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Winning Fiercely-Divided Wisconsin Will Come Down to Candidates’ Ground Game

October 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Green Bay residents may love the Packers more than anything else, but politics comes at a close second. With a strong independent electorate, Wisconsin had the most counties in the U.S. vote for Bush in 2004 and then swing to Obama in 2008. Jeffrey Brown reports on the 2012 campaigns' attempts to woo these tough-minded voters.
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GWEN IFILL: And we turn to the final days of the presidential contest. Among the key states in both campaigns’ sights is Wisconsin. Polls show the race there so close, that both sides agree the outcome will all come down to who has the better ground game.

Jeffrey Brown reports from the BadgerState.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Green Bay, above all else, people love their Packers. And this Sunday before a home game at legendary Lambeau Field, the faithful were out in force, tossing footballs, grilling brats and burgers and, this being just before Halloween, donning their best zombie Brett Favre costumes.

They also love politics here. More than 70 percent of Wisconsin’s eligible voters went to the polls in the last few presidential elections, the second highest tally in the country.

So, naturally, politics and Packers mix.

Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, herself in a tight race for an open Senate seat, was here to boost her party’s chances.

REP. TAMMY BALDWIN, D-Wis.: We’re here at Lambeau Field, where thousands of people are flocking in to enjoy a great football game, but also just reminding people about their solemn duty to vote, as citizens. And we have a big focus in the final days on getting out the vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the other side, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson joined up with Romney-Ryan bus.

SEN. RON JOHNSON, R-Wis.: This thing is going to go right down to the wire. I’m cautiously optimistic about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Barack Obama won this state handily in 2008. This year, he was well ahead here this year until after the first debate, when Mitt Romney gained ground.

NARRATOR: When Mitt Romney led Bain, hundreds of plants, factories, and stores were shuttered. Workers saw their wages slashed, their jobs sent overseas.

MITT ROMNEY (R): Look at the evidence of the last four years. Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They’re just being crushed.

JEFFREY BROWN: For local citizens, that’s meant a flood of ads, stuffed mailboxes, thousands of phone calls and knocks on their doors. By one recent count, this area is the most saturated political market in the nation.

The national campaign for the presidency has come down to a battle for a relatively small number of swing counties. And BrownCounty here is one of them. For the competing parties, everything now depends on organization, the so-called ground game.

Ben Sparks is communications director for the Romney campaign in Wisconsin.

BEN SPARKS, Romney Campaign, Wisconsin: The key to winning races in Wisconsin is enthusiasm and voter intensity. In 2010, whenever Republicans had historic electoral gains through the state, the story of the day wasn’t that the Democrats stayed at home. Rather, the story was that the Republicans turned out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Republicans are counting on gains they made two years ago, when Scott Walker became governor and both chambers of the state legislature flipped from Democrat to Republican.

That was followed by a recall campaign started by public-sector labor unions and aided by Democratic state legislators and voters.

All in all, the chief fact of political life in Wisconsin these days, bitterly divided, almost permanent political warfare for almost three years. This is a state that is both energized and exhausted.

RITA HUBRICH, Wisconsin: I can’t wait for it to be done. I’m tired of the negative — I’m just tired of all the negative things. One person trashes the other one.

ANGELA APPLETON, Wisconsin: The ads all seem to be negative. You kind of tune them out when it’s negative.

SCOTT SELBY, Wisconsin: It is annoying with all the calls and the ads and all that kind of stuff. And most people know who they’re going to vote for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Republicans think they can build on the grassroots campaign that succeeded in thwarting the recall effort and on having native son Paul Ryan on the ticket.

Yesterday, the campaign brought a surprise star, Ann Romney, to the Green Bay field office to greet volunteers. Her husband had canceled a visit to Wisconsin in the wake of Sandy, as had President Obama, who had planned to speak at a rally in Green Bay last night. Both turned their efforts to the storm on the East Coast.

And in Green Bay, Ann Romney talked up storm relief.

ANN ROMNEY: This is a time for us to care, all Americans, to reach out and help others.

WOMAN: Hello, Joshua. My name is Marley. I’m calling from Organizing for America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, Democratic volunteers were also working hard at their local office in another part of town.

The president, in fact, has more than twice as many field offices in the state as Romney, more boots on the ground. And the competition for door-knocks and one-on-one contact here is intense.

Mary Ginnebaugh is Brown County Democratic Party chairman.

