Scott Walker’s Gift to Ron Johnson

The Wisconsin governor’s campaign built a wealth of voter data and volunteer enthusiasm that could help save the endangered senator’s 2016 campaign.

Sen. Ron Johnson
Bloomberg AFP/Getty
Oct. 6, 2015, 8 p.m.

The elec­tion is more than a year away, but Sen. Ron John­son’s reelec­tion cam­paign in Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing Wis­con­sin already faces stiff head­winds and, ac­cord­ing to one re­cent reput­able sur­vey, a double-di­git polling de­fi­cit against Russ Fein­gold, the former sen­at­or who lost his seat to John­son in the 2010 Re­pub­lic­an wave.

But top of­fi­cials with John­son’s cam­paign are con­fid­ent they can make up the gap with the help of a secret weapon—one they in­her­ited from Scott Walk­er.

The Wis­con­sin gov­ernor, work­ing in con­junc­tion with the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Wis­con­sin, built a for­mid­able polit­ic­al ma­chine on the way to win­ning three statewide elec­tions from 2010 to 2014. And in­stead of scut­tling the op­er­a­tion after Walk­er won his second term last year, he de­cided to hand over con­trol of it—in­clud­ing me­tic­u­lously built vo­lun­teer lists and highly prized pro­files of the Wis­con­sin elect­or­ate—to John­son.

Even for cam­paigns in­side the same party, Walk­er’s ges­ture showed an un­usu­al de­gree of co­oper­a­tion. John­son and Walk­er of­fi­cials alike say it gives the sen­at­or a sig­ni­fic­ant head start on build­ing his own polit­ic­al in­fra­struc­ture. They hope it al­lows John­son to build on the gov­ernor’s suc­cesses win­ning a blue state and trans­late it to a pres­id­en­tial-elec­tion year when John­son needs every last bit of help to tilt the Sen­ate race back in his fa­vor.

“That op­er­a­tion has just flipped over to Ron John­son,” said Betsy Ankney, John­son’s cam­paign man­ager. “It’s not like they shut everything down after ’14 and said, ‘All right, every­body, good work; we’ll see you in a year and a half.’”

“This is truly a situ­ation where Ron John­son in­her­ited the strength and re­sources of the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Wis­con­sin and Scott Walk­er,” said Joe Fad­ness, former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Wis­con­sin GOP. “The jer­seys are already on,” he ad­ded, re­fer­ring to the state’s Re­pub­lic­an vo­lun­teers.

Not one week after Elec­tion Day 2014, Re­pub­lic­an Party of Wis­con­sin of­fi­cials met with mem­bers of the John­son cam­paign to dis­cuss the trans­ition. By Janu­ary, the party had six of­fices staffed up across the state, bent on main­tain­ing the net­work of staffers and vo­lun­teers who had amassed to power Walk­er’s ground game months be­fore in a close, na­tion­ally watched race.

Speed was im­port­ant, Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials said, not only to give John­son a jump-start on the Demo­crats but also to main­tain and re­fo­cus the en­thu­si­asm of Walk­er vo­lun­teers in­stead of al­low­ing it to dis­sip­ate dur­ing a polit­ic­al off-year. Already, they say, those vo­lun­teers have been hard at work drum­ming up sup­port for John­son at a time when many cam­paigns might just be as­sem­bling their teams.

But the Walk­er cam­paign’s most im­port­ant con­tri­bu­tion might have been its voter data­base. Walk­er’s op­er­a­tion built its own in-house data­base that as­sembled in­form­a­tion gathered dur­ing his 2010 gubernat­ori­al race and sub­sequent re­call, and reams of con­sumer data pur­chased by the cam­paign.

In the end, Walk­er’s cam­paign had ad­ded an ad­di­tion­al 800,000 data points, ac­cord­ing to one seni­or GOP of­fi­cial, in­clud­ing in­form­a­tion gained from in­di­vidu­al voter con­tacts that auto­mat­ic­ally up­dated mod­els of the Wis­con­sin elect­or­ate.

