Wisconsin and the GOP Ground Game

June 06, 2012

We'll be talking about Tuesday's Wisconsin recall election for a long time to come.

The results were a historic setback for organized labor, which failed to oust Gov. Scott Walker in a citadel of modern progressivism. And how it must have stung that 38% of union households voted for Mr. Walker, up a point from 2010 when he was first elected.

The election has implications for November. The Badger State now looks more like it did in 2000 and 2004, when Democrats narrowly carried it by margins of 5,708 votes and 11,384 votes, respectively. President Obama's campaign now admits Wisconsin is a tossup. That isn't an encouraging trend in a state he won by 414,818 votes.

The recall contest was expected to be close. A Democratic pollster had the race at three points just a few days out. GOP tracking surveys showed the contest tightening as well. Yet Mr. Walker won by 172,739 votes, up from his 2010 margin of 124,638 votes.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Team Obama, after all, has bragged about how strong its ground game is at registering, persuading and turning out the vote.

Last month, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told congressional Democrats in a closed-door meeting (reported by Politico) that "we're building the best grass-roots campaign in modern American political history . . . that will help all Democrats up and down the ticket." Democratic Party Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz also boasted on CNN in May that the Wisconsin recall would be the "dry run we need of our massive, significant dynamic grass-roots presidential campaign."

There are two possible answers why the "best grass-roots campaign in modern American political history" failed to deliver victory. First, Team Obama's vaunted get-out-the-vote effort was simply a facade. That's not likely, since Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate, did receive 158,482 more votes than he did in losing to Mr. Walker in 2010.

The other possibility is the Democrats were out-hustled by the Republicans.

Given the intense focus on the ground game by the Walker campaign, the Republican Governors Association, and Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus (who was Badger State GOP chairman before winning his current post), that's probably a big reason Mr. Walker won with 205,509 more votes than he received 18 months ago.

Before Tuesday's vote in Wisconsin there was already evidence that Democrats nationally didn't have quite the ground game they brag about. Witness the fact that they are so far losing the voter-registration war in the eight battleground or "swing" states (as recognized by the media and the two campaigns) that enroll voters by party.

In Florida and Iowa, Democratic registrations are down from their 2010 levels while Republican numbers are up. For example, nearly 29,000 Democrats have disappeared from the Iowa registration rolls since January 2011, while about 10,000 Republicans have been added.

In Arizona (which Team Obama keeps saying it intends to make a battleground) and Pennsylvania, both parties have lost ground—but Democrats have lost more. In Arizona, Democrats are down 58,000 since the end of 2010; the Republicans are down 9,500. And there are now 176,000 fewer Democrats registered in Pennsylvania than in November 2010, while GOP registrations have dropped by 62,000.

In Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and North Carolina, both parties increased registrations—but Republicans added more. For example, in North Carolina, there are 17,500 new Democrats registered since January 2011 versus 49,500 more Republicans. This in a state Mr. Obama won by just 14,177 votes in 2008. (All registration numbers come from state websites.)

If Democrats weren't winning the registration war while Republicans were distracted with an ugly presidential primary—and then couldn't bury the GOP in Wisconsin—it appears the Democratic ground game is not the "bigger, faster, stronger" force that Mr. Messina told USA Today it was in February.

If the Wisconsin results are cause for concern among Democrats, they provide a call to action for Republicans, especially in battleground states. To beat Mr. Obama, Republicans must duplicate the ground game deployed by the GOP in Wisconsin that registered, persuaded and produced a massive turnout.

This won't be easy. But Republicans are fortunate to have outstanding leadership at the Republican National Committee in Mr. Priebus and also at Romney headquarters in Boston. Their challenge will be to gather the necessary resources and generate the passionate commitment to the ground game at the grass-roots level that was so evident in Wisconsin.

I'm betting they will.

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