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On The Ground in Wisconsin: Lessons From The Losing Side

A sign along a county highway in Saukville, Wis. Exit polls showed 38 percent of voters with a labor union member in the family voted for Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Jeffrey Phelps
A sign along a county highway in Saukville, Wis. Exit polls showed 38 percent of voters with a labor union member in the family voted for Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The morning after Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin handily rebuffed Democratic efforts to oust him, politicos in the state and beyond pored over exit poll data and turnout numbers to tease out:

A: How he did it.

B: Where Democrats failed.

My colleague Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor, took a good shot at answering Question A Wednesday morning.

In an attempt to answer Question B, I sat down Wednesday with a group of Democratic activists in Waukesha, Wis., to get their take on why their hard-fought effort fell short, and what lessons they learned. (Similarly, I'm planning a later blog post on takeaways from the perspective of Don Taylor, longtime chairman of the Waukesha Republican Party, one of the most influential Republicans in the state.)

I'd met with these same folks in March, before the presidential primary — when the recall was in the making, but before a May primary that anointed Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as Walker's Democratic challenger.

The mood Wednesday, obviously, was quite different. Those I spoke to were alternately exhausted, disappointed and combative. But reflective, too.

They say they're not angry with President Obama for avoiding recall politics, noting that his paid Wisconsin staff was involved in the recall effort. But they worried that the president's absence may have embittered or discouraged some volunteers the campaign will need for the competitive presidential race in November.

Here are the takeaways from our wide-ranging conversation:

Kristin Hansen and Scott Trindl are Wisconsin volunteers with President Obama's re-election campaign.
Liz Halloran / NPR
Kristin Hansen and Scott Trindl are Wisconsin volunteers with President Obama's re-election campaign.

*Don't make assumptions about union households: Democrats at the table were stunned by the exit poll statistic showing that 38 percent of voters with a labor union member in the family voted for Walker. "You can't assume just because a person is a union member, they are also a Democrat," said Kristin Hansen, a volunteer here for Organizing for America, Obama's re-election organization. "I'm shocked because I thought the unions were talking to their people."

Though Walker pulled 37 percent of that same union household vote in 2010, Hansen and others say they believed that his rollback of public union collective bargaining rights would have diminished his support. They even told of hearing stories of just that scenario. "We were taking anecdotal stuff and assuming it was representative," said Mary O'Herron, a retired rural letter carrier. "A lot of people are union on paper only."

*Stricter voting registration laws are affecting turnout: Republican efforts in Wisconsin to enact a law that would require voters to present identification at their polling places are currently on hold while under court scrutiny. But myriad other ballot and voter registration changes enacted by the GOP-controlled Legislature since Walker was elected in 2010 have limited opportunities for registering voters.

New rules expand blackout days for voter registration efforts from 10 days before an election to 20 days; set an earlier deadline for absentee or early voting; and expand residency requirements from 10 to 28 days. The rules also eliminate statewide voter registration volunteer training, and now volunteers need to receive separate training in each municipality where registration drives will be held.

The new deadlines and blackout days meant that Democrats had just eight days after Barrett's primary win in which to register new voters. The upside? "It creates a sense of urgency for volunteers — which is good," Hansen said.

*Voter distaste for recalls is real: In the waning days of the campaign, Walker ran compelling ads of testimonials from Democrats who didn't vote for him in 2010 but who opposed the recall on principle. That distaste was evident in the numbers: Exit polls showed that fewer than a third of voters thought recalls were appropriate for any reason; 60 percent said they were only appropriate for "official misconduct."

It was a sentiment that Democrats didn't tap into, or combat. "I don't think we did anything about it," said Bruce MacIntyre, a retired professor. "We knew it was out there, but we didn't have any talking points" from the Democratic Party or the Obama campaign. Said Hansen: "We assumed that anyone who would support Obama would support the recall, so we weren't making persuasion calls; we were making get-out-the-vote calls."

And the recall effort had become an unstoppable organism, driven by grass roots and the petition time clock, activists say, before its potential peril could be polled and assessed. Exit polls showed Obama running ahead of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, 51-44 percent. Walker won the votes of 17 percent of Obama supporters.

*Ignore Hispanic and first-time voters at your peril. And remember that presidential-only voters often live up to their reputation: The local Obama campaign just brought on its first bilingual field organizer in the Waukesha area, where Republicans have made strong inroads with the Latino community. "We just didn't have the staff this time," MacIntyre said. "We need leaflets in Spanish, and a strong visible volunteer from that community who is our face in the community."

There were half a million fewer voters Tuesday than in the 2008 presidential election. "Why not now focus on those 500,000 who didn't vote?" said Scott Trindl, a volunteer with Obama's re-election campaign.

Despite the hindsight, MacIntyre said he racked his brain Tuesday night to think of what, in their control, volunteers could have done to change the outcome. "I couldn't think of one thing," he said.

Said Hansen: "More than a million people voted against Scott Walker. I hope he remembers that."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.

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