See­ing how voters were re­act­ing in real time paid di­vidends for the cam­paign, said Mat­thew Oczkowski, the chief di­git­al of­ficer for Walk­er’s 2014 race, be­cause it let cam­paign strategists ad­just quickly to new de­vel­op­ments.  In one case, when Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Debbie Wasser­man Schultz said Walk­er “has giv­en wo­men the back of his hand” dur­ing a cam­paign stop in Mil­wau­kee, the cam­paign saw the neg­at­ive ef­fect it had on fe­male voters.  

Without the mod­els built off that data­base, the cam­paign would have had to rely on polls that can take days to show res­ults—or the gut feel­ing of a cam­paign strategist.

It also gave the Walk­er cam­paign in­sights on which voters it ran weak­est with—in­clud­ing some in­tel­li­gence that de­fied con­ven­tion­al wis­dom. The cam­paign real­ized, Oczkowski said, that it was per­form­ing well in the Fox River Val­ley, a tra­di­tion­al Wis­con­sin battle­ground that runs through the cent­ral and east­ern part of the state. It was strug­gling, however, with small-town voters who had once been strong Walk­er sup­port­ers but thought the gov­ernor’s tone in his reelec­tion cam­paign had been too harsh.

“We star­ted to learn quickly that it wasn’t so much these tra­di­tion­al battle­grounds that we were los­ing, but we were los­ing a lot of folks in small towns,” Oczkowski said. “… Those are the kind of folks you have to win to make up the num­bers you lose in the city of Mil­wau­kee and city of Madis­on. Once we got back to ba­sics, and got the gov­ernor dir­ect-to-cam­era talk­ing about is­sues that mat­ter most in rur­al com­munit­ies, we star­ted to bring those folks back.”

Ul­ti­mately, the data proved ac­cur­ate. Oczkowski said the cam­paign’s res­ults pro­jec­tion three weeks be­fore Elec­tion Day missed the mar­gin of vic­tory by just four-tenths of a per­cent­age point.

Cer­tainly, re­cent elec­tions are re­plete with ill-fated claims that a cam­paign has found the for­mula that can change the course of an elec­tion. Last year, Sen­ate Demo­crats touted their “Ban­nock Street Pro­ject,” a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar, data-heavy ef­fort that was sup­posed to help re­shape the elect­or­ate in a hand­ful of key battle­grounds. Boast­ful talk of the op­er­a­tion all but ceased after the party lost nine Sen­ate seats last year.

A spokes­man for the Wis­con­sin Demo­crat­ic Party said Re­pub­lic­ans are not alone in tak­ing ad­vant­age of re­sources from re­cent cam­paigns. Fein­gold’s cam­paign, for in­stance, has in­her­ited voter files built and used when Sen. Tammy Bald­win knocked off former Gov. Tommy Thompson in the 2012 elec­tion.

For all the talk from Re­pub­lic­ans, Demo­crats are skep­tic­al that after so many tough fights, either party can claim to pos­sess a su­per­i­or polit­ic­al ma­chine.

“Wis­con­sin has had a lot of elect­or­al fights in the last six years,” said Mike Tate, former chair­man of the Wis­con­sin Demo­crat­ic Party. “It is a mis­take for any side to im­ply any state party ap­par­at­us has a sig­ni­fic­ant ad­vant­age over the oth­er. Be­cause they’re both pretty battle tested.”

Walk­er won, Tate ad­ded, be­cause the fun­da­ment­als of his races were fa­vor­able—not be­cause of a stronger-than-av­er­age polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion.

“Scott Walk­er did not win reelec­tion in 2014 be­cause of some ad­vant­age that he or the Re­pub­lic­an Party had in terms of data, or turnout mech­an­ism, or abil­ity try to reach voters on­line, or through some sort of secret sauce,” Tate said. “They won be­cause it was a wave year and it’s very dif­fi­cult to un­seat an in­cum­bent gov­ernor.”

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