Democrats, labor unions, and progressive groups are investing heavily in new organizing techniques in Wisconsin, where electoral victory is considered crucial to the party’s path to the White House. They are hoping to boost voter turnout in a state that the national party took for granted in 2016.
The efforts, spearheaded by Wisconsin leaders and liberal donors across the country, include massive new investments in field organizing, a targeted focus on communities of color, and capitalizing on the Democratic Party convention that will be held in Milwaukee next July.
“I think the whole country recognizes that Wisconsin is not only a necessary state, but may be the necessary state to stop Trump and elect a Democratic president,” said Ben Wikler, the former D.C. director of the national progressive group MoveOn, who was elected chair of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party in June. “Activists, small donors, large donors, and independent groups are all looking at Wisconsin for 2020.”
By all indications, the state’s election is going to be decided by a narrow margin. A new poll released last week by Crooked Media and Change Research found Donald Trump trailing a Democratic candidate in Wisconsin by just 1 percentage point. Independents — who make up more than a third of the Badger State’s electorate — lean Trump 43 to 41 percent, the survey found, and 2016 third-party voters and nonvoters lean Democratic.
For more than three decades, Wisconsin had not elected a Republican as president. That, combined with Barack Obama’s sweep of the state in 2008 and 2012, led to party complacency in 2016, and shock when Trump won Wisconsin by just under 23,000 votes. A careful look at the state’s more recent history, however, underscores that the party never should have taken the state for granted — a lesson it appears Democrats are learning.
“I think people outside the state don’t appreciate that our 2000 election was decided by less than 6,000 votes, and 2004 was decided by less than 13,000 votes,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Milwaukee-based Marquette Law School Poll. “So as close as 2016 was, it was actually the third-closest race since 2000.”
In addition, Republicans held trifecta control over Wisconsin’s state government from 2011 to 2018, and Gov. Scott Walker decisively won his recall election in 2012 and reelection in 2014. Under his leadership, the state not only passed the notorious Act 10 — legislation that stripped public school teachers of their right to collectively bargain — but also right-to-work, undermining the financial base of labor unions across the state. Union membership has plummeted in Wisconsin, going from 13.3 percent of workers in 2011, to just 8.1 percent in 2018.
The decimation of labor unions likely played a role in the 2016 election and will be a factor in 2020. One study published last year estimated that the enactment of right-to-work laws across the U.S. had reduced Democratic presidential vote shares by a staggering 3.5 percentage points. Overall turnout decreased by 2 percentage points after the passage of right-to-work laws, and that’s in part, the researchers say, because labor’s ability to contribute politically was weakened.
“The decline of labor has been a big blow to the state’s Democratic party in terms of fundraising,” said Franklin. “National unions have come in and invested some because of the symbolic value of Wisconsin and Scott Walker, but the teachers union and AFSCME are far weaker, and there’s no question there’s been a substantial political impact in terms of boots on the ground.”
In interviews, state leaders recognized that the challenges — which, in addition to a weakened labor movement, include gerrymandered maps and racist voter ID laws — are real. But they say the opportunities to mobilize better and differently are real, too.
“It’s true our membership is down, but the remaining members we have are the most engaged, hyper-involved that we’ve ever seen,” said Valerie Landowski, the spokesperson for Wisconsin’s affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. “And as the fights changed, the energy was forced to be ramped up.”
For Our Future, a national super PAC venture that formed in 2016 between AFSCME, AFL-CIO, NEA, AFT, SEIU, and NextGen America, is investing more heavily this cycle in a campaign strategy known as “relational organizing.”
Relational organizing — which involves leveraging one’s own social network to persuade and mobilize voters — has been employed in Wisconsin by political campaigners since 2011. But after the 2016 election, For Our Future ran a test with Analyst Institute to formally study its impact and found it was notably effective, despite not being used on a very large scale. Joe Zepecki of For Our Future told The Intercept that after that study, progressives in Wisconsin more than doubled the number of volunteers using relational organizing tools in 2018, and aim to surpass that in 2020.
“People talking to people they know is one of the oldest political technologies in existence,” said Wikler, “but doing it through apps and digital tools is still pretty new.”
