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Democrats Face Their Fears in Wisconsin

Francis Wilkinson

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Doug Kane slides a file folder across the table. I’m already familiar with the contents.

Indeed, the whole world knows what’s inside — the gist of it, anyway, which is compiled from readily accessible public information. Still, the way Kane pushes the file toward me, fingers outstretched, has a cinematic flair. It’s as if the drab Excel sheets inside constitute a bombshell.

In a way, they do. The neatly arranged columns of numbers break down the vote in Wisconsin in the 2016 election, when American politics exploded. A small number of Americans living in the upper Midwest, about 78,000 across three states, detonated a bomb that’s still rattling the world.

Almost 3 million voters in Wisconsin cast ballots for president in 2016. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the state by 22,748 — a margin of about three-quarters of 1%. The election was so narrow that either Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, or Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, might’ve tripped the state results. Johnson received 106,674 votes, and Stein 31,072.

Kane and I are in an Italian restaurant 5 miles east of the Mississippi River, just outside La Crosse, Wisconsin. Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, 23 switched from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. Half a dozen of those pivot counties are here in southwestern Wisconsin near the river. If you follow the Mississippi south, you pass a series of counties in northwest Iowa that similarly switched from Democrat to Republican in 2016.

Something went awry in this region. Understanding what it was has been a near-obsession for Democrats such as Kane, who want to ensure the calamity is not repeated. A former Democratic politician in both Illinois and Wisconsin, Kane is married to Kathleen Vinehout, a former Democratic state senator from rural Buffalo County, which borders the river north of La Crosse. Buffalo, too, switched from Democrat to Republican in 2016. 

Hillary Clinton’s victorious Election Day model for Wisconsin was wrong. But her mistake was widely shared. The weekend before the 2016 election, a knowledgeable pollster unaffiliated with Clinton assured me that Wisconsin would be closer than many supposed — but Democrats would prevail nonetheless.

Wisconsin is not a Democratic bastion, despite presidential victories that stretched from 1988 until 2016. Obama’s solid wins in 2008 and 2012 were solid exceptions (and solid evidence of what an exceptional politician he was). Obama’s comfortable margins in the state obscured other, perhaps more relevant, data points. In 2004, John Kerry defeated George W. Bush in Wisconsin by little more than 11,000 votes – less than four-tenths of 1%. Al Gore won the state over Bush in 2000 by fewer than 6,000 votes.

Between its warm embraces of Obama, Wisconsin elected Scott Walker, an aggressive Republican partisan, as governor in 2010, again in 2012 in a recall election and once more in 2014. After going for Trump in 2016, the state voted for liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the nation’s first openly gay U.S. senator, in a landslide in 2018, and also elected Democrat Tony Evers for governor over Walker by a very slim margin. Wisconsin is home to Obama-Walker-Trump-Baldwin voters, political shape-shifters who seem to defy reason as well as partisanship.

After the 2016 debacle, Vinehout and Kane zeroed in on another species of voter who contributed to the surprise: rural white men who were not regular voters. “I called up the clerks. I called up the poll workers. I wanted to know what happened,” recalled Vinehout in a telephone interview. What the clerks and poll workers told her was that a number of Wisconsinites who voted in 2016 were new faces. In rural counties like Buffalo, Vinehout said, “ward-level data shows that a lot of people came to the polls for the first time.”

Some Democrats fear that Trump has the equivalent of reserve troops — non-college-educated white males who didn’t vote in 2016 but who, after four years of Trump’s domination of media, political culture and the very oxygen we all breathe, might turn out in 2020.

You can register and vote in Wisconsin on Election Day. In three counties in this southwest corner of the state, each of which flipped from Democrat to Republican, same-day registration jumped from 2012 to 2016 — up 22% in Vernon County, up 40% in Crawford, up 54% in Grant. “They were in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and they were farmers and they were mostly men,” Vinehout said of the new voters. “And they voted for Trump.”

Wisconsin is not certain to be the pivotal state in the 2020 election. American politics retains ample capacity to surprise. But it’s the state most likely to put one candidate or another over the 270 threshold in the Electoral College.

“If you take all the states where Trump is less popular than Wisconsin, that’s not enough to win the Electoral College,” said state Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler. “All the states where he’s more popular than Wisconsin, not enough to win the Electoral College. So whoever wins Wisconsin essentially will be president.”

There are two main analytical schools among Democrats preparing for 2020. The first interprets Trump’s 2016 victory as a final, desperate lunge by white Christian conservatives seeking to retain the racial, sexual and class hierarchies of the 20th century. Pollster Stanley Greenberg is prominent in this camp, arguing that Trump’s coalition is tapped out and that the erosion of his support since 2016 among educated whites and non-college-educated white women dooms him in 2020. Greenberg titled his new book, “GOP RIP.”

