DES MOINES, iowa — No matter how long the nation's unemployment rate hovered around 8 percent, the Northeast and the West Coast were never in doubt for President Barack Obama. No matter how far it might have fallen before Election Day, GOP candidate Mitt Romney was sure to win the South and rural Great Plains.
Nothing was 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 5-for-5 in races for the U.S. Senate and took over governor's mansions in four states and state legislatures in five.
Yet on Tuesday, Obama beat 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 Republican 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 — 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 rooted in the region's history and is apt to change at a glacial pace, feelings about party are less ingrained in the Midwest. That's a product of the high concentration of working-class voters, whom polls show to be focused on the economy and open to persuasion based on economic conditions.
According to exit polls, Obama did much better against Romney among working-class white voters in these states than he did nationally. Where Romney had a 26-point lead among these voters nationally, Obama was within 14 points in Ohio and 8 points in Wisconsin and eked out a 2-point advantage in Iowa.