GOP to test get-out-the-vote machine during partisan primaries

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Turnout may be sparse in Tuesday’s partisan primary elections, but the numbers will be more than enough to test the GOP’s new-and-improved get-out-the-vote machine, say Republican Party of Wisconsin officials.

It would appear the political machine has a leg up, technologically and grassroots-wise, on their rivals, although a Democratic Party official tells Wisconsin Reporter that Dems have used up a lot of shoe leather in their bid to win November.

It’s always a test. M.D. Kittle explains the GOP’s ground game in Wisconsin.

GOP MACHINE: Republican Party of Wisconsin officials say they will test out their campaign infrastructure during Wisconsin’s partisan primaries. They say this political machine, gathering and collecting real-time data on Wisconsin voters, is built to last.

State Republican Party officials say they’ve learned a lot since the 2012 presidential campaign when their man Mitt Romney fell apart in the battleground Badger State, losing by 7 percentage points to Democrat incumbent President Barack Obama.

The biggest lesson, they say, is that it’s difficult to win elections if you’re not active. In other words, you can’t come in six months before an election and hope that will be enough time to build a network and a message.

Campaigns market candidates, like businesses market products, and like serious Madison Avenue ad campaigns, political marketing efforts don’t just come together over night.

Joe Fadness, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said he and his team started building in January 2013, coordinating a campaign to re-elect Gov. Scott Walker and down-ballot Republican candidates that has blossomed into 21 field offices around the state, assisted by hundreds of volunteers. That outnumbers the support strength the Republican Party rolled out in Wisconsin’s season of recalls, in 2011 and 2012, and during the previous presidential race.

Those volunteers have made more than 1.2 million phone calls and knocked on 800,000 doors, Fadness said.

The GOP says it sees these operations as “mini campaign managers,” and encourages field office staffers to become embedded in the communities in which they serve, joining local clubs and getting to know the voters.

“Weekly, we knock on tens of thousands of doors, with hundreds of volunteers,” said John Schmieder, political director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin. “The reason we opened these offices so early is so that we can build this to win.”

And not just wins this November. Fadness said the campaign infrastructure is designed to test messages and collect voter data, using the latest in real-time technology at the polls. The research-driven approach, Fadness said, is about building the Republican Party for long-term success in a politically divided state.

“The goal of the Republican Party of Wisconsin is to elect Scott Walker governor and down ballot party members, but it is also to put the infrastructure in place that we can grow and test,” he said. “Most importantly, it is something that is long-term and can be tested, to have a machine in place that can keep running.”

The GOP’s volunteers will be at the polls this primary day, as they were during the spring elections and last year’s Supreme Court race, which saw another victory for conservatives in the re-election of Justice Pat Roggensack.

Republican volunteers, like their Democrat counterparts, will be monitoring the polls to ensure a fair vote. But GOP officials say that, unlike in years passed when volunteers were deployed only in the state’s higher population counties, Republican workers will be at polls statewide to get a better picture of what the electorate looks like. They’ll be using mobile technology to build a real-time database on the type of voters turn out to the primary, and what that might mean for messaging and ground work for the big contest in November.

The most recent Marquette Law School poll shows a dead heat between Walker and his presumptive Democrat challenger, Madison School Board member Mary Burke.

So does the GOP’s new machine offer a different polling picture in the Walker-Burke battle? Fadness didn’t quite answer the question, but he said if you’re not prepared in unpredictable Wisconsin politics, you stand a good chance of losing.

“We take this race seriously, and we understand in a state like Wisconsin you can’t take anything for granted,” the party executive director said. “This is the state of (U.S. Sen.) Tammy Baldwin (Democrat) and (U.S. Sen.) Ron Johnson. A state where Scott Walker and Barack Obama have won elections. Traditionally in Wisconsin you have to fight for every victory, and that’s the reason we started this campaign cycle in 2013, putting together a team and infrastructure for 2014 to carry us to victory.”

Not so fast, said Scott Trindl, second vice chair and office manager of the Waukesha County Democratic Party.

This traditionally blood-red county still picks up the third highest count of Democrat votes in the state — some 85,000 votes for Obama in 2008, and nearly 78,000 in 2012.

“We’ve been very busy. We have a good base of volunteers here and we’ve hit beyond our numbers,” Trindl said, adding that 66 shifts of Waukesha Democratic canvassers were expected to knock on doors in neighboring Milwaukee County between last Saturday and Tuesday.

“We want to make sure our voters go out and vote in this primary. We’re not bringing out new technology like the Republicans have. We have an efficient system of knowing who our voters are,” he said.

But it would appear the Republican Party dwarfs its competitor in resources. Fadness declined to detail dollar figures, but the Democrats, for instance, claim nine field offices to the GOP’s 21.

Democrats have long insisted that they built a formidable infrastructure during the recall and presidential campaigns of a couple years ago.

But Fadness said the Democrat machine had been idle for months at a stretch following the previous general election.

An official from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin did not return multiple requests for comment.

“The Democrats are putting a plane together and the same time they are trying to fly it,” Fadness said. “We’ve got good technology, but you are only as good as the people behind it. We are giving them the ability to talk to their neighbors, and they are giving us the ability to talk with people and have one on one conversations. That is what we believe will be the key to victory in November.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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