The Wisconsin Stakes: Clinton's Opportunity, Obama's Peril

Here’s what’s at stake for the Democrats in Wisconsin:

Hillary Clinton

This is the last chance Clinton will have to avoid heading into March 4 on a 10-contest losing streak. Certainly, she is vastly better-positioned here than in any of the states she’s lost since Super Tuesday. Most polls show her trailing Barack Obama, but only by a few points—a sign that the base that has fortified her for most of this campaign (working-class voters) has not jumped ship in large numbers.

Victory is within reach for her if working-class turnout (especially among women) is high enough to off-set Obama’s strength among the progressive-reformer-types who also loom large in Wisconsin Democratic politics. If there’s any last-minute fallout from her campaign plagiarism charges against Obama—and if that fallout hurts Obama more than Clinton—then she might also be able to overcome his advantages.

Working in Clinton’s favor is the element of surprise: Given the grief her campaign has taken since Super Tuesday, expectations are low and a Wisconsin win would be greeted as a tectonic event.

For the Clintons, victory in Wisconsin means heading into Texas and Ohio on a high, with the press asking questions about whether Democrats are about to leave Obama at the altar. A loss means two more weeks of media stories about losing streaks, superdelegate defections and her exit scenarios if March 4 doesn’t go well.

Barack Obama

A win in Wisconsin is vital to preserve the carry-over benefits of his post-Super Tuesday successes, which have vaulted him into the lead in national polls and into contention in Texas. A loss creates the possibility that the next two weeks will be as rough for him as the past two were for Clinton.

Certainly, the expectations game hasn’t been set up so unfavorably for Obama since before New Hampshire, where the only question in the media’s mind was how lopsided his triumph would be. Since Super Tuesday, Obama has been penciled in as Wisconsin’s presumptive winner, thanks to the state’s tendency to back reformers and insurgents. But while he surged into the lead in the state in the past two weeks, his poll growth seems to have flattened out. In other words, defeat here is very possible for Obama—and the media is only starting to realize it. Losing a state you’re expected to win is much worse than losing where you never had a prayer.

Obama has clearly profited from his heady string of victories in at least one of the March 4 states—Texas, where he has pulled even in some polls. But the game changes—radically—if he loses Wisconsin. Clinton will claim an upset victory, momentum will shift in her favor, the press might wonder if plagiarism charges had anything to do with it, and Obama’s apparent Texas surge might fizzle. And just like that, Clinton would be in position to start a winning streak—in big states—of her own.

The Obama campaign will be relieved if they walk away from Wisconsin with any kind of win.

The Wisconsin Stakes: Clinton's Opportunity, Obama's Peril