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Mon, Aug. 23rd, 2004, 10:28 pm
ahimsa04: Start the presses!

Groups sell politics door to door

Campaigns get personal to try to sway undecided voters

Last Updated: Aug. 23, 2004

It's called the "ground game."

Making calls. Knocking on doors. Dropping off literature. Trying not to get bitten by dogs.

It's considered one of the most lethal arrows in the quiver of any political campaign. In recent years, it hasn't been loosed in the race for president around the Milwaukee area, in any major form, until September or even October.

But there is a figure - 5,708 - which has changed that dynamic this time around.

That's the margin of victory for Al Gore over President Bush in 2000 in Wisconsin, and the five-county Milwaukee metropolitan area was the richest bed of votes for both parties, accounting for 835,299 out of the 2,598,607 votes cast in Wisconsin.

That means that you can expect someone such as Roseanne Dieck to call you or Jacqueline Berry to knock on your door.

Dieck is working the phones in West Allis for the Republicans. Berry is one of about 40 paid canvassers for America Coming Together who have made Milwaukee their mission this election cycle.

"We need to get people out to vote. It's just so important," said Berry, a downtown janitor and an activist within a Milwaukee local of the Service Employees International Union. She was canvassing, her Palm Pilot in hand, on the northwest side Aug. 12.

America Coming Together and Service Employees International Union, both of which oppose Bush, are among the growing universe of groups, independent of the campaigns of Bush and his Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, that already are on the streets in hopes of getting out the vote.

"We are much better organized than we were in 2000. We're doing this a lot sooner and in greater numbers than we did then," said Andy Stern, president of SEIU, which has a big presence in the state, having pledged some $65 million nationally to defeating Bush in the upcoming election.

Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns have similarly been strategizing on how to maximize Milwaukee turnout, running phone banks to identify undecided voters and potential volunteers.

"They're just so far ahead of where they were four years before," said Mike Prentiss, referring to efforts on both sides.

Prentiss is campaign manager for state Sen. Bob Welch (R-Redgranite) one of four Republicans vying to take on two-term incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Personal contact

Prentiss and Welch took a break from their campaigns Wednesday to man the phone bank at the Bush campaign "victory office" in West Allis. Twenty-five cell phones and 15 land lines were humming.

Welch said research bears out that personal contact works better than television ads in recruiting voters. Republicans are using the phones to do that.

But "someone sitting at the coffee shop across from you who you know is best," he said.

On the wall at the office, there are quite a few signs. One proclaims "North Vietnam Vets for Kerry," an apparent joking reference to the anti-war efforts the senator led after returning from Vietnam as a wounded and decorated combat veteran.

Yet another sign advises the callers that "Voter Vault Calls Are Key to Our Success."

That is a reference to the "vault" of 109,000 Milwaukee County voters that the campaign has identified as undecided and ripe for picking.

One of the volunteers calling these voters is Dieck, a library teacher who lives in Greendale, who has volunteered 20 hours a week for the Bush campaign. She said she was drawn to the effort by what she described as the strong response of Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. "We just really need him in office," she said.

Dieck keeps track of her calls on a chart.

She misses many people. If someone does pick up and is inclined to talk, they are classified as an "A" if they're for Bush, a "B" if they're for Kerry, and a "C" if they're undecided.

You don't want to be a "20." That means you're dead.

Door to door

Campaign finance law limits the amount of money that an individual can give to a particular campaign or that corporations or unions can give directly to any of the political parties. But the law does permit so-called 527 organizations, named because of their IRS designations, to receive unlimited cash from individuals.

This has helped the Democrats close the traditional gap in campaign money on hand with the Republicans and has led to tougher enforcement by the Federal Election Commission.

ACT is one of these 527 groups, funded with major contributions from liberal moneybags such as George Soros and film producer Steve Bing, and it aims to have a big impact in Milwaukee, where 40 of its 60 workers in the state are based.

Like Berry, the janitor, many of the canvassers are on leave from their SEIU-represented jobs. The union president, Stern, was knocking on doors on Franklin St. in the east side neighborhood with an ACT crew on a recent day. "This is how elections are won: door by door," he said.

ACT already claims it has knocked on more than 100,000 of them, with a statewide goal of more than 800,000. Chris Lato, the state Republican Party spokesman, said he had no knowledge of any 527 groups going door to door for Bush, at least not yet.

The Kerry campaign was hoping for a massive ground game in Milwaukee proper, particularly in the African-American community that votes solidly for Democrats. Marvin Pratt, the campaign's Milwaukee chairman, said he hoped the energy his run for mayor raised in that community would carry over to November.

"I think we did some good," he said.

Volunteers and workers from both sides said they have encountered the strong split in the electorate that has been reflected in the polls. Kerry's Wisconsin campaign manager, Richard Judge, was standing outside the Milwaukee headquarters on Wisconsin Ave., where volunteers were making phone calls.

He told the probably apocryphal tale of the pollster who asked potential voters whether Bush had united or divided the country.

"Forty-eight percent said he did. Forty-eight percent said he didn't," Judge said.

Anyone have anything like this in their town/state/neighborhood/shtetl?