Hugh Hefner had a sign on the door of the old Playboy mansion: If You Don’t Swing, Don’t Ring. When it comes to presidential politics Illinois doesn’t swing, so the candidates aren’t ringing. No presidential motorcades are screaming up the Eisenhower. No attack ads with Hitchcock music, sneering narrators, and grainy mug shots of John Kerry with a five o’clock shadow are airing.
All that’s happening in Wisconsin though. In 2000 Al Gore won Wisconsin by 5,708 votes, but this year’s polls show Bush ahead by anywhere from 3 to 14 points. Kerry impugned his own manhood in the Badger State by referring to the Green Bay Packers’ stadium as “Lambert Field” and couldn’t restore his guyness there by cramming for the debate in Spring Green, Frank Lloyd Wright’s old stomping grounds. Wisconsin is a blue state in mortal danger of turning red, so every Saturday since the beginning of September, Chicago Democrats have been packing into school buses, riding to towns like Beloit, Racine, Kenosha, and Milwaukee, and begging the locals not to go astray.
That’s why Cynthia King, a 52-year-old artist, was standing outside the Democratic Party of Evanston’s headquarters with 50 others last weekend, waiting for a bus to Milwaukee. All over the country Democrats are shifting volunteers between safe and swing states. Californians are going to Nevada, New Jerseyans to Pennsylvania.
“We’re nine points ahead with Kerry in Illinois,” said King, who has been “obsessed” with beating Bush for the last four years. “Obama is 51 points ahead here. Put the troops where the troops are needed.”
Ninety miles up I-94 the bus stopped at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall in Milwaukee, where the field-tripping partisans were treated to rubbery pizza and a video of a speech by James Carville. After a briefing by a young political operative in a Badgers sweatshirt they each picked up their assignment folders and were paired with a Milwaukeean. Regina Rodriguez, an unemployed Chicana pop singer from Rogers Park, was given a precinct in Tippecanoe, a blue-collar neighborhood on the southeast side of the city. Her job: tell residents that absentee ballots are the surest way to get their votes counted, because they leave a paper record.
Rodriguez was wearing an orange headband and a pink Old Navy baseball cap and carrying a sack with a tuna-fish sandwich and a banana. Her Wisconsin buddy, Rob Henak, dropped her off on the battleground street of Wilbur Avenue. There was an American flag on almost every aluminum-sided bungalow. They hung from porches, sprouted from gardens, glowed in Christmas-light displays. Bush/Cheney placards outnumbered Kerry/Edwards signs by a good margin. Local Republicans had already been calling that morning.
Rodriguez knocked on her first door and read from a script: “Hi, my name is Regina and I’m from Wisconsin Victory 2004…”
“See the sign at the bottom of the door?” a disembodied voice growled.
Rodriguez looked down: No Soliciting. She moved on.
“I just hope there’s enough people smart enough to vote him out,” one man told her as he signed up for an absentee ballot. “He may be the worst president of our lifetime. The guy’s scary.”
Rodriguez, who’s 38, moved to Chicago from California 11 years ago. Her parents were hard-core Chicano activists–“no grapes in our house,” she says–but Rodriguez was too busy with her music to worry about politics.
Then, “a year ago, I had a lot of extra time on my hands, and I decided to get involved in the presidential campaign out of boredom and loneliness,” she says. “I did some house parties for Kucinich. What I like about this election is the parties. Next week I’m holding a vice presidential debate party. I love cooking dinner, I love having people over. This is how I fit into the political process. My social needs have been met by this campaign. I don’t think I’d be out here campaigning if they hadn’t pulled me in first.”
Rodriguez never even gave a thought to joining the campaign the Chicago way: showing up at her ward committeeman’s office and asking to work a precinct. “I didn’t even know that was the traditional way to do it,” she said. “I’m very Internet connected. I don’t know what a committeeman’s fund-raiser is. It’s irrelevant. People my age don’t know anything about it.”
The invasion of Wisconsin was plotted on the Internet, among Democrats who read dailykos.com, moveon.org, meetup.com, illinoisforkerry.com, and other Web sites and blogs. Volunteers are signing up by the hundreds in Illinois, but unlike traditional ward heelers, the newcomers snagged online may not be back to help Rod Blagojevich or Mayor Daley.
“I think this is a one-time election,” said Bonnie Wilson, chair of the Democratic Party of Evanston and a 34-year veteran of township politics. “What I’m seeing this year is people coming out that I never even recognize. We have a Thursday night meet-up for Kerry at the Firehouse Grill, and there are all kinds of faces I’ve never seen before.”
Over the summer Wilson’s office started fielding phone calls from volunteers who had read about the Illinois-to-Wisconsin exchange on the Internet and wanted to join. Wilson hadn’t heard of the project, but she contacted Kerry’s Illinois office and set up a depot. Buses leave for Wisconsin every Saturday morning at 9:30 from Evanston and from Kerry’s Chicago headquarters at 57 W. Grand. More than 200 people rode or drove north last weekend. Sunday’s a day of rest in Wisconsin, for Packers games. On that day car pools head to Iowa.
“If this was four years ago you would have had to sign up people on a list and make phone calls,” said Alex Armour, political director for U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky and captain of Saturday’s trip. On the other hand, “the Internet is not going to get people out to vote on Election Day. It’s manpower, it’s people on the ground, it’s what the traditional ward organizations are best at. The most effective way to talk politics is face- to-face.”
On Wilbur Avenue, support for Bush correlated to testosterone levels. The women were for Kerry. So were the old folks, who still think of the Democrats as the lunch-bucket party.
“They’re still worried about getting the votes counted?” asked a gray-haired older man as he filled out an absentee-ballot form.
“We don’t want another Florida,” said Rodriguez.
“I’m hip to that,” he replied. “I’ll do whatever it takes. Vote twice.”
But the young bucks in their 20s and 30s, the new dads, were Republicans.
“I feel like a Daily Show correspondent,” Rodriguez said after a man wielding a leaf blower waved her off. “‘Cause every time someone says no I really want to say, ‘OK, do you want to make out?'”
Rodriguez approached a door with a photo of a gap-toothed man in the window.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
Saint Vincent Lombardi, she was told.
“Well, as long as he’s not a Republican.”
Back at the union hall people traded stories about encounters with Bush supporters. One man had been called a “fucking ass” and threatened with “an earful.” A woman had been told Kerry is a traitor. But Greg Glennie waved a fat sheaf of absentee ballot requests, estimated at more than 800 and ready for delivery to Milwaukee’s city hall.
On the final weekend before Election Day the Kerry campaign will be putting volunteers up in a motel so they can campaign all day Sunday, Packers be damned. Green Bay plays the Washington Redskins that Sunday, though not at Lambeau Field. Since 1936 whenever the Redskins have lost the game before a presidential election, the White House incumbent has lost too. Chicago Democrats will just have to stifle 80 years of resentment and root for the Pack.