Weary voters in a critical swing state fight the ground war, one yard sign and robo call at a time.
CHIPPEWA FALLS, WIS. -- Exhausted voters here are looking toward Election Day the way athletes would look at a finish line if marathons were measured in months instead of miles.
Mitt Romney will campaign here Monday. President Obama will stump in Green Bay on Tuesday. Romney running mate Paul Ryan will tour his home state Wednesday and Vice President Joe Biden was just here last Friday.
"We spend a lot of time on our knees. This is going to be a tough one, and there's so much at stake," said Sandy Kenner, distributing lawn signs and campaign buttons at the Chippewa County Republican headquarters.
Across town at the Democratic Party headquarters, Kathy Meade Herbert pulled on her polka-dotted galoshes and joined a group of 10 volunteers heading out to distribute campaign brochures in the rain.
Wisconsin has not sent a Republican to the White House since Ronald Reagan, but this year the state and its 10 electoral votes are very much up for grabs. Polls here keep showing that Obama and Romney appear to be in an exceptionally close race. Some analysts now say the outcome could hinge on 106 counties nationwide, that swung from Republican George W. Bush in 2004 to Obama in 2008. A third are in Wisconsin, and Chippewa is one of them.
"It's always interesting to be in one of the purplest areas of one of the purplest states," said Joe Flackey, chairman of the Chippewa County Republican Party, who watched Republicans sweep into local and state-level offices in 2010, then saw the recall of Republican Gov. Scott Walker resoundingly rejected by Chippewa voters this summer. He still can't say for sure which way his county will swing on Nov. 6.
"We definitely are really unique [in Wisconsin], especially in this neck of the woods," Flackey said. "We have so many independents who vote their conscience. During the recall election I had Democrats calling me, telling me they were voting for Walker not because they supported him, but just because they didn't like the recall method."
In a state where voters are still reeling from that expensive, bitter recall election, voter burnout is a very real risk.
"Enthusiasm is what wins elections in Wisconsin," said Ben Sparks, Wisconsin spokesman for the Romney campaign. "And Republicans have had the enthusiasm on their side for the last two years running."
If money could buy enthusiasm, Wisconsin would be the peppiest spot on the planet.
The Romney campaign spent more than $10 million on political ads between June 14 and Oct. 17, according to an analysis by Kantar Media -- more than $1 million for each of the state's electoral votes. Democrats have shelled out $525,000 per electoral vote.
The Sunlight Foundation has counted $37.4 million from outside interest groups flowing into Wisconsin so far this year, fueling ads in the presidential, U.S. Senate and U.S. House races.
Dueling ground games
Obama carried Wisconsin in 2008 by a comfortable 54 percent to Republican John McCain's 44 percent. But Sparks said Romney's ground game has dwarfed the earlier GOP effort -- more voters registered, more early votes cast, more phone calls placed, more doors knocked. On Thursday night, 20 volunteers turned out at the campaign's office just outside Eau Claire to man the phone banks and get out the vote.
The Obama campaign, however, still has more boots on the ground, at least in the Chippewa Valley, said Geoffrey Peterson, chairman of the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. There are few undecided voters left in the state at this stage, he said, so campaigns are scrambling to make sure their voters get to the polls.
"It's very clear that the Obama campaign has a better ground game going," Peterson said. "They certainly appear to be better organized, they are making a pretty strong effort to go door-to-door and get voters out. Republicans seem to be relying more on mailers and robo-calling. Obviously, they have reason to believe that may work to some degree, but in the end there are just as many people who are turned off by that inundation as are motivated."
Even Peterson, who studies campaigns for a living, has been turned off -- literally. He turned off the ringer on his phone three weeks ago and still gets at least one pre-recorded message a day from the Republican National Committee, or from Ann Romney, or from Paul Ryan. He's had at least two groups of Democratic volunteers knock on his door to remind him that Nov. 6 is Election Day.
When Peterson turned on the television the other day, out of 17 commercials, 12 were campaign ads. He turned the TV off again.
"Exhaustion is a really good term to describe" Wisconsin voters' mindset, he said. "Especially with the recall election this summer, there was an enormous amount of money spent by both sides on that. Really, we've been in sort of full-on campaign season here since April and there is a certain fatigue starting to set in. Even the most ardent supporters on both sides just really can't wait for this to be over."
Last time, he said, every other house in his neighborhood had a campaign yard sign, evenly divided between Republican and Democratic candidates. This year, he said, it's more like one sign every five houses or so.
"I wish there were more signs up," sighed county GOP volunteer Sandy Kenner. She brightened as a young woman walked into the party headquarters and began picking out yard signs, starting with Romney and working her way down the ticket.
In the Obama for America headquarters in Eau Claire Wednesday night, 18-year-old volunteers Hayley Britt and Rebecca Snow and their friend Storm Meier, 24, worked their way through sheet after sheet of phone numbers, trying to find Democrats willing to come help get out the vote.
Over their heads, a sign hand-lettered in magic marker reminds them: "Every 38 phone conversations you have = 1 new vote."
"It's getting down to that point where it's really important. There's not much time left," said Britt, getting ready to vote in her first presidential election. "When you come here and you volunteer, it gives you satisfaction. You feel like you did something really good."
Debate energized voters
Obama for America operates more than 65 offices in Wisconsin, compared to 25 Romney Victory Centers.
Even with hotly contested presidential, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and state assembly races at stake, Flackey said it was hard to motivate a base that had been on high alert for two straight years -- until the first presidential debate.
"I would say that up until the first debate we were starting to see political fatigue," he said. "You'd call people, and they were being called for money, they were getting all the ads on TV, they were getting door knockers."
But after Romney's strong showing at the debate, he said, "A lot of people got energized."
In the Democratic Party headquarters of downtown Chippewa Falls, a stack of surplus Walker recall buttons and bumper stickers, free for the taking, sat next to heaps of shiny new Obama buttons and yard signs. The volunteers who turned out in force for the recall have not returned in the same numbers for the presidential election.
That hasn't dimmed the enthusiasm of Chippewa County Democratic Party Chairman Al Holle.
"After 20 months nonstop, you would think I would be burned out," Holle said. "But every day when I see a new face come through the door, it re-energizes me."
Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049