There is also new money pouring into the state from Priorities USA, the primary super PAC that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, and did not target Wisconsin at the time. It is spending $100 million on early campaign ads in Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
The state Democratic Party, for its part, is emphasizing a return to campaign strategies it relied on when Obama ran for president, where organizers mobilized and supported local teams of volunteers who then knocked on doors in their own communities. The Clinton campaign employed a more traditional voter turnout effort — where canvassers were hired to do voter persuasion.
“We’re doing a massive neighborhood team-based field program and that is a sharp contrast from 2016,” Wikler told The Intercept. After the loss in 2016, he said, the then-chair of the Wisconsin Democratic party, Martha Lanning, did a deep dive into winning elections after Trump, and discovered there were still some neighborhood teams barely alive from the Obama years that weren’t being properly supported. Starting in the spring of 2017, the state Democratic Party switched to rebuilding its neighborhood field program, and by 2018 had 250 such teams on the ground. “Those teams knocked almost twice as many doors for half the cost than they did in the presidential,” Wikler said.
Wikler said they are also taking a different approach to their field organizers this time around. By the spring of 2016, the Clinton campaign had hired just a few field organizers in Wisconsin, and they were mostly individuals who lacked deep roots in the state. “Although they did a lot of wonderful work, some of it was at cross-purposes with what local activists and local parties were doing,” he said. By contrast, Wikler says his party has already hired 13 field organizers for 2020, and they are starting early to most effectively mobilize those areas. “It’s like planting trees,” he said. “The earlier you start, the more you can grow. And if you come in with a really short time, you wind up missing a lot about people’s specific preferences.”
Wikler also pointed to Organizing Corps 2020, a Democratic National Committee-led effort launched in February across seven states, including Wisconsin, to recruit and train students expecting to graduate by June 2020. The goal is to put them through an eight-week organizing program while they’re still in school, so that when they graduate, they can start working as full-time field organizers. The program has the goal of training 1,000 young people, and Wikler said this past summer they had 29 such fellows in Wisconsin, who, among other things, knocked on 2 percent of all Milwaukee’s doors. “That early work is tremendous, not only to improve our data but also identify new volunteers and activists,” he said.
New grassroots community organizations are also working to complement the efforts of the party infrastructure, with the explicit goal of mobilizing communities of color. In 2016, the black voter turnout rate dropped nationwide, but the drop was even steeper in Wisconsin, where it declined 19 percentage points compared to 2012. While one study found thousands of registered Wisconsin voters were kept from voting due to the state’s new restrictive voter ID law, local activists say voter suppression doesn’t capture the full story, and the chronic disinvestment in the needs of black communities wrought consequences.
One such group is Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, which formed in November 2017 and is run by Angela Lang, a Milwaukee native who worked as the For Our Future Wisconsin political director in 2016.
“Essentially we’re a response to the 2016 election,” Lang, the group’s executive director, told The Intercept. “A lot of folks were blaming our community for not turning out to vote and essentially blaming us for why Donald Trump got elected, and I found those attacks to be a very dangerous narrative.”
Lang said a lot of their work has been about rebuilding political trust within the black community, and learning more specifically what black residents feel they need in order to thrive. BLOC is taking a different approach to field organizing, Lang says, through its “BLOC Ambassadors” program, which aims to train local community residents with the kind of knowledge that may empower them to pursue organizing as a meaningful career path even after the election. “Part of our training is we educate our ambassadors about the roles and responsibilities of each particular office, so then they can go out and explain to voters why they should specifically care about the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office, or the county executive,” she said. Eighteen BLOC ambassadors are currently being trained on a 12-week paid fellowship program.
In addition to its focus on federal races, BLOC is working to educate community members about the city budget process and upcoming local elections. “We’re making sure that not all the oxygen is getting sucked up by the presidential, because the general election for mayor and county executive is the same day as the presidential primary,” Lang said.
“People talk a lot about presidential coattails,” — the tendency for a strong presidential candidate to attract votes for other candidates in their party — “but energizing down-ballot races actually drives presidential turnout too,” said Wikler.
Leaders Igniting Transformation, or LIT, is another new group in Milwaukee taking a similarly unconventional approach to political organizing. LIT launched in January 2018 with the goal of mobilizing and training young people of color to engage civically and advance a progressive policy agenda.
