The latest Marquette Law School poll confirms what seemed like a mirage back in May when it first showed incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke in a dead heat.
While the basic numbers are virtually the same -- the two candidates are tied at 46% among registered voters -- the news for Burke is better. That's because she saw her standing among independent voters improve despite Walker's attacks accusing her of outsourcing jobs when she was an executive at Trek Bicycle.
But it isn't August yet.
One hundred years ago, World War I started in late summer. This prompted the title for The Guns of August, a history of the first month of the war written by Barbara Tuchman.
A similar kind of eerie foreboding now casts its shadow over this hazy month when it comes to American politics. With money now virtually unlimited, the old strategy of saving ammunition for the weeks closest to the November election date seems quaint. And with the closing weeks of a campaign cluttered with ads, it seems smarter to strike early and hard.
A strong case can be made that John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election in August of that year when the other side launched its "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign. Those ads went right after Kerry's strongest asset: his status as a certified Vietnam War hero in contrast with George W. Bush's wartime string-pulling to stay in country (i.e. inside the United States).
The truth of the matter seems to be that Kerry did stretch the truth a bit, but the Swift Boat Veterans totally obliterated it. Kerry won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and a trio of Purple Heart medals. One of the latter awards has been criticized as being given for a minor shrapnel wound, but when a soldier earns several top military honors for bravery and when his own boat-mates said he saved their lives, it seems to me that a claim of exaggeration should be considered in context, not transformed into the one thing that defines him.
But by the end of the summer of 2004, Kerry had been falsely introduced to general election voters as someone who lied about his war record, not as the real hero that he was. By the time Kerry responded, it was too late. You only get one chance to create a first impression.
Tammy Baldwin did something similar to Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race in 2012. In August and September of that year, she targeted Thompson's greatest strength, which was the fact that people called him "Tommy," the perception that he was a regular Wisconsin guy. Instead, Baldwin and supportive independent campaign groups ran ad after ad claiming that he "wasn't for us anymore." Here it could be argued that there was more substance to the attack. As the former governor and Health & Human Services Secretary, Thompson had in fact profited handsomely as a D.C. insider. But PolitiFact Wisconsin rated the claim as only partially accurate.
In any event, Baldwin's campaign tactic worked. Coming off a bruising primary in which he had to spend all his money and move much further to the right than he wanted, Thompson didn't know what hit him and didn't have the resources to respond.
In Wisconsin's 2014 gubernatorial election, both candidates have room to maneuver in light of the new Marquette poll. For Walker, his opening is the finding that most voters still really don't know much about Mary Burke. Only half said they had formed an opinion of her. Walker could run ads defining her before she gets a chance to define herself.
In Burke's case, her opening is the jobs issue. Just over half of Wisconsinites continue to believe -- all evidence to the contrary -- that our state is matching the national recovery or doing better. That needle did not move at all since May. With her own campaign ads -- or via others from outside groups -- Burke and her supporters could educate people on that issue. Once everyone understood the simple fact that Wisconsin ranks dead last in job growth in the Midwest and has ranked consistently in the bottom third among the states during Walker's term in office, that might be enough to put Burke over the top.
After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, tensions throughout Europe escalated over the next month until the Great War finally broke out on July 28, one hundred years ago today. This century, in Wisconsin's latest political conflict, there have been early skirmishes in the form of ads so far, but it would be wise to expect an explosion soon, most likely delivered by outside interest groups.
While both potential Walker and Burke campaign approaches might be considered negative, they're not the same. What's open to Walker is a truly negative attack on Burke's character. What might be most effective for Burke, though, is simple focus on getting the public to understand the unvarnished facts about Wisconsin's job situation, the central issue in the campaign. We'll see soon as the ads of August really start to rumble.