With Joe Biden almost certain to win Illinois in Tuesday’s presidential election, Democratic activists here have turned their focus instead to helping Biden in nearby swing states, where polls project much closer outcomes.
Liberal volunteers from the Chicago area have organized “virtual phone banks” to target potential voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and other hotly fought Midwestern states during this campaign season.
“We’ve been told we were the largest out-of-state phone bank operation for both Wisconsin and Michigan throughout the summer,” said Marj Halperin, a board member for Indivisible Chicago, a left-leaning activist group. “We’ve made some 400,000 calls.”
Indivisible Chicago and another group based here, called Rust Belt Rising, formed in response to President Donald Trump’s success in vast swaths of the Midwest where voters had supported Barack Obama.
“Indivisible Chicago is an alliance of neighborhood groups that came together out of the ashes of the 2016 election, determined to rebuild that Midwest blue wall that collapsed so disastrously,” Halperin said.
In addition to Biden, Democratic candidates in state legislative races in Wisconsin and Michigan also are getting unusually heavy support from Illinois this year.
“We are a network of leaders working to win back our region up and down the ballot,” said Rust Belt Rising’s executive director and former Obama aide Paul Kendrick.
The original plan was to flood those states with carloads of campaign volunteers from Illinois. Halperin said Indivisible Chicago had planned to caravan to 40 events in other states in April. The targeted areas were largely in southeastern Wisconsin and southwestern Michigan.
“Wherever you live in the Chicago area, our volunteers are generally an hour, an hour and a half from the key districts that we want to campaign in: in Michigan and Wisconsin,” Halperin said.
But the coronavirus pandemic made canvassing impossible to do in person. So the Illinois Democratic activists shifted their emphasis to phone-banking. More than 100 volunteers participated last Wednesday evening in a Zoom call to train them to make calls to Wisconsin for Biden.
Kathleen Long, a leader with Indivisible Evanston, began the training session with: “Hi, welcome everybody tonight! Wisconsin Wednesday! Here we are!”
Long told the volunteers they were making a big difference and had to keep doing more of the same.
“You could have been sitting in front of your TV screaming at MSNBC, or you could have just been scrolling on Facebook, but you didn’t do that,” she said. “You took action. So be proud of that. But it’s not over yet.”
And it may not be over Tuesday, as a legal dispute in Wisconsin over the process for counting mail-in ballots and Trump’s own statements suggest the decisive results in tight contests might not be known on election night or anytime soon.
In response to those controversies, the Indivisible Chicago trainers told volunteers that they should provide the people they call with the number for a voter information hotline in any cases of uncertainty.
The strategy for the callers is to get out the vote for Biden — and not to get into it with Trump supporters. Halperin told the volunteers to not even try to persuade Trump supporters to switch sides.
“If they tell you they’re leaning Trump, we’re done,” she said. “Just a little lean to Trump — we don’t want to talk to them. We don’t have time for them at this point in the campaign. So then you’ll say, ‘Great. Good to know. Thanks for your time.’ And then you hang up.”
The Wisconsinites and Michiganders who receive the calls do not automatically know they are being contacted from out of state, said Mike Lenehan, another trainer that evening.
“When they see your call coming in, they’ll see a local number on their [caller ID] screen,” Lenehan said. “They won’t see your phone.”
But the massive effort from Illinois Democrats has not gone unnoticed in the battleground states. Rust Belt Rising is also helping Democratic candidates in three state legislative races in southwestern Michigan, Kendrick said.
A Republican rival in a district in Kalamazoo ran a TV attack ad blasting her opponent for getting help from Illinois. The ad featured images of a smashed police car and an American flag that went up in flames.
“Christine Morse – soft on crime, weak on public safety,” said the narrator in the ad for Morse’s Republican opponent, former Trump White House aide Bronwyn Haltom. “That’s why Christine Morse is backed by Indivisible Chicago, a fringe leftist group organizing protests that often turn unruly. The same dangerous cocktail of lawlessness and violence that has destroyed billions of dollars of property in our cities.”
Halperin said nothing other than peaceful protesting has happened at Indivisible Chicago’s events.
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.