Swinging the blues in the Midwest US

Traditionally Republican territory, the Midwest of the US has seen a recent push from red towards blue. Madison, WI is one of the cities changing the electoral landscape

Traditionally Republican territory, the Midwest of the US has seen a recent push from red towards blue. Madison, WI is one of the cities changing the electoral landscape

Home of the Green Bay Packers football team and best known as the dairy state, Wisconsin is a typical flat-lying, flag-flying Midwestern state. Wisconsinites say “aboot” for “about,” add cheese to almost every meal and have without doubt always seen the last Packers game. However unlike most Midwestern states, whose identities are characterized by traditional Republican values, Wisconsin, like some of its fellow breakaway Western Great Lakes states, has voted Democrat in the last five Presidential elections.

The media twister that has followed Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin since her surprise nomination has electrified an already buzzing presidential election. American TV cannot get enough of the moose-shooting, lipstick-wearing Alaskan governor and Saturday Night Live can’t write skits fast enough. While New York and California laugh off the media hype, chants of “Sarah, Sarah, Sarah!” emanate from the Republican Midwest. Strong on religion, against high taxes and traditional in values, Republicans have long been favoured in the low-lying heart of America. The Midwest prairie states of Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota have voted red in all but one election since 1948. Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are toss-ups traditionally favouring Republicans but throwing out more blue results in recent years. These four states loosely define the ‘Rust Belt’, so-called because of the dominance of the steel industry and heavy manufacturing in the area.

The traditionally red North Central states of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin are becoming more and more blue as they cling to minimal differences in poll results, often decided by a decimal place. Minnesota, a Rust Belter losing its tinge, is a fiercely contested swing state that just scraped a victory for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 elections while scoring the highest turnout (77.2%) of any state.

With its huge urban centre of Chicago it is no surprise that their neighbouring North Central Midwest state of Illinois has held a strong Democrat majority in recent years.

In recent years Wisconsin has been a savage political battleground, with nail-bitingly close calls in the last two elections

In the Midwest, which was once a Republican gimme where, as recently as 1984, all but one of 12 states voted Republican, strong enclaves of Democrat blue are forming, helping narrowly to swing elections.

Landing in the leafy college town of Madison, Wisconsin, a Democrat stronghold in the heart of the Republican Midwest, it is difficult to see evidence of those red roots, which run deep in this state. In 1854, the first meeting took place in Ripon, Wisconsin of what was to become the Republican Party. The formation of the party was based on opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of that same year which aimed to allow the spread of slavery into the western territories. Subsequent meetings led to the party’s official formation and in 1860 the US saw its first Republican president when Abraham Lincoln was elected to the White House.

A giant statue of Honest Abe himself sits high on Bascom Hill in the heart of the University Of Wisconsin, Madison (UW). The Republican forefather seems blissfully unaware of the hue of Democrat blue surrounding this liberal Midwest town. What turned the capital of the state at the forefront of the foundation of the Republican Party rogue?

Straight down Bascom Hill is State Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, which leads to the Capitol building. Odd smells of Kali Ma, Jaya Durga and offbeat incense drift out of several State Street stores, all displaying the Obama sunrise logo.

Stepping inside, Quartz rocks from Orange River South Africa, DVDs of the Dali Lama and books entitled “Happy for No Reason” could make you think you’d fallen into the set of “That 70s Show”.

An old hippy in sandals, jeans and an oversized Obama ‘08 hat meets and greets. Obama badges, t-shirts, hats, posters, lawn flags and pens make way for the predictable John Lennon-fronted “give peace a chance” posters and the occasional satirical bumper sticker proclaiming “Cheney-Satan ‘08,” or “Republican’t Balance the Budget!”

All the way down State Street, shopfront after shopfront adorned with peace signs clarify the strong liberal mind-set of the city, displaying notices such as “Madison supports its Gay, Lesbian and Bi community”. This is the old hippy core of blue Madison. A UW student explains that many of these incense-burning, organic food shopping Dems were part of the liberal movement of the 1960s that stemmed from the Madison campus, often referred to as the “Berkeley of the Midwest”. In the 60s the UW, Madison campus became an important liberal enclave holding strong protests against conscription and the use of Napalm in the Vietnam War.

Orthodox wisdom has it that the bastions of Democratic support lie on the East and West coasts, in educated urban centres, blue-collar unionised cities and university towns — and this still rings true. The liberal past of this university town explains its obvious Obamania. In Madison, the liberal activities of the 1960s and the strength of its young student population continue to shape and influence the politics of the state capital. Claire Rydell, chair of the University of Wisconsin College Democrats, describes the Madison campus as crucial in her party’s fight to win the state. In recent years Wisconsin has been a savage political battleground, with nail-bitingly close calls in the last two elections. In 2000 Al Gore won Wisconsin by 0.2% of the vote, beating George Bush by a mere 5,700 votes. John Kerry edged in front of Bush again in 2004, this time by only 11,400 votes or 0.4% of the vote. By any standard the margins are tight in the “Cheese Head” state, whose population is a million higher than that of Ireland. When a few thousand votes separate the candidates, the 42,000 odd students of UW, Madison become a voting goldmine with an influential role in determining which way the state swings.

Each vote is being chased energetically and voter registration is the first step. Smiling, silver-haired Carl Silverman tells me that he is one of 500 volunteers on the streets of Madison getting people to register to vote. The streets teem with volunteers just like him, mainly retirees and students, making it difficult not to be registered in a state with some of the most liberal voting laws in the country.

Supporting Obama seems a given on the campus which melds flawlessly into the city. I’m only in town a day when I’m invited to several Obama events and given free pins and stickers. With the nearest Republican office five miles south of campus in Fitchburg, it’s almost as though the Republicans feel liberal Midwestern towns like Madison, with both its hordes of students and fair share of old hippies, are already sewn up.

Obama’s association with youth and his campaign for “change” certainly dominate the mood on campus. When Michelle Obama comes to town, Jackson Five and U2 blare out from speakers and “Barrack and Roll” pins are flaunted. Not surprisingly there is an element of Republican cynicism towards the rock star element of Obama’s campaign. Sara Mikolajczak, the UW College Republicans chairperson, told the university newspaper, The Badger Herald, that it was a “fad”, adding, “A lot of people are simply for Barack Obama because it’s cool right now”. A hand painted sign hangs from a flyover saying “Students with Brains 4 McCain”.

The few thousand votes separating blue from red may be difficult for McCain to secure in Madison or urban Milwaukee, but are plentiful in rural and suburban areas of the state. Like the rest of the country it is Wisconsin’s small town religious enclaves, big on guns and hostile towards abortion, which hold huge promise for the Vietnam War veteran. Acutely aware of the importance of this northern swing state, McCain made a visit to the city of Cedarburg near Milwaukee straight after the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.

With the failing American economy now centre stage as the kings of capitalism play with the free market, the election battle intensifies with voters looking for a Roosevelt-esque “New Deal”. Flat screens flash updates on the economic crisis while students do shots at Brats, a student bar on State Street. At night, ‘Yes we can!’ becomes a chant. Obama stickers shimmer in shop windows and coloured chalk on pavements smudges under stilettos in the birthplace of the Republican Party. It may well be that these touch-and-go Midwest states, where traditional Republicanism collides with growing Democrat enclaves, will decide America’s fate come November.