“Even the Barking Dogs Were Republican!”: Inside Democrats’ Quest to Turn Out Voters in Wisconsin Trump Country

For most of the morning, Durning and Rowley had little to show for their effort, other than the 7,500 steps they recorded tramping through the neighborhood—the “silver lining,” said Rowley, who was to run a 5K later that day with her daughter in Milwaukee. Few answered their doors, and when they did, it yielded only brief interactions.

“Can I help you?” asked one man, as he pulled into his driveway. Durning started into his script. “I vote Republican,” the man said, politely, almost apologetically.

Not all the voter-data canvassers like Durning and Rowley are armed with, it turns out, is reliable. In that way, they regard even these kinds of interactions as successful: At the very least, they can clean up the map. But there is a more abstract benefit some of the canvassers see in these contacts: “People see Democrats really care,” Rowley told me. Maybe that won’t make a difference this cycle or the next one. But what about beyond that? Was it possible that this engagement could eventually connect with disillusioned Americans who had fallen for Trump, even at the expense of their own interests?

The last house of the morning sat high above a steep set of steps. Durning rang the bell, setting off a chorus of barking dogs, and a man in a USA T-shirt came to the door. His wife, Carol, was on the list as a Democrat or independent.

“Can I pet your dog?” Rowley called after him, as he went to get his wife.

The woman, Carol, came to the door. She smiled, but seemed uncomfortable: She typically voted Republican, she said. Durning asked her what issues are most important to her, or what she’d say to Governor Evers if he was standing at the door. “I don’t know,” she said. He switched tactics: On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to ever vote for a Democrat? She thought, and instead of offering a number, said she’s a Republican. “So you’re a one?” Durning said. “You wouldn’t vote for a Democrat?”

“There’s a slim chance,” she said. “Thank you for stopping.”

At a post-canvass debriefing in the Main Street office, volunteers recounted their mornings. Some had clearly had more successful outings. One said she’d made a great contact with a woman heading into a bar around 10 in the morning, who was “really fired up” for the Democrats. “She’s like, ‘I’m putting the signs up—yeah!’” the canvasser recalled. But others had as rough a morning as Durning and Rowley. “Even the barking dogs were Republican!” one said.

It remains to be seen what kind of impact such efforts will have in November. For all the work they put in this Saturday morning, volunteers only seemed to get a handful of likely Democrats ready to turn out for Election Day. But months of this kind of thing, and with tight races—who knows?

Eventually, everyone headed for pizza at the home of Leslie Demuth, a leader with the Jefferson County Democrats, whose farm seems like something of a liberal oasis in Trump Country. But Durning seemed to be itching to keep going. Behind any door, there was a potential Democratic vote—but what if he didn’t knock? He went to pizza like the rest, but he told me he would be back next week to canvass more, on his own. His wife was traveling in Portugal—why not?

“While the cat’s away,” he said, “the mice will canvass.”

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