What Wisconsin Democrats Learned from 2016

It was a most unusual sight for Joe Biden ’s campaign: a crowd. Across the street from the Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry, in the town of Man...


It was a most unusual sight for Joe Biden’s campaign: a crowd. Across the street from the Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry, in the town of Manitowoc, several hundred fans of the former Vice-President gathered in the afternoon sunshine late last month, carrying signs and wearing masks that allowed them to muster energetic, if muffled, chants. This was not a planned rally, more like a flash mob without the theatrics. Biden, insistent on modelling good medical etiquette during the pandemic, schedules no grand gatherings, leaving them to his rival, Donald Trump, who, before his coronavirus diagnosis, routinely spoke from a stage, with Air Force One positioned scenically behind him, as thousands cheered his boasts and invective.

A line of police officers kept the crowd away from the brick foundry, where Biden’s motorcade was parked. Closest to the building, about a hundred Trump supporters had gathered, many waving campaign banners. One homemade poster read “A Vote for Biden = Socialism.” Another said, “Build the Wall with Liberal Tears.” A chant for four more years merged into one for four more terms. Few on the Trump side wore a mask. All of the Biden supporters did, including Darlene Wellner, an eighty-year-old retired social worker. I asked Wellner what brought her out for Biden. She started with Trump’s dishonesty and turned to his environmental policies. “So much damage has been done. It’s just heartbreaking what is happening in this country,” she said. Wellner has taken it upon herself to write thirty postcards to people she considers fence-sitters. “If I can influence five of them, it wouldn’t be bad.”

Biden had arrived in Manitowoc, a town on Lake Michigan, largely thanks to Sachin Shivaram, the C.E.O. of Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry, who was so worried about Biden’s chances in the state that he contacted everyone he knew in hopes of persuading the campaign to deploy the candidate. “If you don’t have that on-the-ground presence of the candidate, it trickles down,” he told me. In his community of De Pere, he saw a surfeit of Trump signs, and almost none for his rival. At the factory, the union leadership supported Biden, but he noticed that some workers were wearing MAGA gear. He was thrilled to hear, about seventy-two hours ahead of time, that Biden would be seeking attention in Manitowoc, in a state where Hillary Clinton barely competed. He wasn’t alone. On the afternoon of the visit, the Manitowoc County Democratic Party storefront was bustling. “We’re in Trump country,” Karen Steingraber, a volunteer, said, as she assembled Biden-Harris signs, “but we do what we can.”

Inside the foundry, Biden delivered a series of sharp-edged attacks to a few dozen carefully distanced onlookers and reporters. The speech was good stuff for the faithful—evidence that Biden, at seventy-seven, could deliver a biting anti-Trump narrative, along with his customary empathy toward the families of the COVID-19 dead and those who are struggling financially. Addressing the working-class voters in Wisconsin who favored Trump last time, he pledged, “You will be seen, heard, and respected by me.” Speaking, as he often does, from behind a surgical mask, he said, “Frankly, I’ve dealt with guys like Trump my whole life. Guys from the neighborhood I come from who would look down on us because we didn’t have a lot of money or your parents didn’t go to college. Guys who think they’re better than you. Guys who inherit everything they’ve ever gotten in their life and squander it. Guys who stretch and squeeze and stiff electricians and plumbers and contractors working on their hotels and casinos and golf courses just to put a few more bucks in their pocket. Guys who do everything they can to avoid paying the taxes they owe because they figure the rest of us, the little people, we can pick up the tab for the country.”

On paper, Wisconsin looks eminently winnable this year for Biden and the Democrats. The respected Marquette Law School poll, released on Wednesday, showed Biden ahead by five points, with a Libertarian candidate, Jo Jorgensen, receiving four per cent, and Trump favored by just forty-one per cent of likely voters. If it weren’t for the shock of 2016, when polls showed Clinton comfortably ahead in October, Biden supporters’ worry meter would be much lower. “Every Democrat is on edge,” Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told me as we sat on his back porch, in Madison. “To me, it means that every Democrat will work their heart out.” Trump was the first Republican Presidential candidate to win the state since 1984, but his winning margin was less than one per cent of the roughly three million votes cast, suggesting that even minor adjustments in the Clinton campaign’s message or tactics could have changed the outcome. Clinton received 238,449 fewer votes than Barack Obama had four years earlier, including forty thousand fewer in Milwaukee alone. Yet she lost the state by only 22,748 votes.

