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Grassroots Politics Makes Wisconsin's Recall Elections Local, and Personal

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, May 18 2012

Photo: Overpass Light Brigade

His face appears unbidden in inboxes nationwide: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, appealing for funds to support his campaign to win the recall election triggered against him.

It's true that both Walker and his opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett, will be a ubiquitous presence not just in emails sent around the country but also on television ads and radio spots inside Wisconsin. As the June 5 recall election gets closer, though, operatives supporting both Walker and Barrett say this election will be a far more visceral experience for voters: Campaigns over the past few years have become better and better at leaning on supporters to fire up their friends on Facebook and use the Internet to organize themselves to go door to door. The recall will be another opportunity to see how much traditional campaigns at all levels have come to rely on the grassroots — and what that means for voters caught in the crossfire of a highly charged election fueled by millions in political spending.

“This is the largest grassroots campaign we’ve ever had,” said Ben Sparks, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Republican Party. “We have thousands of volunteers, and they’ve already made more then two million voter contact phone calls out of more than 40 field offices we have throughout the state.”

The June 5 election was triggered by another grassroots action entirely: more than 30,000 volunteers collected more than 900,000 signatures to trigger the Walker recall. Left-leaning activists had also gathered enough signatures to recall Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators, all in response to a slew of budget cuts and reductions to collective bargaining rights for public employees which Walker championed.

Republicans are fighting back hard. In addition to the torrents of cash flowing into the state, groups on both sides of the issues are working furiously to turn out every single vote. The Wisconsin GOP, for example, is holding an event Saturday from nine in the morning until nine at night where volunteers are going to make phone calls to identify supporters.

Sparks says the Wisconsin GOP is working to push out a single message in concert with local parties — but they're doing it differently this year. Perhaps taking a cue from the way unions around the country used Facebook to organize against Wisconsin-style collective bargaining changes last year, they're hoping to drive activity from Facebook pages dedicated to each part of the state.

"We have 72 counties here in Wisconsin, and the majority of the counties have their own Facebook pages," Sparks told me. "And so we help all of our county parties and our grassroots supporters maintain their Facebook pages thoughout the state. We help them to develop the message and send them ideas for their tweets and their Facebook pages, so that not only are we doing it, but all our local counties are doing the same thing so that we’re all unified in posting the same message."

On top of that, Republican Governor Scott Walker, the chief target of the recall, is advertising on YouTube and on Facebook and placing search ads on Google. Then there's the former House speaker's email list, which Walker has already hit multiple times since March and which one must assume also includes Wisconsinites.

“We’re targeting voters online aggressively until June 5,” Sparks said.

Conservatives around the country are just as fired up about Walker and his approach to managing Wisconsin as Democrats and public sector employees are angry. And both sides believe that a win or loss on either of their parts would be precedent-setting. Grassroots energy for Walker is coming from Tea Party supporters as well as from traditional Republicans.

“If we win in Wisconsin, not only do you have the back of a whole generation of reform governors, not only do you change the dynamic of the election, but you put the Tea Party at the front and center of a grassroots movement,” said the conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon during a fundraising and organizational conference call last week organized by the Tea Party Patriots.

The group is raising money to send volunteers from all around the country to Wisconsin to contact voters in person.

But Democrats and dozens of independent groups have been busy ginning up support too. In a memo published on Sunday, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said that the party has some 35,000 volunteers, and their candidate, Tom Barrett, will be going door-to-door with them around the state. Tate said that as of Sunday, the volunteers had made 409,000 phone calls and door knocks and had plans to make 1.2 million more. Barrett and the party are also advertising on Google and maintains an active presence on YouTube and Facebook.

For its part, Workers’ Voice, the AFL-CIO’s Super PAC, promises supporters that it’s going to run “targeted online ads in Wisconsin,” and round up volunteers to get out the vote. It’s also promising to roll out “easy-to-use technology that connects volunteers with friends, neighbors and co-workers to leverage the power of the worksite, the original social network.”

Eddie Vale, the PAC’s communications director, declined to provide further details prior to June 5. But in previous union-backed efforts, labor groups have made use of relatively new tools that let supporters rifle through their Facebook friends to find people they know who might be persuaded to cast a vote.

Meanwhile, Rebuild the Dream, a non-profit focused on building a national movement around core middle-class economic issues, has been working with local groups in Wisconsin to organize a “revival” in Milwaukee on Saturday. They’re expecting 700 to attend.

Rebuild the Dream commissioned the activist and rapper Jasiri X to create a downloadable tune and music video about the recall on YouTube. The goal was to raise awareness online about the Saturday event, which will feature a talent showcase organized by the League of Young Voters, DJs, speeches by Van Jones and Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) and direct action and get-out-the-vote trainings.

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“The goal is to target a group of people who might not otherwise get involved in the recall, a demographic in an area that needs more get-out-the-vote work,” said Natalie Foster, Rebuild the Dream’s CEO and co-founder.

All of this social-network enabled organizing combined with the influx of money to the process seems to be shaping the Wisconsin recall into an intensely personal election, one where increased connectedness and participation means an increased likelihood that friends will get into a tiff over the campaign.

A recent Marquette University Law School poll, per the Los Angeles Times, found that nearly 30 percent of respondents had stopped speaking to someone they knew because of political disagreements. Only four percent of respondents were still undecided in the election.

Another one in five had given money, and half said that they had tried to persuade someone to vote their way.

"Voters across the state in recent interviews talked of family gatherings disrupted, book groups and golf foursomes broken up and longtime friendships dissolved in partisan rancor," the LA Times reported.

Meanwhile, the political professionals remain focused on persuasion.

"It’s going to come down to voter intensity," said the Wisconsin GOP's Sparks. "And yes, we’re still trying to convince some of the voters who voted for Tom Barrett in 2010. We’re still trying to convince some of those people to come to our side. We’re also trying to embolden our current supporters, and remind them why they supported Governor Walker, and let them know how important it is to get out the vote."

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