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Block by block, parties build Obama-style networks

The Democratic organizer Bill Chandler reviews a voter-contact sheet while canvassing on Sept. 21 in Whitewater. Chandler is helping to carry out the Democrats’ strategy to win back Wisconsin – a block-by-block rebuilding of the network they let crumble ahead of the last presidential election. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

The Democratic organizer Bill Chandler reviews a voter-contact sheet while canvassing on Sept. 21 in Whitewater. Chandler is helping to carry out the Democrats’ strategy to win back Wisconsin – a block-by-block rebuilding of the network they let crumble ahead of the last presidential election. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

WHITEWATER, Wis. (AP) — It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday in late September — 200 days from Wisconsin’s presidential primary, nearly 14 months from Election Day 2020— and Bill Chandler, a retired orchestra teacher, is out talking to his neighbors about politics.

Tromping from yard to yard in the small town of Whitewater, he carries in one hand a clipboard listing persuadable voters and, in the other, a stack of handouts listing 2020 election dates. The 71-year-old looks up at a looming rain storm, and optimistically sums up his goals.

“It’s neighbor to neighbor,” he said. “The grass roots, from people to people, overrides money.”

Chandler is helping carry out Democrats’ strategy to win back Wisconsin — a block-by-block rebuilding of the networks they let crumble ahead of the latest presidential election. Many Democrats in Wisconsin, and across the Rust Belt states that President Donald Trump flipped Republican in 2016, believe weak neighborhood networks then contributed to their defeat. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign relied too heavily on ads and paid canvassers. The consequences were disastrous, they say.

The new plan in Wisconsin and other battleground states is simple: Do what Barack Obama did. The former president easily won Wisconsin twice by building an organization founded on neighborhood organizing, local volunteers and personal relationships. It worked so well for Obama that Republicans are trying it, too, training local volunteers who can return to their neighborhoods and deliver the president’s message with a personal touch.

“It’s going to be a massive ground game,” said Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt. “Our strategies are not that different.”

The fact that both parties are already investing in organizing operations — months before Democrats even have a candidate — is evidence of Wisconsin’s chances of being a make-or-break state in 2020. So far, the parties’ plans call for engaging voters early, where they live, with people from their towns who can connect on politics. Advocates believe that such connections are more effective — particularly in these polarized times — than TV ads or campaign staff flown in from out of state.

Research has shown over and over that the most effective political organizing is done locally, said Lara Putnam, chair of the history department at the University of Pittsburgh.

But neighborhood organizing takes a lot of time and energy. And for Democrats, central parts of Obama’s network, like labor unions, have diminished in size and influence, Putnam said.

One priority for Democrats is Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest and most liberal city. Even so, Democrats have struggled in recent years to bolster political engagement and turnout.

The biggest failure came in 2016, when an estimated 20% decrease in the number black voters who went to the polls was cited as one of the main contributors to Trump’s victory, ending a Democratic presidential winning streak dating to 1988.

To turn it around, Democrats have chosen Milwaukee for their national convention in July. They’re investing early and heavily not only in Milwaukee but in its key suburbs and more rural parts of the state.

Wisconsin Democrats started rebuilding their neighborhood teams in the spring of 2017 and now have 250 operating throughout the state. Those teams knocked on twice as many doors ahead of the 2018 election than the Clinton field operation did in 2016, said state party chairman Ben Wikler. He calls it the Democrats’ “secret sauce.”

The Republican National Committee has meanwhile been promoting a neighborhood similar to what Obama used for the past couple election cycles, said Wisconsin Republican Party Executive Director Mark Jefferson.

Jefferson, who worked at the RNC for eight years before returning to Wisconsin earlier this year, said the party is set on improving its data to target the right voters. The key, he said, is then having people who live in the same area contact those voters.

“In these politically charged times, if you can have a neighbor or someone from the area at your door, it dials down the rhetoric from what you may see on TV,” Jefferson said.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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