Clinton and her team assumed that they would win Wisconsin with a minimal investment, even after she was pummelled in the Democratic primary, losing to Bernie Sanders by thirteen points. Only in the last two weeks of the campaign did Clinton advertise on television in Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Madison. This year, Biden has dominated television advertising for months. In one measure of the intensified effort, a list of campaign events, Biden interviews, surrogate appearances, and radio and television advertisements stretches to two single-spaced pages. And the ground game is broad. By the campaign’s count, three thousand people have done phone-banking sessions in Milwaukee, where there are forty teams of volunteers and dozens of paid staffers. (The campaign declined to say exactly how many.) “We definitely learned our lesson,” Marcelia Nicholson, the chairwoman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, told me.

Despite polling averages that have shown Trump lagging Biden for months, the Republicans, too, are boasting of their efforts on the ground and including rallies in the schedule. Before his coronavirus diagnosis, Trump had planned to hold events in La Crosse and Green Bay; Vice-President Mike Pence has visited the state five times since July, including a recent trip to Eau Claire, where he was joined by Ivanka Trump. The campaign is trying to fortify rural counties that voted for Obama twice before flipping to Trump in 2016; it also took the rare step of opening an office in Milwaukee, aiming to reduce Biden’s large margins among Black and Latino voters. Team Trump has held training sessions with more than six thousand people, according to the campaign. Samantha Zager, the deputy national press secretary, noted, “We’re the only campaign in the state currently asking Wisconsinites for their votes in person.” She described Biden’s bid for Wisconsin as “too little, too late.”

I asked Wikler how Democrats intend to avoid a nail-biter this time. “Organizing,” he said. “In 2016, you’d go into an office and no one would be there. Someone behind a table would tell you to pick up a clipboard and bring it back when you’re done.” The next year, Martha Laning, Wikler’s predecessor, began building a statewide organizing effort that would operate year-round rather than emerge near the end of a campaign cycle. “You hire organizers to recruit local leaders to build neighborhood teams. They’re volunteer team leaders, they recruit volunteers. Those teams are responsible for organizing their neighborhoods,” Wikler said, likening them to old-school ward captains. In 2018, Democrats swept the elections for statewide offices for the first time since 1982.

The current ground game is a joint operation of the Biden campaign and the Wisconsin Democrats. In addition, staff and volunteers from a raft of independent organizations are working to get out the vote. In Milwaukee, significant efforts are under way by Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) and Voces de la Frontera Action, which focusses on the city’s hundred thousand Latino residents, as well as other Latinos around the state. Since Kamala Harris, a Howard University graduate and member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, joined the ticket, organizers have been drawing strength from members of the Divine Nine historically Black fraternities and sororities. In Fitchburg, the state’s first elected Black mayor, Frances Huntley-Cooper, an Alpha Kappa Alpha, called it “an automatic network. I have so many sisters who are on the phone every day.” Many others, she said, are helping people navigate the requirements for voting by mail, and volunteering as poll workers.

Then there is money. In one sign of the Democrats’ success, last month’s live reading of the script of “The Princess Bride,” by most of the original cast, attracted an astonishing hundred and ten thousand viewers and raised $4.25 million. The cast members of “Parks and Recreation,” “The West Wing,” and “Veep” appeared on other nights. Citing the organizing oomph, the Democrats I spoke to in several Wisconsin cities expressed confidence in Biden’s chances, if the election is fair and square. Their worry is that Republicans will find ways to suppress Democratic turnout. For months, Trump has been groundlessly attacking mail-in voting, recently tweeting falsely, for example, “The Ballots being returned to States cannot be accurately counted. Many things are already going wrong.” With court battles over voting rules already under way in Wisconsin, I asked Mandela Barnes, the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor, what he foresees. He said, “Republicans are going to use any tactic they can try to keep people from voting, because they know that lower turnout is typically beneficial to them.”

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Newsrust: What Wisconsin Democrats Learned from 2016
What Wisconsin Democrats Learned from 2016
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