Edwards Wins Wisconsin Straw Poll - the vision, the organizing, the experience
by Peter from WI, Tue Jul 03, 2007 at 08:28:22 PM EDT
For weeks, nay months, leading up to this past weekend's Democratic Party of Wisconsin convention, I had been excited. Not just because the annual convention is a fast-paced, interesting reunion of people I know from past campaigns and current projects and a chance to meet allies for now and the future, but also because I was really excited to have on consolidated weekend to bring to the state's most active Democrats the gospel of John Edwards and to see how well he would poll amongst the likeliest primary voters and most committed activists. The anticipation was not ill-founded, and my excitement to see John Edwards do well in my own state was even underestimated. And I think that what went down this weekend has some lessons for how the race for 2008 might shape up.
I spent the spring, along with a couple of other people that form the core of the leadership of the Edwards campaign in Wisconsin, traveling around the state to visit the Congressional District Party conventions. You read that right, in addition to county parties, we also have CD-level parties that serve to organize the county parties. The conventions are sort of mini-state conventions. My favorite was by far the 7th CD convention in Northern Wisconsin, where Dave Obey schooled everyone on how we'll end the war, even with the limitations in Congress, and where the Chairman laid out just why he had endorsed John Edwards for president the day after Kerry/Edwards lost in 2004. The people up north are old-fashioned Democrats. That is to say that they are the continuation of a tradition of the Democratic Party and liberals in general that put right up front that it was the party that fought for, with backbone, freedom, opportunity, democracy, and justice for everyone.
The 7th was probably the best example of why John Edwards is an exciting candidate. Being the only candidate campaign that showed up to a one of the CD conventions, and also showing up at all of them, we were primed to field a lot of supporters. Even at a time when many Democrats and activists had yet to make a decision on who to support for 2008, we were often overwhelmed with the intensely positive and passionate people who came up to our table and spoke with us about why they were supporting John Edwards. From the union members that work at the paper plants to the small business owners in the small towns to the farmers that have been at the core of Wisconsin's identity forever, we saw how John Edwards is not only a harkening back to the Jefferson-Jackson building blocks of the Democratic Party and its values and constituencies, but also a forward-looking vision that can bring together the often disparate elements that should see the Democratic Party as their natural home - needing a figure with a vision that brings it all together.
Attending these CD conventions, besides clarifying why exactly we were driving to exotic locales like Marshfield, Princeton, and Beloit for early Saturday mornings, lugging around clipboards, stickers, buttons, and literature, helped us to organize people around the state. This campaign is being run from the grassroots on up, where local people are taking the lead to put together house parties, talk to their friends and neighbors, and build the support within the party and beyond it. This proved to be a huge advantage for us heading into the state party convention, having a supply of volunteers that put in some time at our table, stickering, clipboarding, and generally providing a presence that put the other campaigns to shame.
While the Obama folks had a table with some young volunteers, and they did a nice job stickering outside the Saturday morning breakfast Herb Kohl puts on every year and the Hillary table's confident professionalism belied a very disciplined campaign, the energy and buzz for John Edwards over the course of the weekend stood out. One comment I heard from a supporter was that seeing the people gathered around the Edwards table was downright exciting. Another said that the buzz in the convention hall around the presidential campaigns was about two things. One was the endorsement of Lt. Governor (and good progressive) Barbara Lawton for Hillary Clintion (note: Clark supporters should give up on him running now; Barb wouldn't make a move if she thought there were any chance Wes Clark were getting into the race - it's somewhat common knowledge amongst party activists and leaders that Barb is a Clark diehard). The other was the presence of John Edwards at the convention. Not just that we had a crack operation working the clipboards, stickering, and table, but also and more importantly that John Edwards had a significant degree of support from party leaders and the rank-and-file.
In fact, earlier in the summer, the Edwards campaign's list of endorsements from state legislators included far more state reps and senators than any other campaign, and included a wide geographic distribution of legislators and a roster that included the chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee (Russ Decker), the leader on healthcare (Jon Erpenbach) and more females than Hillary Clinton could muster (Amy Sue Vruwink, Donna Seidel, State Treasurer Dawn Marie Sass, Sondy Pope-Roberts, among others). And state party leaders that are supporters (the DPW does not allow explicit endorsements from party elected officials, which means that for someone like me, the Vice Chair of the 2nd CD Party, I don't officially endorse John Edwards as the VC of the 2nd CD, but instead as a private citizen) include a chair, a 2nd vice chair, CD and county party chairs and vice chairs, and members of the state party administrative committe.
