Molly Richardson is tired. Really tired. She is small -- waiflike, really -- and the circles under her eyes resemble those you see on people twice her age who have lived a little too hard. Molly Richardson is supervising an astoundingly ambitious effort by Americans Coming Together, an anti-Bush political crusade, to canvass virtually every household in Milwaukee -- twice. The map on her office wall says this goal has been accomplished in all but a handful of wards in the city. Molly Richardson is nearly ready for election day.
She has overseen the training and then the canvassing of more than 100 paid workers who have worked for ACT in Milwaukee at various times since last spring. Now she is responsible for the preparation of the last big push. ACT is hiring about 2,000 more people, mostly teenagers and young adults , to work on its get-out-the-vote efforts next Saturday through Tuesday, Election Day.
"If you'd told me in May that we were going to knock on our entire universe two times," she said in her bare little office Monday night, "I wouldn't have believed it." By universe she means, households in Milwaukee. And now she believes it, because it appears to have happened. According to the "Knock-O-Meter" graph posted on a wall in the ACT headquarters here, the group's canvassers have knocked on nearly 270,000 doors this year.
Oh yes, I almost forgot -- Molly Richardson is 23. She graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and got involved last year in the Howard Dean campaign. Tamara Pogue, who was Dean's national field director before he dropped out of the presidential race, is now the director of ACT in Wisconsin, and she gave this big responsibility to Richardson. Pogue is much older, of course. She graduated from college in 1999, so she must be at least 26.
Not that everyone in ACT is so young. Phillip Walzak, the spokesman for ACT in Wisconsin, has a heavy beard, and he is already 27.
Now here is the eerie part: these young people have already demonstrated an unexpected ability to alter patterns of voting in Milwaukee. This at least is the view of Frederick P. Kessler, a Democratic lawyer in town who is running this year for the state assembly. According to Kessler, to whom I spoke by phone on Monday, ACT "did an incredible job of bringing out the vote for the primary on Sept. 14," a primary whose results stunned the political community here.
In that primary election, an African American state senator named Gwen Moore beat Matt Flynn, a well-connected white Democratic lawyer, for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the fourth district. It's a Democratic seat whose incumbent retired. Flynn, who is close to John Kerry and worked in his presidential campaign, was an early favorite. When the votes were counted, Moore had beaten Flynn by more than two to one. She did this because black voters turned out in record-breaking numbers, thousands more than anyone expected. Turnout among blacks exceeded that among whites, a rarity in Milwaukee.
Said Kessler, the white politician who admired this turn of events, on the basis of the vote in September, "I expect a record black vote" for the Democratic ticket on Nov. 2. "It's going to skew the results," he predicted.
Said Walzak of ACT, the September primary was "a kind of test run for Nov. 2." It confirmed the effectiveness of their tactics, he said, echoing Kessler's prediction for a surprising result on election day.
Photographer Lucian Perkins and I went canvassing in Racine, about 20 miles south of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, Monday afternoon. We accompanied two activist members of the Service Employees International Union, which has committed hundreds of people to ACT around the country this year. They were James Felton, 48, a security officer from Chicago and an SEIU shop steward, and Anita Hart, 32, an SEIU organizer who recently launched her own catering business in Milwaukee.
They explained the technology that ACT depends on. Each carried a Palm Pilot computer that held quite elaborate information about the people whose doors they would be knocking on in Racine: name, age, voting history, and how they answered questions the first time they were canvassed by ACT earlier in the year.
"This is the home of Roger and Lois Prucha," Felton explained as we approached one neat house on a tree-lined LaSalle Street, 200 yards from Lake Michigan. Lois, 66, the computer said, told Felton she was for Bush, after answering a question by saying health care and the economy were her biggest concerns. He husband, 65, said his were the same, but he declined to disclose for whom he would vote.
This didn't faze Felton. He and Hart have been canvassing for months, and have run into many Bush supporters and people who won't say. As a "527" organization, ACT can advocate on issues, but it can't openly back a candidate. Its literature, however, consists almost entirely of attacks on Bush, which its lawyers obviously think is perfectly okay.
