The training is part of a multimillion-dollar Democratic Party effort in eight key states. Pelikan and others are learning how to organize and be ready to start working for the nominee “If we want to win, we have to boost youth turnout numbers,” said Pelikan, 21, who grew up north of Milwaukee in Cedarburg.
Presidential campaigns are always looking to increase voter turnout among college students. This year, Democrats are banking on their Organizing Corps initiative as a way to have young people trained and ready to start working on the payroll once the primary season is over.
“The work you are doing here in Wisconsin is off the charts important,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told a room on the Madison campus of about 75 students, party activists and others on Thursday. “News flash: It's going to be close in Wisconsin. That's a fact, folks.”
In 2016, Trump carried Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since 1984. Both Republicans and Democrats are pouring resources into Wisconsin and a handful of other states that are expected to determine the winner in 2020.
Democrats established the Organizing Corps program in Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida. Students were trained last week in Arizona. After Wisconsin, similar sessions are being timed for spring break weeks in March in other states. In total, about 1,000 students will go through the program, according to the Democratic Party.
The emphasis is on both battleground states and those farther down the primary calendar where candidates have not been spending much time, said Rachel Haltom-Erwin, one of the creators of the Organizing Corps program.
“We are building the talent in those states that we need,” she said. Republicans are also working together to register college students to vote, raising money and bring prominent GOP speakers to campus, said Alesha Guenther, chair of the Wisconsin Federation of College Republicans.
“Democrats will have a hard time arguing that President Trump's economy does not provide a great environment for recent graduates to find jobs, buy homes, and start their families," she said in a statement.
Trump's campaign discounted the Democratic effort as “small-scale ad unsustainable.” Trump's campaign said it held more than 100 events on campuses in Wisconsin last fall that attracted more than 850 people. It held 750 such events nationwide, the campaign said.
Democrats swept every statewide office in Wisconsin in 2018, victories that Perez pointed to as a blueprint for defeating Trump. Democrats must engage with voters across the state, not just in the liberal urban areas of Milwaukee and Madison, he said.
Perez is very familiar with Wisconsin. His wife is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin; he proposed to her in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin; his daughter is a senior at UW; and he picked Milwaukee to host the Democratic National Convention this summer. That selection was done in part to send a signal about how important Wisconsin is for Democrats, he said.
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 nominee, was roundly criticized for not campaigning in Wisconsin after she lost the state's primary to Sen. Bernie Sanders. Low turnout among young voters, women and minorities contributed to her loss.
“Winning this state, for me, is personal,” Perez told students.
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