MADISON — The historic recall election targeting Gov. Scott Walker is such a close race, the divisions between voters so entrenched, that the outcome is likely to come down to voter turnout.
Both sides agree on that point. But what are they going to do about it?
Campaigns are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to specific strategy for their ground games. Which counties candidates plan to focus on and how many voters in each county they hope to reach remain some of the most closely guarded secrets in state politics. And Wisconsin’s first gubernatorial recall is no exception.
Still, the campaigns for Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, are expected to focus much of their voter outreach and get-out-the-vote efforts in counties where voter moods seem to have changed in recent elections.
“Look for them to be targeting the counties that have shown shifts, in turnout, or direction, or vote margin,” said Charles Franklin, poll director for Marquette University Law School.
That could be areas that have swung between blue and red, or between largely backing Democrats and Republicans, in recent statewide elections such as the 2006 and 2010 governor’s races, as well as the 2011 state Supreme Court race.
That race was officially nonpartisan, but the battle between conservative Justice David Prosser and Democratic-supported challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg was widely seen as a partisan proxy battle. The state split nearly evenly, with Prosser winning by just 7,000 votes.
Other counties likely to be a focus of the campaigns are those that showed “big gaps in turnout between 2008 and 2010,” Franklin said, such as Rock County.
In 2008, President Barack Obama won Wisconsin handily by about 14 percentage points. But in November 2010, a Republican wave brought victories for Walker, and the GOP won control of the state Senate and Assembly.
Close races and voter shifts are nothing new, but pollsters have found that in this election there are an unusually low number of undecided voters, about 3 percent, according to the Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday. Generally, that number is closer to 15 percent.
So, with apparently very few minds to change, the candidates and their parties are focused on getting their supporters to vote.
“Turnout will be crucial in this race, which is why our efforts have been focused squarely on running a comprehensive grass-roots campaign throughout the state,” said Ben Sparks, spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
He said thousands of volunteers at phone banks already had called more than 2 million possible voters — more than the GOP made in 2010.
On the Democratic side, state party chairman Mike Tate said many supporters have been mobilized since last year’s Senate recalls, and some campaign offices have been open since last November.
Voter outreach efforts will be hitting an electorate that shows signs of political fatigue. In an April Marquette poll, one-third of those interviewed admitted they had stopped talking to someone this year over disagreements about Walker and the recall.
“People in this state are the most divided I have ever seen,” said Wendy Scattergood, St. Norbert College political scientist and pollster. “And I’m not sure anything will change their minds about who they will vote for. The questions for campaigns is, can they mobilize?“
Mark Graul, a Republican political consultant who has worked on several campaigns, said the best way to influence turnout will be “individualized contact” such as phone calls, knocking on doors and follow-ups.
“Sure, there will be TV and radio ads and campaign literature, but when you want to get the vote out, nothing is more valuable than to have neighbors talking to neighbors, people they bowl with and go to church with. The side that does that best, wins.“
Barrett campaign spokesman Phil Walzak said he believes many independent and Republican voters who backed Walker in 2010 will vote for Barrett this year due to the governor’s controversial policies. Barrett has repeatedly spoken of voters with “buyer’s remorse” apologizing to him for backing Walker two years ago.
But Barrett isn’t banking only on changing minds. Walzak said the campaign is running “a robust voter turnout operation” in not only traditional Democratic areas but also Republican strongholds like Waukesha County.
“Turnout is important. It’s critical,” Walzak said.