In Wisconsin's Democratic Stronghold, Activists Weary but Resolved

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You would think Wisconsinites have had their fill of elections by now.

Some Wisconsin precincts have held four elections already this year, between a presidential primary and recall elections for legislators and Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Negative ads are currently running for another election, the August 14 primary where four Republicans are vying for the U.S. Senate nomination.

And then, after all that, they get to vote for president.

So in some ways, if there's one place you'd expect to find an enthusiasm gap for Obama supporters, it'd be in Madison. It was here where students and union organizing surged in a months-long protest movement, only to see Gov. Walker handily survive the recall election in June.

But after running into weary and cynical voters in Colorado and Iowa, Madison voters sounded remarkably resolved for another contest.

“You do get sick of it after a while, but it's part of the process,” said University of Wisconsin political science student Armando Vera. “This is what America is about. This is our political system and this is what we have to deal with.”

Vera voted for Obama in 2008, and plans to do it again. He supported Gov. Walker's proposals to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees, but he ended up voting to recall him because he thought the governor was too heavy-handed with his approach.

Vera wasn't the only voter to blow past cynicism pretty matter-of-factly. Dan Duchro, a a historical preservationist who protested at the capital with other university employees, said moving on to the next fight is knitted into the political culture here, a state where turnout is consistently among the nation's highest.

“People don't really get too excited about too much, it seems, except politics—and the Badgers,” Duchro laughed, giving a nod to the ubiquitous Wisconsin mascot. “We're not going away. I think that's a lot of people's attitudes.”

Walker's victory here in the recall attempt last month, in which he actually improved his margin over his election in 2010, stoked expectations that Romney could win here. It would be the first time a Republican presidential candidate carried the state since 1984. But University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden said the comparisons have been overstated.

“They seem pretty unconnected,” said University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden. The recall election was bitterly fought around a rather narrow spectrum of state issues, he pointed out. Even on the day Wisconsin voters turned out to save Walker from recall, a majority of recall voters said they planned to vote for President Obama in exit polls.

“The one thing that Walker and Obama share in common is they're both incumbents trying to hold on to their jobs at a time the economy is shaky,” Burden said, then paused with a smile. “They have nothing else in common.”

Obama has held on to his lead in presidential polls here, helped in part by recall politics crowding out presidential politics at a time when Republicans were launching their opening shots during primary season. “No one here was willing to pay any attention to what was happening beyond the recall election,” Burden said.

The president could still be vulnerable here. Mitt Romney's support has hovered in the low- to mid-40s over the last several months, but his recent fundraising success could make the difference here.

“This one will be different because the Romney campaign is going to have more resources than the McCain did,” Burden said. McCain pulled out of Wisconsin to focus on closer states late in the 2008 campaign, while Romney may be positioned to press on. “So it's going to be a firefight until the end in the states that look like they're foregone conclusions.”

That means another few months of relentless organizing in the state's Democratic stronghold in Madison, where activists have been jumping from one campaign to the next since the winter of 2011. It has Mary Metz eyeing the end of the year with more than a little anticipation. She's a retired professor who volunteered to be a neighborhood leader for the Obama campaign for the last year and a half. Coordinating door-knocking and phone-banking on election after election has made it feel like a full-time job. 

“I have promised my retired husband that I will retire on December 1," Metz said. 

Compared to 2008, all the campaign efforts feel more dogged now. "We have had to recover, but we don't want to see the whole country go through what we've seen Wisconsin go through." Metz said. “It's much less 'Whee! We can do it,' and much more, 'By gum, we're going to do it.'"

They'll be looking for help from young voters like Sara Watermolen, a nurse and recent graduate of University of Wisconsin. She was a freshman in the fall of 2008, when she voted for Obama, but wasn't involved in the campaign. That changed with the recall, when she joined the chanting anti-Walker crowds.

“It definitely was more in my face with the recall. And going down to the capitol and seeing all the signs, it had more of an impact,” she said.

Looking ahead to November, Watermolen said she plans to vote for Obama, but she's not sure if she'll do much else. “It feels rather calm right now. I'm sure it'll heat up as it gets closer.”