There’s a less sanguine view of the landscape, as well. One strategist I’ve spoken to in recent weeks believes that the shock of 2016 proved that political professionals simply don’t have a handle on a volatile new environment, which could shift again. 

In a pre-Trump, conventional political universe, the Democratic response to 2016 is both obvious and mundane: Do a little better in the right places. Given the narrow margin of the 2016 defeat — a function solely of the Electoral College since Clinton won the national popular vote by almost 3 million — there’s a demographic smorgasbord of targets for Democrats in 2020. Everyone knows what they are in Wisconsin.

Diminish Trump’s margins in rural Wisconsin, where he ran up the score in 2016 and where the farm economy going into 2020 is far from great. Increase turnout among black voters in Milwaukee, where a sizable dip from the 2012 vote was devastating to Clinton. Push college-educated white voters in the Republican suburbs, especially the densely populated rim above Milwaukee, to act on their discomfort with Trump, preferably by voting Democratic. These voters have been slower than suburban voters in other states to leave the GOP. Rally young voters to oust a president whose policies appear designed to punish them for the rest of their lives with carbon and debt. Persuade more married white women without college educations, arguably the electoral hinge on which the fate of the nation will hang, to vote against Trump (and against their many MAGA husbands).

Marginal gains among a few of these groups could turn Wisconsin blue in 2020, and make a Democrat the next president. But there are a couple of catches.

First, what if Trump represents not a last gasp of cultural and racial revanchism but a new wave? What if the trickle of white men who voted for the first time in years in Wisconsin in 2016, despite widespread predictions that Trump’s candidacy was doomed, is followed in 2020 by a wave of previously nonvoting white males who conclude that Trump’s brand of tribal aggression is at last something worth voting for?

The universe of nonvoters is vast. Nationwide, 4 in 10 of those eligible did not vote in 2016. According to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, more than 21 million nonvoters in 2016 were non-college-educated white men, Trump’s base. In Wisconsin, which is 81% non-Hispanic white, 459,000 non-college-educated white men didn’t vote in 2016. Trump won non-college-educated white men nationwide by an astounding 50 points. A modest rise in their turnout in key states in 2020 could swamp the Democratic nominee.

Political campaigns are generally organized to appeal to voters, not nonvoters. Strategists know much more about the former than the latter. Low-propensity voters tend to be low-information voters with weak or nonexistent ties to political institutions and limited interest in politics. But Trump has been politicizing every corner of American life, from consumer brands to social media and even football. With politics inescapable, how many more nonvoters might join the fray?

That question leads to a second catch: In a nation in which confidence in political institutions, including political parties, is grievously injured; in which once-trusted mediating institutions, such as unions, are depleted; and in which millions of voters reject legitimate news and information sources in favor of propaganda (domestic and foreign) — how do you effectively rebut Trump’s appeal to low-information voters and encourage them to embrace a Democratic alternative? Or even to accept basic facts about the contours of reality?

On the opposite side of the state from La Crosse, on the second floor of a Milwaukee church, Angela Lang supervises a team of paid canvassers seeking to put the jagged pieces of representative democracy back together.

Lang, 30, knocked on her first door to get out the vote for Barack Obama in 2008. Now she runs Black Leaders Organizing Communities, or BLOC, which sends canvassers into mostly poor black neighborhoods in the city to knock on thousands of doors and engage residents.

“We knocked on our first door November 29th of 2017,” said Lang, “and essentially haven’t stopped knocking since — outside of maybe a week or two here or there for the holidays or to regroup.”

In a digital age, “knocking on doors” is perhaps the crudest means of political organizing. Conversations with two dozen Democratic activists left little doubt, however, that Democrats are measuring their preparations for 2020 in doorways as well as in dollars. The state party brags that it already has 13 organizers on the ground and has dispatched volunteers to knock on more than 200,000 Wisconsin doors – more than a year before the election.

It’s not a project solely to encourage black voter turnout. On a Thursday night in Green Bay, as the Packers played the Philadelphia Eagles at nearby Lambeau Field, three dozen local Democrats, almost all of them white, attended a meeting with Wikler, the state party chair.

Knocking on doors, canvassing, listening and connecting personally with voters were the primary themes of discussion, punctuated by updates on the Packers score. “We have canvassing shifts the first weekend of November,” announced Mike Moran, the second vice chair of the Brown County Democrats. “We’re going to go out and talk to our neighbors.”

Some call this “relational organizing.” The idea is to leverage personal networks to break through the cacophony and cynicism of contemporary politics, build trust and attach free-range citizens to both a data base and a progressive base. "For years we've been sending strangers to knock on doors," said Joe Zepecki, a strategist at For Our Future, a liberal super-PAC in Wisconsin. Relational organizing, he said, is “a friends-and-family approach to ground-level organizing. Those conversations are so much more impactful at turning people out to vote."

