If Republican presidential candidates hope to appeal to the economic concerns of voters in Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday, they’ll have to address the pervasive feeling that the recovery is passing the state by.
By many indicators—output, income, employment, unemployment, education—Wisconsin finds itself in the middle of the pack both nationally and among its neighbor states. But perceptions and aspirations matter, and voters there see a nation stirring back to life as they stand relatively still.
“It just seems as though there’s growth occurring around us and that Wisconsin isn’t really participating,” Steven Deller, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said.
When asked in late March, 34 percent of Wisconsin voters said both the state and the nation gained jobs over the last year, according to a Marquette Law School poll of 707 registered voters. But when asked to make the same assessment within their own communities, only 22 percent said they saw more jobs. The telephone poll, conducted March 22-25, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
“I think it is clear in the data that people are more pessimistic about the state and a bit more optimistic about the country,” said Charles Franklin, who leads the Marquette polling team.
Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, tried to tap into that economic disappointment last weekend, telling a Wisconsin crowd that President Obama “did not cure the recession,” and promising that his own policies would encourage small businesses and help lift Americans out of poverty, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The former Massachusetts governor is in good standing for Tuesday’s primary, in which he expects a victory. He leads in the polls and enjoys endorsements from three prominent Wisconsin Republicans: Rep. Paul Ryan, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, and Sen. Ron Johnson. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, has focused exclusively on campaigning in the state, whose blue-collar voters may give him a shot at victory.
Still, the GOP candidates have spent relatively little time in Wisconsin, where voters have been preoccupied with Gov. Scott Walker’s upcoming recall election.
“I have not seen a single Republican presidential lawn sign,” Deller said.
And, in the local elections, jobs play a central role: Walker took office promising 250,000 new jobs by 2015.
Most of the state’s job losses came from two sectors: manufacturing and trade, and transportation and utilities, with the former accounting for more than twice the losses, according to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue’s latest Wisconsin Economic Outlook. Manufacturing also added the most jobs in the recovery, regaining roughly a third of the jobs lost. Still, that growth is expected to moderate over the next two years.
Unemployment has fallen relatively steadily since reaching a peak between 2008 and 2009, hitting 6.9 percent in February, well below the national average of 8.3 percent. But that good news has some economists confused. At first, the declining unemployment could be explained by job gains and a decline in labor-force participation (i.e. fewer people looking for work). But, since August, the decline has continued without an easy explanation, Deller said. The state is expected to return to its peak 2008 level of jobs by 2015, according to the outlook.