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How Wisconsin eluded Romney campaign

MADISON, WIS. -- Mitt Romney made a serious play here – not surprising, given his running mate was a native son and the state recently re-affirmed its support of its Republican governor in a recall election. 

But despite the Paul Ryan appearances and the millions spent in third-party ads, the state still proved elusive – one reason, perhaps, that became apparent just hours after polls closed in that contentious June recall.

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Of the 53 percent of voters who supported Gov. Scott Walker over Tom Barrett, who opposed the governor’s curbs on collective bargaining, 18 percent said they’d still vote for President Barack Obama over Romney.

And that was among the 2.5 million people that voted in the recall – half a million less than voted Tuesday for president. 

“Even if the electorate didn’t grow at all, Republicans needed to worry,” University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said, “because that’s enough of a flip to make the state go for Obama.” 

In a state where voters take pride in voting for the person, not the party, Burden said that some voters felt similarly about Obama and Walker. 

Much of President Barack Obama's victory can be attributed to the declining portion of white voters. The president won only 39 percent of that group, down from 2008, but he dominated among non-whites. Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, Erin McPike of Real Clear Politics and Jonathan Collegio of American Crossroads discuss.

“They’re both incumbents, they’re both presiding over a kind of mediocre economy... But in both cases, voters are willing to give the incumbent credit and give them time to finish the job,” Burden said. 

Plus, the fact that the Obama campaign turned out the voters they needed to put them over the edge, even if the resulting 53-46 percent result was far less than Obama’s 14-point margin in 2008. 

In the important blue counties of Racine and Milwaukee, Obama got 51.4 percent and 67 percent of the vote respectively. As with elsewhere in the country, demographics were a key part of his victories there: Milwaukee County’s population is 27 percent African American, versus 6.5 percent of people statewide; Racine's is 11.5 percent. 

Steven Senne / AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets people during a campaign stop at a Cousins Subs fast food restaurant, in Waukesha, Wis., Tuesday, April 3, 2012.

But while Obama won decisively here, Republicans said they are far from ready to cede this perennial purple state to the Democrats. 

“I think we have a fantastic ground game and we’ll continue to grow,” said Wisconsin Republican party spokesman Nathan Conrad. 

Republicans did win the super-swingy Brown County, which voted Obama in 2008, Walker for governor in 2010 and 2012, and gave Romney a narrow 50.4- 48.5 percent win Tuesday night. Green Bay, located in Brown County’s Fox Valley, is a particularly important bellwether, given its high concentration of white male working-class voters who frequently swing between parties. 

But the margins there were meaningful – smaller than they had to be in order for Walker to win, some Republicans conceded. 

Another bright spot for Republicans in Wisconsin was in the statehouse - Wednesday morning Scott Walker was quick to note that his party eked out a new 17-15 majority in the state Senate, the body’s third party switch in two years after it went to the Democrats during the recall. 

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker predicts the final results for president will be very close in his state. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

“What that tells me is that voters in this state are independent. They listen race by race to what the candidates have to offer,” Walker said to reporters Wednesday in Milwaukee.

And that is one of the reasons this state will continue to be a key battleground in future presidential races, Burden, the University of Wisconsin professor, said. 

“It’s just volatile enough and has just enough electoral votes that neither party really wants to walk away from it,” he said.