As the convention got going, I ran into labor leaders, party activists of note, and lots of rank-and-filers that wanted to talk about John Edwards. Few had questions - although our volunteer team did a fantastic job of talking with folks about policy issues and political questions. Most wanted to talk about, no, more like gush about why they were passionate about John Edwards the candidate. The consistent theme was that he represented for them what is great about our party. As Senator Edwards says, we don't need to redefine the Democratic Party, we need to reclaim it. These folks got that more than anyone. And goodness gracious did people want Edwards gear.
We went in with 1000 "Wisconsin for Edwards" buttons, 1000 "Labor for Edwards" buttons, the campaign bumper-stickers, and signs. We distributed probably half of them to a combination of people who wanted them for themselves and their friends and to county party chairs who were enthusiastic to get them to bring back for their members saying things like "people have been begging me for Edwards stickers for months now". When one walked into the convention hall on Friday evening, you couldn't get a seat without finding yourself a couple of people away from someone clutching their "John Edwards 2008" sign. When I was working the AFL-CIO breakfast on Saturday morning (admittedly, a little groggily after a late night in the bar and up early for the 7 AM event), I literally couldn't hand out the "Labor for Edwards" gear fast enough. They love this guy. One USW member from the northeastern part of the state talked my ear off about how John Edwards is "one of us" and "gets us" and how he is the labor candidate for 2008 because he doesn't just want "our votes and boots [on the ground]". He walked away with a bag full of about 50 buttons and got signs and stickers for his brothers and sisters in the local.
The big thing at the DPW convention is the annual straw poll by WisPolitics.com. They do different straw polls every year that end up with a sample that generally runs to be about 60% to 75% of convention delegates. Last year, they polled on the contested attorney general's primary (incumbent Peg Lautenschlager versus Kathleen Falk) and this year, they included a question on the race for 2010 (Peg won again) as well as governor (should Jim Doyle not run again...although he hinted on Friday night that he would). But the top of the ticket was the presidential. In the end, John Edwards won by a 2-1 margin over the other top-tier candidates, taking almost 50% of the vote overall. Why does this matter?
First, it shows that good organizing has an impact. We worked the state for a month or two beforehand, put together a campaign operation around the convention, and even organized delegates at the convention to vote in the straw poll (our own little GOTV operation). Hillary robo-called on Thursday evening and that's about it. Obama hasn't even been a factor in this state yet, besides getting two token endorsements in the Milwaukee-area (Gwen Moore, and Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who some cynics say endorsed Obama to shore up his support in the black community for his mayoral race upcoming). Our team knew what we were doing and carried out a strong plan. Organizing matters. So does savvy. And partially because of that we won. In 2008, the primary, from Iowa to Nevada and beyond, will be won by people who know how to organize a campaign. If this is any indication, Edwards' superior organization in those two earliest states will be very impactful.
Second, it shows that when it comes down to it, informed, engaged, activist Democrats like John Edwards. A lot. In a state like Wisconsin, where (bear in mind, I'm a lifer in Wisconsin, besides a short stint in Ohio for school and Chicago for work, so my opinion might be a bit skewed) Democrats are true-blue Democrats, with a good mix of post-New Deal types and (lower-case "n") new Democrats brought on-board via the Dean campaign and the spirit behind it (Democratic wing of the Democratic Party), labor types and other Democratic coalition groups (womens, environmental, civil liberties, etc). True, it skews towards the middle-aged (though less so at the convention), but includes all classes from the low-income to the upper-class. We are a great sample of what the Democratic Party is nationwide (albeit with fewer minority members and voters...this is white-bread Wisconsin). Winning a straw poll in a state whose demographics most closely match the national average is symbolic. But these people and their votes aren't just significant and symbolic solely because of demographics. This is important because these folks that make up the party are the best expression of the party's core values. And there, they match up with John Edwards and his vision for One America.
Third, this straw poll matters because it is the first straw poll of which I am aware that takes a look at a whole state party's preference. The likeliest Democratic primary voters in Wisconsin back John Edwards by a 2-1 margin. If there is an inevitabilty margin for Hillary, or there ever was, it has been and is being erased the more people get to know their candidates. If Obama is a sensation, it's not being felt by those most closely attuned to the campaign.
Had I had my way, John Edwards would have been here, in Wisconsin yet again (he's done a number of events in Wisconsin since his surprisingly strong finish in the 2004 primary, including through his Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity and through political activity like events with Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, the state Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee and others). But being the end of the fundraising quarter, it was understandable that none of the candidates showed. But that vaccum allowed us to see a good picture of where the state's Democrats are at, without anything artificial swaying the vote.
I'm really proud that John Edwards won the straw poll at our state party convention - and that helped make this a great weekend for Wisconsin Democrats, me included. As this campaign moves forward, we'll get to see more of the impact of John's vision for One America on the voters and the impact of good campaign organizing giving the most progressive candidate for president the leg up he needs to win in swing states like Wisconsin and Iowa and unlikely battlegrounds like Missouri, North Carolina, and Nevada.