A statewide poll by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel released Wednesday showed 46 percent of likely voters supported Republican Bush, while 39 percent backed Democrat Gore. That outcome contrasted with a poll released a week earlier by the St. Norbert College Survey Center and Wisconsin Public Radio that showed the exact opposite results. In a mid-September MJS poll, Gore was head of Bush by a 5 percent margin.
The see-sawing surveys have drawn dozens of visits by the two candidates as well as the their running mates, spouses, children, and even their mothers to the Badger State. Former first lady Barbara Bush has visited twice.
And Jones says voters have been blanketed with TV ads. Milwaukee and Green Bay currently rank in the presidential candidates' top 15 media markets.
Many of the Democratic ads have stressed Social Security and Medicare in an effort to court the state's seniors, who reside in large numbers here than in other parts of the country.
In the latest MJS poll, 51 percent of people had a favorable opinion of Bush, up from 45 percent a month ago. For Gore, the vice president's favorable ratings fell from 48 percent in September to 43 percent last week, while his unfavorables increased by 7 percent. (Bush's stayed the same.) These results suggest that Gore is still having trouble convincing people to like him, though he was found to have a better grasp of the issues.
But Jones, a presidential scholar, discounts the appearance that voters may be influenced more by personality than substance this year.
"What some people call 'personality', I would call a reflection of the decision-making style (of the candidate.) All we get in these campaigns is a sampling of the issues. More important is to get some sense of what these guys will be like when they get into office. That's what voters do," he said.
Indeed, voters in the swing state of Wisconsin have a reputation for taking politics seriously and thinking independently. They have elected a Republican governor, a state legislature that is almost evenly divided among party lines and two Democratic U.S. senators.
And that independent thinking could play into the hand of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Political observers believe he will be a factor in the outcome on Tuesday, since approximately half of his supporters are likely to have voted for Gore. But Nader's level of support remains stalled in the recent polls at 5 percent, and thus his ability to tip this close election in Bush's favor remains to be seen.
"I still have a hunch that Gore may pull it out," says Jones. "But it was stronger before the MJS poll."
Nader is considered a greater threat in Minnesota, a state that is also drawing the heightened attention of both major parties these days.
A Mason-Dixon poll conducted last week showed Gore shrinking to 44 to 41 percent lead over Bush, with 8 percent of respondents for Nader. The statewide survey came on the heels of a mid-month poll by The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which upset most expectations about this traditionally Democratic state. That poll gave Bush a 44 to 41 percent lead over Gore.
Nader's numbers remained the same in the two polls, but have hit double digits in recent weeks. Still, William Flanigan, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, calls Nader's influence a "toss up".
"What's hard to know is to what extent those who say they will vote for Nader will vote for either major candidate or stay home," he said.
Though some have suggested that Jesse Ventura's independent, upset win for governor questions the state's commitment to Democratic candidates, Flanigan doesn't see any transfer of popularity from Ventura to the Green Party candidate, whom the governor says he will not endorse. (Ventura has declared he "would never voe for a Republican or a Democrat" either, and has suggested he may back Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin.)
"Nader would be in a much stronger position if Ventura was encouraging people to vote for him," said Flanigan.
But that hasn't stopped the Democrats from parading a string of liberals through the Gopher State to campaign on Gore's behalf. Paul Wellstone - Minnesota's Democratic U.S. senator - along with Jesse Jackson and advocates for the environment, abortion rights and gay rights are touring the state, pleading with Nader supporters to reassess the differences between Gore and Bush.
While stressing that turnout will be a key here as in other battleground states, Flanigan predicts that in the end Minnesota will maintain its Democratic reputation in presidential races.
"I think probably the Nader impact has been greater than people anticipated, but given the uncertainty of the polls it ought to be seen as marginally safe for Gore," said Flanigan.
Yet even if the vice president does win both Minnesota and Wisconsin, the closely contested races here and in other presumed Democratic states will have siphoned much valuable time and resources from the Gore campaign.
And the damage could be worse still. Experts such as Charles Jones of the University of Wisconsin suggest Gore might suffer losses among independent voters all over the country, who typically make their last-minute decisions based on the perception of which candidate appears likely to win.
"The sheer notion of momentum or probability of winning - Bush is playing that really hard right now," said Jones.
Leaving Gore to play catch up.