The extreme gerrymandering in Wisconsin—legislative district maps drawn by Republicans that enable them to hold power with a minority of voters—is the Badger State’s key political fact. In the 2018 midterm elections, the 54% of votes Democratic Assembly candidates received yielded them just 36 out of 99 seats in that chamber. The only way for Democrats to win control of the Legislature, therefore, is to sway voters who usually back Republicans, many of whom are in rural areas. This means connecting with issues that are on the minds of rural voters.
For the past 3-1/2 years one of us (David) has led a new Environmental Caucus of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. In response to a recent Republican-backed policies favoring polluters, the mission of the caucus is to help Democratic candidates run and win on these issues. Both authors are consultants who advise policy advocates and their funders on how to promote their ideas more effectively with federal, state, and local decision makers. And while most of our clients stay out of the electoral arena for nonprofit tax status reasons, this work provides interesting lessons for their advocacy efforts as well. For instance the caucus’ role in assisting candidates uses some key advocacy strategies and capacity building practices that evaluators look for when assessing the work of policy-advocacy organizations.
As the Environmental Caucus looked for the strongest topics to garner support from swing voters, it settled on one issue familiar to many rural communities: pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
At a pair of 2019 listening tour stops in St. Croix and Dunn counties, it emerged that pollution from industrial mega-farms has a lot of potential resonance with rural voters. David’s mentor on these issues was anti-CAFO activist Kim Dupre, who led the fight against Emerald Sky Dairy (a 3,000-cow dairy farm with a history of massive manure spills). Kim’s advice was to feature the personal testimony of people who’ve lived near factory farms and experienced the polluted well water and unbearable smell. In her case, it prompted her to leave her “forever home” and move across the border to Minnesota.
When it comes to persuading voters who are undecided on controversial issues, experience from political and policy campaigns alike confirms that merely condemning the other side typically doesn’t work. Inducing these voters to support your candidate or cause is a multi-level challenge that entails countering opponents’ misleading narratives and scare tactics, and distilling your side’s arguments into a brief and memorable form. But it’s also essential to connect with voters’ values in a way that “gives them permission” to align with you—even if that means changing long held views. A similar approach was used to good effect by proponents of marriage equality in the early-2010s. A Minnesota ad featuring a couple married in 1953 showed how they changed their minds about marriage, helping target voters to make that transition, also.
On the Republican side of the CAFO issue, candidates count on keeping the upper hand by equating any crackdown on agricultural pollution with being “anti-farmer.” In response, the Environmental Caucus has highlighted the largest operations with unmanageable levels of waste—stressing the difference between such factory farms versus the traditional family farms with which so many rural voters identify. As David put it in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, “The real problem doesn’t come from the vast majority of dairy farms or hog farms. The bad actors hide behind the good ones.”
For several months David held discussions with party leaders in rural areas that served as an informal workshop on messaging. They looked for ways to help rural voters see mega-farms for what they are: bad corporate neighbors that maximize profits by pushing the burden of pollution onto the local community.
To fulfill its mission of offering genuine help to Democratic candidates, the caucus needed to show exactly how the issue could be presented to voters. Mindful of Kim Dupre’s advice about the power of personal stories, David thought the best way to illustrate CAFOs’ political resonance would be through that staple of elections: short video ads.
As luck would have it, videographer Eric Peterson, who helped David with his own city council campaign, had made several videos about the fight against CAFOs. David went through Eric’s footage and picked out clips that lined up with the messaging advice he’d gotten. Four people from Eric’s videos consented to appear in a partisan ad, including Lynda Cochart of Lincoln, Wisconsin, who made a key point likely to resonate with target voters: struggling small farmers aren’t the source of the problem. The next lucky break came when the Wausau-based ad agency G. Morty & the Makers offered to edit the clips into two two-minute videos. The tag line of the ads sums up the Environmental Caucus’ main appeal to voters: “Vote to send representatives to Madison to protect communities, not polluters.”
Leaders of the caucus have considered a modest digital advertising buy to put the videos in front of voters, but mainly they work to achieve change by working with candidates and campaign managers. Ultimately this initiative is aimed at making candidates persuasive advocates of natural resource conservation. And in doing the work, the caucus has followed the same best practices as any advocacy group trying to build durable capacity: meeting candidates’ practical needs, staying engaged over time, and fostering a sense of community.
In mid-July, the caucus held a webinar for 17 Democratic candidates for the Wisconsin Legislature, which seemed to persuade several that CAFOs could indeed help their outreach to undecided voters. In the months ahead, caucus members will offer ongoing support to candidates. The caucus hopes that its materials, training, and encouragement for candidates to collaborate in using them will help candidates win in November.
David Shorr and Kathleen Sullivan are independent evaluation consultants who help community organizers, nonprofits and grantmakers boost their impact in the policy and political arena. They can be found on Twitter: @David_Shorr and @Katilist.