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Hillary Clinton’s tack to win Wisconsin has been to stay far away and count on her supporters here — and a historically unpopular opponent — to carry the day.

Increasingly favorable poll numbers suggest it’s working. Clinton’s campaign says it is confident it is closing the sale with Badger State voters, and now is counting on its ground game to get those voters to the polls by Nov. 8.

Clinton’s fortunes here haven’t always been high. She consistently has been viewed unfavorably by a majority of Wisconsin voters and has lost two Democratic primaries in the state — this April to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and in 2008 to President Barack Obama.

But this is a general election, and Clinton’s current opponent, Republican Donald Trump, is even more disliked.

Recent polls show Clinton leads Trump by about 7 percent in Wisconsin in a four-way race including Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. Those figures are from the most recent Marquette Law School Poll and from the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls in Wisconsin.

Clinton has yet to visit Wisconsin during the general election, as Obama did often in the home stretch of the 2012 campaign. Nor has Clinton’s campaign done a TV ad blitz in the state such as the one recently launched by Trump.

Instead, Clinton’s campaign has held events with surrogates such as her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton, is scheduled to visit Madison, La Crosse and Stevens Point on Tuesday.

The linchpin of Clinton’s campaign in Wisconsin is its infrastructure of paid staffers and volunteers, which is integrated with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, according to Clinton’s Wisconsin spokeswoman, Gillian Drummond. For months the staffers and volunteers have focused on contacting voters through phone banking and door-to-door canvassing. Now it’s about getting them to the polls — ideally, to vote early, Drummond said.

Wisconsin Democrats also must guard against their voters getting complacent or entertaining third-party options if it becomes apparent Clinton will cruise to victory here, Democratic operatives in the state said.

“If people think this is in the bag, what is the impact?” said Sachin Chheda, Milwaukee Democratic political consultant and volunteer fundraiser for Clinton’s campaign. “That’s why we’re keeping the pedal down.”

Meanwhile, Trump has held large rallies in Waukesha and Green Bay during the past month.

Trump’s Wisconsin spokesman, Matthew Schuck, said Republicans in the state are fully mobilized, adding that Trump and Wisconsin Republicans “have the resources we need to win in November.”

Some liabilities remain

For Clinton, the liabilities that dogged her during Wisconsin’s Democratic primary have not fully vanished.

In the most recent Marquette poll, Clinton continued to be viewed unfavorably by a majority — 54 percent — of likely voters, with 42 percent viewing her favorably.

But three debate performances in which public polls showed Clinton victorious, coupled with continued stumbles by Trump, have contributed to her current standing. Trump’s favorability numbers in the latest Marquette poll were worse than Clinton’s, at 33 percent favorable to 61 percent unfavorable.

Arnold Shober, a professor of government at Lawrence University, said Trump is hurt by his lack of cohesion with Wisconsin GOP elected officials such as Ryan or Gov. Scott Walker or U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

All three have endorsed Trump but have declined to campaign with him in the state, and they have emphasized different themes and issues while on the stump.

Chheda said the Clinton campaign must ensure voters whose support for her is not ironclad don’t defect to Anderson or Stein — or decide not to vote — if they judge that Clinton has Wisconsin sewn up.

Shober agreed that if Clinton’s polling lead in Wisconsin holds steady or increases, it could create an environment in which staunchly liberal voters, in particular, feel it’s “safe to cast a protest vote” for Johnson or Stein. That may not be enough to tilt the race toward Trump, Shober said, but could make the race tighter than expected — and perhaps hurt Democrats down the ballot.

Clinton has not made a public stop in Wisconsin since before its April 5 primary.

Obama was a frequent Badger State visitor in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign. He came to Milwaukee in late September 2012 and to UW-Madison’s Bascom Hill about a month before the 2012 election.

Obama returned to Wisconsin for three stops in the campaign’s final week, capped by another Madison visit on election eve with rock legend Bruce Springsteen.

Still, far from being a problem, Clinton’s supporters say her absence from Wisconsin shows her strength here.

“That means that we have done our work in this state,” said Patrick Guarasci, a Milwaukee Democratic strategist.

Clinton also has yet to saturate Wisconsin TV airwaves since the primary campaign.

The primary super PAC supporting Clinton, Priorities USA, also has not spent money in Wisconsin.

Instead the campaign is relying on its organizational prowess.

Just since Aug. 1, campaign staffers and volunteers have made nearly 2 million phone calls in the state.

On calls and doorsteps and at campaign events, the campaign has hammered home the importance of voting early.

“The ground game is really the focus and what has been the central part of our campaign,” Drummond said.

Heather Colburn, a Democratic consultant who led Clinton’s Wisconsin delegation to the Democratic National Convention, said the campaign has shifted from persuading voters to mobilizing them in the final weeks before Election Day.

“We know what we need to do,” Colburn said. “Now we have to close.”


Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.