Too Close To Call: Wisconsin Heads Into the Homestretch
by Peter from WI, Thu Feb 07, 2008 at 08:43:05 PM EST
The other day, I started posting what I hope will be a few regular diaries leading into February 19th, on Wisconsin's primary. The first diary was a bit of a meandering primer look at the state of affairs in Wisconsin. I focused a bit more on organization since that's what I have seen (or not seen, as the case has been) in the course of the campaign. Tonight, I'd like to explore a bit of what I see happening with the Obama campaign in terms of building on the tremendous enthusiasm I see from their camp.
Before I go into anything, two caveats. First, I am an Edwards partisan. I still intend to cast my ballot on February 19th for John Edwards, and it probably goes without saying that I won't be supporting another candidate with any activism or public endorsement. Second, I do not lean towards either remaining candidate really, and I'm not fluffing or flaming anyone here. While I'll key in on a bit of Obama-related stuff here tonight, when I can take some time to do some Clinton-focused writing, I'll do that too.
There are good and bad that I see in both candidates. Were I to focus on some good things (and I'll do that because I think it's fair), I'd say that I like in Hillary Clinton the killer instinct and partisanal tendency, as well as her ability to bring into active engagement with Democratic politics two demographic groups that I think is vital to building a near-term majoritarian electoral and political coalition for us, white women who are not active voters and Hispanics. I'd say that I like in Obama the potential to build a really diverse coalition that more thoroughly engages African-Americans as well as his ability to inspire people and think politics is important to them enough to be activated. That said, let's talk Obama organization in Wisconsin.
Without a doubt, there are two main dynamics at play in Wisconsin for Obama. First, there is a really strong enthusiasm and energy for Barack Obama that I see and hear, especially here in the Madison-area. People are coming out of the woodwork, and the progressive establishment in this neck of the woods is firmly pro-Obama - with the noted exceptions of prominent Hillary-backers in our Lieuteant Governor Barb Lawton, Dane County Executive (and former Attorney General candidate) Kathleen Falk, and our Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin. All three of these women are respected progressives and would fall far from being national establishment DLC-type Democrats.
In 2004, even while I was still in school in Ohio, people in my home state (I'm Wisconsin born and bred) were pumped up about the primary, and Howard Dean was doing well here leading up to the primary. We all know what happened then, and when Wisconsin came around, while Dean made a valiant effort, John Kerry's perceived inevitability and John Edwards' natural cohesion with the Wisconsin Democratic primary electorate (and meteoric campaign rise) crowded Dean out. This time around, since Edwards dropped out, I have felt the rise of Obama along with a surge of both enthusiasm and engagement. I'm not saying that it's strictly because Edwards dropped out (and we had a very strong statewide organization and backing), but more so because leading into Super Duper Tuesday, people here realized we'd have a major say in this race.
Riding this enthusiasm and energy is Obama's ticket to win Wisconsin. Building on it with organization can lock it down, like he did in other Upper Midwest states. While Illinois is an outlier because it's his home and Minnesota isn't a perfect example because it was a caucus (a natural strength for Obama), they are good indications of what might happen here. In both places, there has been really strong momentum for Obama. But in both places, Obama's organization capitalized upon that. I must say, as a grassroots organizer, I could not have been more impressed with how Obama's team capitalized upon enthusiasm to organize the hell out of Iowa. Here in Wisconsin, with a dearth of Obama campaign activity and organization, tapping into that energy will be the #1 challenge they face.
But, there have been concrete steps taken in that direction. Which brings us to the second dynamic.
Obama went up on the air here this week. I haven't seen any ads (I don't watch TV), but they have enjoyed some talk amongst the political classes. Being a relatively unorganized state for these two campaigns, and because Wisconsin is not an expensive media state (with all but one major area having its media range being within our state's borders), the air war will matter here. I hate to say it, but a candidate at this point in time in the race can probably get away with some TV saturation and gain lots of votes. But this primary will be like that of 2004 - high turnout and many people engaged, so air war is not the only front on which to fight. Here's how Obama's team is doing it right now.
The biggest thing that jumps out is that our Democratic Governor, Jim Doyle, is out campaigning hard for Obama, whom he endorsed a few weeks ago. Doyle is the only Democrat with a statewide organization (as can be expected). While up until now, his endorsement has not been leveraged through that organization, his campaigning will help in a big way. Doyle is a moderate, DLC-type. But he's our governor, and the rank-and-file respect him and like that he is a Democratic governor that has been re-elected for the first time in our party's history going back about 20 years (and his parents virtually built the Democratic Party along with Gaylord Nelson and others back in the 1950s and 1960s).
Doyle is now doing a set of statewide rallies for Obama. But they're not just rallies - they are being treated as organizing events, like Obama has done in other places, to build a volunteer base and to spread virally the support that he enjoys. These organizing rallies focus on college towns. Going back two years, the 2006 elections in Wisconsin were essentially the story of college towns turning out heavily, and doing so for Democrats. We picked up multiple state senate and assembly seats (gaining a majority in the former) because of this. It was largely predicated upon a) distaste for George Bush and an election in which to express that (Bush has like a 25% or lower approval rating right now too) and b) an anti-equality gay marriage amendment on the ballot. The marriage amendment won 60-40, but in college town areas, it went down in big failure, thanks in no small part to the work of Fair Wisconsin. These anti-amendment voters all seemed to vote Democratic too, and there is still lingering strong Dem support, and this is in areas where Democrats have been growing stronger.