The goal remains the same as ever: Identify voters, win over the persuadable ones, turn them out.

“The vector is low-tech, face-to-face, old school,” said Matt Morrison, the executive director of Working America, a union-backed group in Washington that’s dedicated to mobilizing support for progressive causes. Democratic consultant Doug Sosnik, White House political director for President Bill Clinton, said, “In an era now of alienation from institutions — nobody trusts anybody — I think peer-group conversations back and forth are by far the most persuasive.”

At BLOC, canvassers are trained to listen more than talk, asking residents what their concerns are. At times, the interaction veers from outreach toward constituent service. “Sometimes we’re connecting them, and we’re teaching them how to look up their representatives,” Lang said of BLOC’s canvassing in poor Milwaukee neighborhoods. “Do you know who your alderperson is? And they’re like, ‘Actually, no.’”

The political intelligence such conversations yield can be useful.

Maletha Jones, a BLOC canvasser, said that when she knocked on doors in 2016, a majority of the people she talked to said they supported Trump. “I guess they really didn’t like Hillary because of her background,” Jones said. “They wanted to give Trump a try.”

Jones said many of the black residents she spoke with in Milwaukee in 2016 had heard that Trump at one time had had a black girlfriend. Based on that, she said, many concluded he was probably not racist. Keisha Robinson, program director at BLOC, said she had personally reached the same conclusion about Trump, for the same reason. 

As both the Mueller report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the 2016 election confirmed, black voters were targeted with propaganda from Russian agents during the presidential campaign. Much of it was dedicated to disparaging Clinton with the goal of suppressing turnout. According to both Jones and Robinson, many black voters they encountered in Milwaukee were both extremely distrustful of Clinton and favorably disposed toward Trump. “Some people were actually excited at the idea of Trump,” Robinson said.

Two-thirds of Wisconsin’s black population resides in the city of Milwaukee. Trump ultimately received few votes from blacks in the state. But the shape of that vote was hugely significant. From 2012 to 2016, the black vote margin in Wisconsin shifted a little more than 6 points from Democrat to Republican. A vote analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress found that black turnout fell 19 points from 2012 to 2016. Clinton, the report stated, “would have emerged victorious – though just barely – if she had retained Obama’s black support.”

Wisconsin is typically a high-turnout state. It seems to be getting higher, measured by the 2018 election. Scott Walker received more votes in defeat than he received in victory four years earlier. The Democrat who beat him, Tony Evers, got almost as many votes as Clinton received for president in 2016.

Presuming Trump survives his sprawling scandals and impending impeachment, he will be an even more polarizing figure in 2020 than he was in 2016. In addition, with GOP donors fully servicing his campaign, which many refused to do in 2016, he will have essentially unlimited funds. While Democrats compete for their party’s presidential nomination, the Trump campaign has been spending heavily on digital advertising, identifying voters and testing messages for next year.

“I expect Trump to smash his turnout numbers from 2016,” said Wikler, the Wisconisn Democratic chair. “We’re building to make sure that his vote share is lower. But we’re expecting his total number of votes to be higher.”

Some elements of the Democratic Party, generally on the left, have argued that its best shot is to focus on casual voters and nonvoters, who tend to be supportive of activist government. A 2018 report for the left-wing Justice Democrats urged the party to stop appealing to the “mushy middle” and focus instead on nonvoters and marginal voters. Those groups, the report stated, “have a preference for Democrats while the most consistent voters have a preference for Republicans. Democrats will do better if they get individuals who voted in only one election (mostly 2012) to become excited and turn out.”

Others are convinced that the choice between turning out the base and corralling persuadable voters is no choice at all, said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who is based in Madison. “I have been in the camp from Day One that it’s a false choice,” he said in a telephone interview. “We have to do everything.”

Ruy Teixeira, one of the authors of the Center for American Progress analysis, agrees. “It’s clear you can’t put all your eggs in the ‘Let’s turn ’em out’ basket,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think this is going to be a dogfight.”

It’s impossible to know if the identity of the eventual Democratic nominee will be a decisive factor in Wisconsin, or anywhere. Other, far less visible inputs, could matter more. For example, one of Walker’s primary objectives in office was to damage the political power of unions in the state, undermining Democratic fundraising, organizing and performance. By all accounts he succeeded.

Walker attacked unions early and often, signing Republican legislation in 2011 to limit collective-bargaining rights and in 2015 to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state. A team of scholars calculated that when a state adopts right-to-work, Democratic candidates suffer. In presidential elections, they estimated, “these laws cost Democratic candidates two to five percentage points in right-to-work counties.”

Major Democratic groups are already at work in Wisconsin, preparing for 2020. The super-PAC American Bridge has announced that it plans to spend $50 million trying to shave the edge off Trump’s huge winning margin among rural and small-town white voters in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A poll memo the group released in June stated that many of these voters have “concerns about Trump’s honesty and deep concerns regarding Trump’s record on important issues like health care.”