During the 2018 election, according to LIT’s executive director Dakota Hall, young people knocked on over 35,000 doors and collected over 10,000 voter pledge cards. The group specifically targets voters under 30, and like BLOC, LIT is focused heavily on youth leadership development. Its “Black Hogwarts” program for example was a six-week training program to train 25 youth of color on the basics of community organizing, and its “cultural organizing” program seeks to bring in local Milwaukee artists, performers, musicians, and influencers into the civic sphere.
“Black turnout was down because there wasn’t necessarily a candidate or organization speaking to the hearts and minds of the black community,” Hall said, noting that Milwaukee youth are particularly concerned with affordable and debt-free pathways to college, the humanitarian and moral crisis at the southern border, and health care. “I think we’re going to see a resurgence of the black vote in Wisconsin and Milwaukee because of groups like LIT and BLOC that are doing things differently.”
These efforts have garnered attention from liberals outside the state. Both BLOC and LIT are supported by the Center for Popular Democracy, an umbrella group for national progressive organizations. They will also receive funds from a new initiative spearheaded by actress Alyssa Milano, who announced she would be partnering with the Movement Voter Project, a progressive donor organization, to help raise $1 million for nine local grassroots groups in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
These efforts are, in many ways, building up to the DNC’s 2020 convention — a tremendous Milwaukee-based opportunity being held next July. One study published in 2014 found Democrats are more likely to gain support in convention host communities than Republicans.
“Volunteers for the convention become volunteers for the general election,” said Wikler. “There will be literally thousands of people volunteering, many of them possibly for their first time.”
Leaders Igniting Transformation intends to organize around the party convention, according to Hall. “If candidates are going to come to Milwaukee, one of the most segregated metros in the nation, one of the worst places to raise a black child with one of the highest racial and educational disparities, well, we are looking to make sure their plans will not just use Milwaukee as some grandstanding opportunity to show support for the Midwest,” he said. “We plan on taking action to ensure that whatever candidates make it to the convention are put on notice that they will not ignore black communities in their platforms.”
The Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, or MASH, a new union that launched in 2018 and has already organized 1,200 workers in the city, also plans to organize around the convention. MASH is led by Peter Rickman, a local labor activist who led Bernie Sanders’s Wisconsin delegation to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Crucially, MASH is focused on sectoral bargaining, which would allow workers in the same industry to bargain with their employers alongside each other, and was integral in negotiating a labor agreement for the new Milwaukee Bucks arena where the party convention will be held. (In 2018, MASH worked with the Fight for $15 coalition to get out the vote for then-gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers.)
“Going into 2020 we are ramping up what our political operation looks like,” Rickman told The Intercept. “And yes, let’s use the place of this convention to tell the nation the story of how in Milwaukee we are building new forms of worker organization to raise wages and living standards. Candidates have to do more than simply pledge to roll back right-to-work. Even if we got rid of right-to-work, it wouldn’t address the fact that we’ve got thousands of workers and contractors now spread across hundreds of different worksites.”
Recent elections in the state indicate just how narrow the margin will be in 2020. In last November’s midterm elections, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin sailed to reelection by 10 percentage points, but in the gubernatorial race, Democrat Tony Evers ousted Walker by just over 1 percentage point, or 29,000 votes. While he outperformed Walker in suburban areas, as well as in Wisconsin’s most populous counties, Walker exceeded expectations in more rural parts of the state.
“At the end of the day, you want to have higher turnout in core Democratic areas, and you want to persuade more voters in exurban areas,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist who did polling for Evers’s campaign. “That’s how Gov. Evers won, and that’s really what the formula is.”
An April election for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court also demonstrated how Republicans can still wield considerable electoral power. A conservative defeated a progressive judicial candidate by a margin of just 6,000 votes, out of 1.2 million ballots cast. The narrow GOP victory was the result of a last-minute push by conservatives, which included tying attacks on the Republican candidate to attacks on Brett Kavanaugh, more than $1 million spent by the Republican State Leadership Committee in the week before the election, and conservative talk radio hosts spending hours urging Wisconsin Republicans to turn out and vote.
“Look, in some places they talk about the pendulum ‘swinging back,’ but in Wisconsin, our pendulum is just stuck,” said Zepecki. “Wisconsin is always going to be incredibly competitive. No presidential candidate is going to earn 60 percent on either side, that’s just not who we are.”
Correction: August 26, 2019
A previous version of this article misidentified the group Black Leaders Organizing for Communities.