If Doyle is the surrogate out there, voters will come Obama's direction, if only because he is the only one out there beyond Madison/Milwaukee right now. Statewide, about 50 Democratic leaders had backed Edwards, including some of the real key people. Clinton had few elected Dems and party leaders that backed her, and Obama probably even less. So with the Edwards people essentially neutralized (I know of only a few that have gone explicitly Obama), there are no surrogates out there pushing a candidate. Doyle's tour is the first major campaigning and organizing that has gone on. The early bird gets the worm and this provides the opportunity to build on that Obama enthusiasm.
Another Democrat that has been for Obama since early on is Gordon Hintz. He is a freshman assembly rep from Oshkosh, on the southern end of the Fox Valley. The Valley, my home area, is a working class Democrat kind of place, in terms of just Democrats. It had been a Republican stronghold for years, but has trended Democratic. Doyle has always done well here actually, from when he was AG and then in his runs for Governor. As importantly, there are few elected Dems from this area right now (but growing very fast), and Gordon has been identified by many as not only a winner there, but an up-and-comer - someone with whom many Valley Democrats identify. That endorsement could be key. The Fox Valley would have gone for Edwards had he stayed in, being a United Steelworkers stronghold that was already being organized well. With that vaccum, there is lots of room for Obama to come in - and there's no love lost for the Clintons over NAFTA in an area where mill and plant closings are throwing the local economy for a loop. But again, what remains to be seen is whether or not the enthusiasm and energy is capitalized upon with real organizing. This is an opportunity for Obama to lock down a populated area where the potential favors him.
As important as any place though, the Madison area seems heavily pro-Obama. There is just more happening here for him than anyone else. That's obviously a key - the Madison area is the biggest chunk of the Democratic primary electorate by leaps and bounds, geographically. Even the former Edwards-supporting county party chair is now going for Obama. For semi-insiders like me, this means more than just the county party chair of the largest local unit of the party going for one candidate. Our county party has been the home of lots of intra-party squabbling, and the prominent figures on all sides now seem to be tilting Obama. They are thought- and opinion-leaders, and when combined with the enthusiasm for Obama, their organizing prowess holds great potential for him to lock down perhaps 60% of the vote here.
When Obama was here last fall, he drew 3,000 to a basic rally in downtown Madison in the middle of the day. When he comes here next, I wouldn't be surprised to see 10,000 people out. There is just that kind of energy that is truly palpable. On Monday night, the local Obama leaders have organized a "star-studded" event with progressive leaders all coming out. I did receive confirmation that one of the now publicly-backing Obamaites is our former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. She'll be at the event (and is from the southern end of the Fox Valley extended, where she is incredibly popular, like she is statewide with progressives), along with one Madison area assembly rep, Spencer Black. Both of these two have had public disagreements, even fights with Doyle over the years. But here the three of them are, all backing the same candidate and lending their public figures to the campaign to hold activation and organizing events. That will send a message statewide for sure.
But here's what I don't see beyond the more grasstops and mass-contact kinds of things: hardcore grassroots organizing. There are no canvasses, no lit-drops, and no phone-banks. With two weeks before the primary, that's hardly unexpected. But that kind of voter contact, in a presumably high-turnout election like this, can sway percentages. Without that kind of operation gearing up quickly, and without hard-core activation of supporters, Obama could be missing an opportunity to really lock down Wisconsin and set the tone for the rest of the primaries.
This is a bellwether state, and it will be the show on the day of our primary. Clinton's campaign, largely through the unions backing her and some of the other establishment progressive and Democratic leaders (and their organizations) could sneak up and beat Obama here by being better organized. Enthusiasm is only as good as how many people turn out - and there's not a model of success for that here in Wisconsin. As I mentioned before, in 2004 there was lots of Dean enthusiasm. And even though it was waning on the way in to our primary, that it waned showed that other dynamics in this campaign could get in the way of an enthusiasm-backed effort.
I didn't mention it above, because it doesn't really fit with much else, and because some of it is not public per se...so I'm keeping it general. But I have heard from some people within the Democratic establishment that they will be supporting Obama simply because they feel like Clinton would be a drag from the top of the ticket in Wisconsin in a year where we have a chance to win state legislative control in both bodies by winning in non-traditional Democratic areas. Personally, I don't buy that logic, as I think that Clinton has potential to change the electoral pie even if not splitting the historical pie to get 50%+1 and carry that down-ticket. But, I bring it up because it is a feeling that some folks have, and it will influence decision-making of some voters for sure. Whether or not they're concerned about down-ticket effects and the unique position of Wisconsin, that is a kind of concern that I hear.
So what I know is this: Obama has the momentum and energy right now and he has the potential to win this state by organizing it. Wisconsin looks like it will be a fight for who can organize the quickest and smartest. I'd say advantage Obama right now. But stay tuned for more on the Clinton camp.