DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — 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 Mitt 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.
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