Hey, did you hear the Republican presidential candidates are in Wisconsin this week? Wait…why are you yawning?
In any other quadrennial year, having presidential candidates descend on Wisconsin would be a big deal. In 2008, with the Democratic nomination still up for grabs, scores of national volunteers and media outlets descended on the Badger State to report on the fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
But this is 2012 in Wisconsin, and the presidential race merely serves as an appetizer to the real election happening in the state this year: the June election to recall Gov. Scott Walker. The Wall Street Journal has called the Walker recall election the second most important race in the nation in 2012, but in Wisconsin, it is drowning out every other race on the ballot. (It could easily be argued that the race for president in Wisconsin is behind the Walker recall, the state Senate recalls, and the race to replace Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl in importance.)
It doesn't help that each of the two remaining serious GOP candidates inspires voters about as much as a vacuum cleaner. Romney is eventually going to be the nominee, and Republican voters feel like they have to support him as a condition of their probation via court order. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney implemented a mandate for citizens to purchase health care that served as the model for President Obama's health care plan; yet it is "Obamacare" that will serve as one of the Republicans' prime arguments against the president. How can Romney plausibly argue against the health care purchasing mandate?
On the other hand, Romney has run as an energetic conservative, embracing both Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's agenda and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to reform entitlement programs - both of which galvanize the state's conservatives. But Romney and challenger Rick Santorum only remain because Republicans couldn't recruit a more favorable candidate. As Jon Stewart joked, the GOP nominee is going to be picked through the process of erosion.
If Santorum's campaign follows its current trajectory, it won't be around for long; and a loss in Wisconsin could hasten his exit. The former Pennsylvania senator is often wildly off message, talking at length about social issues, when voters want to hear about jobs, jobs and more jobs. Last week, Santorum angered Republicans by suggesting that a second Barack Obama term would be preferable to a Romney presidency - a sign that a candidate has been out in the sun on the campaign trail a bit too long. Imagine Barack Obama saying he'd rather see a third George W. Bush term than Hillary Clinton in office - it's unthinkable.
But even if the presidential candidates possessed high-voltage personalities, their race would still be relegated to the political minor leagues in Wisconsin. With never-ending recalls under way, Wisconsin has become the state of the perpetual election - national campaigns seem like interlopers in the tight culture that has been built here since February of 2011. "You think you guys are in the midst of a tough election? We'll show you a tough election."
In a weird way, the indifference to the presidential candidates in Wisconsin isn't all that dissimilar to the indifference to the Occupy Madison crowd camped out on East Washington Avenue. While Occupy camps sprung up all over America in the past few months, Madison met the movement with a collective shrug. Many Wisconsin protesters I talked to thought they had already been there, done that. They take credit for sparking the Occupy movement with the Capitol protests and regard the campers in other cities as amateurs.
In fact, as they begin campaigning in earnest, the presidential candidates will find Wisconsin to be a much different place than they have become accustomed to. In many respects, it is a state where politeness has been defenestrated in favor of aggressive activism. When Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, recently visited a Middleton-area diner, a Democratic Assembly candidate greeted her in a car with a stuffed dog strapped to the roof. (Romney once took his kids on a 12-hour car trip with the family dog in a carrier secured to the roof of the station wagon.) Another liberal activist tried to hand Ann Romney an Etch-a-Sketch, which has recently become the symbol of Romney's easily erasable views. (This one is confusing - wouldn't liberals prefer for Romney to wipe clean his conservative campaign rhetoric?)
If the current calendar holds up, Wisconsin is looking at the Republican presidential primary in April, recall primaries in May, general recall elections in June, U.S. Senate primaries in August, and congressional elections in November. Each one of these will see millions of dollars spent by the candidates and third parties, and each will fight to elbow the other elections off the main stage. And oh, by the way, Wisconsin is one of a handful of swing states that will pick the leader of the free world on Nov. 6.
Christian Schneider blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.