MARY GINNEBAUGH, Brown County, Wis., Democratic Party: We had a huge canvass the last two weekends, knocking doors, talking with people. We have just been working really hard to identify the people that we know are sort of on that fence, haven’t committed, maybe have voted Republican in the past or have voted Democratic in one election, Republican another time. And so we see that there’s this yin-yang sort of thing going on. And we’re trying to…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yin-yang here in Green Bay?

MARY GINNEBAUGH: Yes, yes, even here in Green Bay, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, this is the main reason for all the attention here. Confucius might say yin-yang. American political strategists would say Bush-Obama.

Wisconsin had the most counties of any state in the country that went for George W. Bush in 2004 and then switched to Barack Obama in 2008. BrownCounty here was one of them. But then it went for Republican Scott Walker two years ago.

The question now, what is next?

St.NorbertCollege political scientist Wendy Scattergood says that even in a deeply divided electorate, the Wisconsin tradition of tough-minded independent voters is alive and well.

WENDY SCATTERGOOD,St.NorbertCollege: They tend to be moderates. They do want to see bipartisanship. They want to see people working together. And so, when they get really frustrated or if their perception is that either on the right of the left that they’re moving too far to the extreme, they throw them out of office.

JEFFREY BROWN: But having seen the state — having seen this area in the state go all Republican just two years ago, you wouldn’t be surprised to see it flip back again this quickly?

WENDY SCATTERGOOD: Yes, absolutely. We have a tradition of being very, very closely matched between Democrats and Republicans, so those independents who are very centrist can make all the difference.

MAN: You can canvass, or phone, or input data, whatever you want.

JEFFREY BROWN: How many persuadables are there? That’s also being pursued by some major outside players, who are, by law, required to work independently from the parties.

One is We Are Wisconsin, a coalition of labor unions and other partners, including Planned Parenthood. These groups helped push and then lost badly in the recall vote against Scott Walker.

Kristen Crowell is the executive director of We Are Wisconsin. She says her people were definitely down, but hardly out.

KRISTEN CROWELL, We Are Wisconsin: I did a tour around the state immediately after the recall election and visited 17 cities. And I can tell you the activists were — they were not defeated. They said this is one battle in a war that we’re going to continue to wage.

JEFFREY BROWN: For her group, too, these last days of the campaign are about one-to-one contacts. Crowell wouldn’t let our camera shoot her database, but she showed me how, as she put it, ward by ward, we know who’s undecided.

KRISTEN CROWELL: What’s interesting is we’re able to aggregate issues that people care about. So, when we go talking door to door, there’s a place, if you can see here, to mark what candidates they are supporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: So these are individuals with their address.

KRISTEN CROWELL: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is — these are boxes to fill in for how strong or weak they are on particular candidates.

KRISTEN CROWELL: Candidates, absolutely. And then all of this gets entered every night by our team into our voter file, so we’re working with the most current — the most current information constantly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the other side does exactly the same thing.

At the Titletown Brewery, a smaller group was making their own phone calls, fewer in number, but backed by more money, for this was the Americans for Prosperity organization, founded by the Koch brothers to push conservative economic policies.

Luke Hilgemann is the group’s Wisconsin director.

LUKE HILGEMANN, Americans for Prosperity: We actually have seven full-time field staff here in the state of Wisconsin who are working with our 125,000 volunteer activists all across the state, spreading the message that Barack Obama’s policies have failed to live up to the promises that he made.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hilgemann used language very similar to Crowell in describing his group’s use of technology. He also echoed others about the voters themselves.

LUKE HILGEMANN: They’re very independent-minded. They are hardworking working-class citizens that they vote for the person. They think the person is the best — the person that most exemplifies who they are and will do the best job for them. So I think what you see here in Green Bay is a microcosm of what you see all across this state, that people want a new direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Given recent shifts here, though, the question in Wisconsin remains, which really is the new direction?

One prominent local citizen isn’t tipping his hand. We met Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt at Al’s Hamburger Shop.

I noticed you’re not endorsing either candidate. Why’s that?

MAYOR JIM SCHMITT,Green Bay, Wis.: No. You know what? Look, I’m the mayor. I know who I want to be the mayor, but when it comes to…

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: You feel good about that one?

JIM SCHMITT: I feel pretty good about endorsing that one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mayor Schmitt just may be the smartest politician around. With a constituency fiercely divided and independent, he directed us to his own house a few blocks away. There, we found one sign for a Democratic state assembly candidate and another for a Republican running for the state Senate.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama and Mitt Romney have rescheduled their Wisconsin events for later this week.

Want to examine the fallout no matter who wins? You can explore every Electoral College scenario in our Vote 2012 Map Center.