08/13/2012 08:46 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2012

With Ryan on the Ticket, "Blue" Wisconsin -- and a Whole Lot More -- Is In Play

No one factor explains why Mitt Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate. After weeks of relentless attacks on his character and integrity, and with his standing slipping in the polls, Romney clearly needed to change the political narrative. He also needed to reassure his biggest donors as well as the GOP base that his campaign was still on track and dedicated to ideological conservatism.

But there's another reason the 42-year-old congressman - and current House Republican budget chairman - stood out for Romney. With Ryan on the ticket, he now has a good shot at winning Wisconsin, a state that hasn't gone Republican in nearly 30 years.

In a region that includes Obama-friendly Illinois and a reliable Blue state like Michigan, Wisconsin is something of an outlier. George W. Bush came within a few thousand votes of winning the Badger State in 2000 and 2004. But four years ago, President Obama defeated John McCain by a whopping 14 points. The magnitude of that victory, and the deeper demographic changes it seemed to reflect, suggested that Wisconsin wasn't about to defect in 2012.

Indeed, even the election of a Tea Party-backed conservative, Scott Walker, as Wisconsin's governor in 2010, and Walker's highly-publicized - and ultimately successful - crackdown on the state's public sector unions seemed unlikely to change this trend. Among Republicans, only RNC chairman Reince Priebus, a native Wisconsin and a Walker protégé of sorts, seemed willing to stick his neck out publicly to suggest otherwise.

In fact, it wasn't until last month that signs of a possible "Ryan effect" became apparent. In late July, Public Policy Polling found Obama leading Romney by 5 points in Wisconsin, echoing a separate poll that had Obama with a lead of 6. But there was a difference: when PPP respondents were asked for the first time about a possible Romney-Ryan ticket, suddenly the race was tied.

And the Ryan effect may not be limited to Wisconsin. Other long-standing Midwestern battleground states, especially Ohio -- arguably a must-win for Romney in November - have similar voter demographics, with large numbers of Blue collar workers that continue to elude Romney, but that have consistently formed part of Ryan's expansive 2-1 majority in each of the last 7 elections he's won.

The importance of Wisconsin to Romney's calculations was apparent even in the staging of the Ryan VP roll-out aboard a mothballed battleship, the USS Wisconsin. And Romney's just announced that he's adding a major fundraiser and political event in Wisconsin to the upcoming swing state tour that will take the ticket through Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. Gov. Walker, one of the first to be briefed on the Ryan selection - and who was once considered for the VP slot himself - will be on hand to trumpet the proceedings.

Democrats, of course, continue to insist that Obama has Wisconsin in the bag - and they are reportedly "salivating" at the choice of Ryan, whom they consider vulnerable to charges of being a heartless tax-cutter for the rich, just like Romney. They're also hoping that Ryan's high-profile push to overhaul Medicare will scare seniors, leaving the GOP ticket unable to win Florida, which would cost them the election.

But the Democratic view of Ryan seems to be based on considerable wishful thinking. It turns out that Ryan's push to reform Medicare - as part of a broader campaign for entitlement reform - is quite popular. Even his newest push to reform Medicare, which no longer removes seniors from the current rolls, enjoys strong support, once its actual provisions are carefully explained.

More broadly, the new GOP ticket's pivot to entitlements plays into Romney's enduring strength with voters. Obama's negative attack ads have cast considerable doubt on Romney's job creation credentials, but voters still give Romney a clear edge on managing the deficit. In fact, concerns over "Big Government" still loom large with voters, and combined with concerned over the spending levels required by Obamacare, they may be Obama's biggest Achilles heel this November.

Of course, that's not likely to keep the Obama campaign from charging that Ryan wants to "end Medicare as we know it," or from recycling an earlier television ad that showed Ryan pushing an aging senior in her wheelchair off a cliff. But remember: Democrats confidently predicted that Gov. Walker would be recalled last June, and even after he survived, they disputed any notion that Wisconsin could be "in play" this November.

Don't be surprised if it turns out that they're wrong about the Ryan selection, too.