Despite Predictions, Turnout Looks Good and Recall Activists Are Flying High

"I'm pretty confident that Walker's going to go," Roberta Retrum told me last night. "I know what I hear from the people on the ground. I know how much support there is here for getting rid of Walker." Retrum, a grandmother and recall activist who's decided to run for state Assembly in November, lives in the small conservative town of Eagle River. Her confidence was seemed well meaning, but I had my doubts. After all, to have a shot at beating Walker, recall activists need turnout numbers like those during the 2008 presidential election.

Retrum is one of the thousands of activists that have invested months of their lives in the recall effort. Many have formed close bonds over the last several months, as the movement has galvanized Wisconsinites who weren't particularly political before. They're an optimistic bunch, but most know the only path to winning is an extraordinary turnout, like that of 2008's presidential election. But increasingly, it looks like turnout will be high—and, anecdotally, activists around the state are hardly as downtrodden as national commentary might have you believe.

Neal Schulz is a long-time politico, having worked as a campaign manager and PR person in California before settling back in his native Wisconsin. He managed Doug LaFollette's ill-fated bid to be the Democratic nominee in the fight against Walker, which ultimately resulted in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett being selected. After years looking at data, he's pleased with what he's seeing today.

"It's wild out there!" he told me. "There are lines, some are getting longer as the day goes by." Schulz sat by his computer looking at turnout numbers and comparing them to the citizens of voting age population (CVAP).  "If this type of volume at the polls continues through at least mid-afternoon into early evening," he said, "it will be very good for the Democratic ticket."

Around the state, reports of larger and larger crowds seem to indicate that the recall effort still has a chance, despite polling to the contrary. While there's always the possibility that the turnout will not produce the desired results, almost everyone agrees that without a high turnout, the anti-Walker forces don't have a shot. Nation editor John Nichols, a native Wisconsinite, has turned his Twitter feed into a stream of turnout numbers. "Northside Milwaukee, lines out the doors, 20-minute waits. Dramatically up from recent elections," he tweeted this morning. He followed up with: "Over 500 in Sun Prairie, Dane Co., by 8 AM. Lines out the door 30-minute wait in Columbus. High, high turnout." 

Nichols has argued that polls and pundits are not fully capturing the scene on the ground. In his recall FAQ this morning, he wrote:

While silly pundits (think George Will) and political insiders moan about election fatigue, you won’t find many actual Wisconsinites complaining. The year-and-a-half-long struggle for worker rights and local democracy—which began in February 2011, and continues to this day—has created a level of engagement that is simply unprecedented.

Just ask Kati Walsh, an elemtary art teacher in Madison. Walsh took the day off work to spend her morning knocking on doors in the low-income areas where her students live. "We just knocked on every door," she said, "It was all positive." Walsh remains confident that all the organizing and block-walking will result in a Walker loss tonight. But even if it doesn't, she believes the ongoing John Doe investigation surround Walker's time as Milwaukee County Executive will end in his indictment.

Walsh is canvassing for We Are Wisconsin, one of the non-partisan groups trying to oust Walker. Until last year's protests, Walsh says she was largely apolitical. Then she became an active participant, representing her school in her teacher's union and spending her summer getting pledges for a recall petition. "I lost a lot of friends," she says of her sudden turn to activism, "but over this last year I feel like I gained a family."

North, in Wausau, Ashley Nigl, a young mother of four, described a similar sense of optimism and commitment. In her get-out-the-vote efforts, she says, "usually Walker's name was followed by a four letter word!"

Nigl wasn't at the protests last year—she was seven month pregnant with her youngest child. But as soon as the recall effort began, she was out collecting signatures, once she said, from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 in the morning. "I put my heart and soul into this movement," she says.

For Nigl, the recall has been more than just politics. Her father worked 30 years as a nightwatchmen for the Kimberly Clark paper mill. Thanks to the union, Nigl says, her family didn't "have to worry about the important things" like healthcare and when her father died, her mother found she could still get by. As she goes back out to continue pushing people to the polls, Nigl will be wearing her father's union pin.

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