The group already has paid staff in Wisconsin, as does Priorities USA, another leading Democratic super-PAC. Though it used to be known for opposition research, candidate tracking and rapid response, American Bridge is now collecting personal stories about the impact of Trump policy failures.

In a kind of “relational media” parallel to “relational organizing,” the group is hunting for people who previously supported Trump but no longer do, for example, after losing the sort of factory job that Trump vowed to save. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state lost about 5,200 manufacturing jobs between August 2018 and August 2019.

After initially targeting Wisconsin’s 23 Obama-to-Trump counties, American Bridge has expanded its target list to 30. “We want to identify potential Trump defectors who will share their stories and elevate their voices,” said American Bridge spokesman Jeb Fain. “Folks are a lot more likely to be responsive to a message like that from their friends and neighbors.”

Priorities USA plans to spend tens of millions on local research and advertising, highlighting Wisconsinites who have “felt the negative impact of living in Trump’s economy.” The group has so far spent about $3 million on digital ads in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

As many as three dozen other liberal and Democratic groups are expected to descend on Wisconsin in 2020, spending tens of millions in a frantic effort to enlist new voters and flip Obama-Trump voters back to the Democratic column.

The Analyst Institute, a labor-backed research organization in Washington, works with progressive groups to test political messages and means of mobilization. One project the institute has supported seems well-suited to the Democratic task of 2020, especially in Wisconsin. A pilot project in Virginia in 2017 targeted women with weak partisan ties who live outside major cities and are unmoved by political arguments typically associated with feminism.

Like the canvassers for BLOC in Milwaukee, those seeking out these whiter, more suburban voters in Virginia faced a wall of indifference. “The response rate is incredibly low,” said Lisa Guide, who oversaw the project for Women Effect Action Fund, which worked with the Analyst Institute. “They don’t answer the phone. They don’t answer the door.”

When canvassers found a woman willing to talk, they invested in a 10- to 15-minute discussion about policies that would make it easier to raise a family – paid family and medical leave; affordable, high-quality child care, good public schools, secure health care. Voters who were open to the discussion received follow-up mail about a “family-friendly economy.”

Post-election research suggested that the mailings were unpersuasive. But it also concluded that the canvass itself – the personal interaction – had added to the vote margin of successful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, and had led some among the target group to cite “family-friendly economy” as an important election issue. A similar pilot program is scheduled to roll out in Wisconsin before the end of this year. 

White women have been souring on Trump. These include non-college-educated white women, who, according to the Pew Research Center, Trump won by 23 points in 2016. Such women are less supportive of Trump’s racial aggression than white men without a college degree, and less inclined to view him as a successful steward of the economy. 

Whites without a college degree cast about three-fifths of the total vote in the state in 2018. If Democrats are going to prevail in Wisconsin in 2020, they will likely have to peel a sizable number of non-college-educated white women away from Trump. As Ronald Brownstein wrote in the Atlantic:

In the Rust Belt states that tipped the 2016 election to Trump — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — few things may matter more than whether Democrats can fan doubts about Trump that have surfaced among blue-collar white women or whether the president can rebuild his margins among them with his polarizing racial and ideological attacks.

Beneath the surface of daily politics, in the back of the minds of Democratic operatives, is a nagging question: How far will Trump go this time? And will Republicans, the news media or other institutions be willing or able to constrain his behavior and that of his campaign?

Trump’s corruption, demagogy and foreign intrigue are simply outside the experience of modern American politics. Even American political strategists who have worked abroad in compromised democracies have no experience with authoritarian corruption in an American context. Trump’s willingness to do vast damage to democratic norms and institutions adds layers of uncertainty and risk to an already unsettled landscape. 

He is, of course, not the only mystery factor. Russia, which contributed to Trump’s victory in 2016, has seen its efforts at election sabotage spectacularly rewarded, with Trump advancing Russian strategic aims in the Middle East and Europe while weakening U.S. alliances. Former special counsel Robert Mueller warned that Russia is actively working to repeat its 2016 success. Facebook has already cited disinformation on its platform from Russia and others. How does a political party prepare for that?

Every Democrat I listened to in recent weeks insisted that the party’s donors and activists are highly motivated. “The donors are so fired up on this that I think there are going to be resources that are duplications of other efforts,” said Tom Russell, a Madison-based Democratic consultant.

But motivation is only part of the equation. This election is not just another partisan contest between Democrats and Republicans, as those identities were long understood. In 2016, a remarkably small number of Americans living in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin threw the Electoral College to a man uniquely unsuited to presidential powers.

In 2020, a similarly small number could determine the fate of democracy itself. Those few voters are astonishingly powerful. We just don’t know who they are. Neither do they.

To contact the author of this story: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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