The ACT canvas combines questions about issue concerns and voting intentions with an offer of free transportation to the polls on election day, and an offer of election-day jobs to "anyone you know over 16 who needs a job." The information assembled has been used to mail issue information to voters, based on their expressed interests, and will be used again for get-out-the-vote efforts next weekend and on Monday and Tuesday, election day.
That will be the big enchilada. ACT will have hundreds of vans to deliver canvassers to key neighborhoods, and voters to the polls. Monday night, nearly 200 of the new recruits came to the ACT office in an old industrial building in Milwaukee's arts district for training. When the 45 minute session was over, I stopped four young men to ask why they were there.
Turned out I had stopped an important part of the James Marshall High School football team, including its two co-captains, L. Williams ("that's my name, just L period"), 17, and Dante Steward, 16. L. was the leader of the group; he'd seen an ACT commercial on TV soliciting people to help turn out the vote. "I was intrigued," he said. "I can't vote yet, but I thought maybe I could help get other people to vote." The others said they had similar motivations, except for Antwan Ricks, 16. "I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "I need the money."
Money is key for ACT. George Soros, the liberal philanthropist, has given millions to the effort, and many ordinary people have contributed as well. These young football players will make $63 each for working 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on election day -- $9 an hour. This is the standard rate for all the canvassers (except those paid by the SEIU, who get more).
What do the Republicans have to counteract ACT? Volunteers, replied the executive director of the state GOP, Darrin Schmitz, proudly -- more than 54,000 of them, including about 2,000 ward captains in nearly half the wards across the state. Just last week, Republican volunteers in phone banks and walking door-to-door contacted 110,000 voters, Schmitz said. "I like our chances better" on Election Day, because "we are branching out and digging deeper into the voter pool" than the Democrats and ACT. The GOP's "paid staff on the ground" will be 10 times bigger in 2004 than it was in 2000, he added. How many will that be? "A payroll of about 65," he replied.
A late arrival, check-in after 10 p.m., but still, it isn't hard to realize that you're in a battleground state. A quick look at the television brings the news: political commercials that Washingtonians never see, one right after another -- from the Bush and Kerry campaigns, the Republican and Democratic National Committees, the "527" groups like Move On bombarding the citizenry here with 30-second messages. The incoming is so heavy that it must turn off a lot of the people at whom the ads are aimed. But in modern American politics, overkill is standard operating procedure.
Monday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that as of October 16, $32 million had been spent on TV commercials related to the presidential race. The television campaign has only intensified since then; the total could easily exceed $40 million by Nov. 2. This to win over an electorate that may, with an unusually high turnout (which is widely expected), total 2.7 million or thereabouts.
The Kerry campaign and those supporting it have outspent its opponents so far by about $18 million to $14 million, according to the Journal Sentinel's calculations, based on the records that television stations must disclose. (Additional spending on cable ads wouldn't show up in these numbers.) We've only had a day on the ground here, but the virtually even division of the electorate is obvious to us. We visited a manicured neighborhood in Racine this afternoon, just yards from Lake Michigan, where the lawn signs were just about exactly divided between Kerry-Edwards and Bush-Cheney. Voters we met were happy to declare their favorite, and did so with virtually 50-50 results.
Today, both Bush and Kerry will be in Wisconsin campaigning.
They may both be back before we leave for home Friday afternoon. Cheney and Edwards aren't scheduled to be here as of Monday night, but they could easily show up as well. And Edwards was in Milwaukee on Monday.
Wisconsin's citizens love the attention, love the idea they could even choose the next president, but of course don't quite believe it.
We're going to drive a few hours tomorrow to try to see Bush in Cuba City, near the Iowa border. On Thursday we hope to catch Kerry in Madison.
We'll report in as often as that makes sense. My colleague Lucian Perkins will file lots of photos.
I'm sorry we can't send you Monday's weather: cloudless, 65 degrees, the perfect backdrop for the brilliant autumn foliage. Locals assure us it can't last.
--Robert G. Kaiser