's hold on the party's Super Delegates becomes more tenuous by the minute.
Nevertheless, I am going to go out on a limb this morning: Wisconsin, which holds its primary election today, represents a must-win state for the Obama campaign.
How can that be? Surely, all the pressure is now on Clinton as she fights back from her late February slump and tries to salvage some measure of credibility before staring down a potential March 4 Waterloo. All Senator Obama has to do, according to the conventional wisdom, is win either Ohio, Texas, or (in April) Pennsylvania and his May-December battle with John McCain will officially be on.
I dispute none of this. Clinton's back is, at least for now, pressed firmly against the wall. Only a fool would take an even money bet on her emerging victorious from the Democrats' Denver convention. The nomination is, as they say, Obama's to lose.
All of that, however, changes nothing: Barack Obama must win Wisconsin.
For the most part, the Illinois senator's strengths have been in caucus states and in southern Democratic primaries or their border state equivalents (Maryland, Missouri). Aside from Illinois, which he represents in the Senate, Obama's only major non-southern/border state primary victory has come in Connecticut. Primary elections serve as a far better barometer of electoral prospects than do caucuses, and Obama has not fared especially well in Blue State or swing state primaries. This fact will eventually bubble to the surface as the media analyze the candidates and the Super Delegates arrive at their final decisions.
A victory in northern, Deep Blue Wisconsin would obviously go a long way toward answering these concerns. A defeat, on the other hand, would place the problem in very stark relief. That the Wednesday morning papers would be hailing Hillary Clinton as the new Comeback Kid would only represent the beginning of Obama's troubles.
Here's the problem: Wisconsin should, by all rights, be an Obama stronghold. The state has an open primary, meaning that independents, who have long favored the Illinois senator, can participate in the balloting. Further, given that the Republican race is all but over, Obama will no longer have to share the affections of unaffiliated voters with John McCain. They will, instead, almost certainly choose to participate in the competitive Democratic primary rather than a GOP contest which no longer matters.
In addition, the makeup of the state's Democratic electorate would also seem to advantage Senator Obama. Most Wisconsin Dems are located in the south central and southeast corners of the state and their dominant cities, Madison and Milwaukee. Madison, of course, is a famously liberal college town, the Berkeley of the Heartland. Obama may pile up the sort of majorities in Dane County that Clinton will be unable to offset elsewhere.
Milwaukee presents more of a mixed picture. On the one hand, over one-third of the city's residents are African American, which assures Obama a significant base of support. On the other hand, the city also plays host to a large group of aging, largely Catholic Democrats of the type that have, at least so far, backed Clinton.
On balance, though, the demographic factors in play (race, income, age, ethnicity) decisively favor the Obama campaign. Wisconsin Democrats have a long history of supporting liberal and insurgent candidacies, including JFK in 1960, Gene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, and Jimmy Carter in 1976. Barack Obama, then, clearly fits the mold of a Badger State champion.
But what if he loses? First, his frontrunner status would come into immediate question. The recent challenges raised by the Clinton campaign would be judged effective and would suddenly receive a much more respectful hearing in the press. Obama would thus find himself haunted once more by concerns over substance and preparedness.
Democratic professionals would also begin to see Obama's 2008 history in a far different light. Instead of being the electrifying newcomer with a message that crosses national divides, he might instead be viewed as a man without broad appeal, unable to win the states the Democrats most need to capture in November.
Finally, a Wisconsin victory would give Hillary Clinton huge momentum going into races in Texas and Ohio where she already holds a healthy lead in the polls. Couple a Badger State victory with a sweep on March 4 and the 2008 Democratic nomination race changes dramatically. A loss today could begin a tailspin from which Obama might never emerge.
Wisconsinites will begin voting shortly and it remains likely that they will provide Barack Obama with the victory he needs to complete his post-Super Tuesday February sweep. At that point, his frontrunner status will be undisputed and it will be Senator Clinton facing her own must-win battles a fortnight from now. But if Wisconsin surprises the country this evening, we may learn once again never, ever to eulogize a Clinton until the very last ballot is cast.