Eau Claire, Wisconsin
These are battleground wards, of a battleground district, in a battleground state that’s supposedly being scoured by canvassers in pursuit of the few remaining undecided voters. I’ve landed here, a week before the first presidential debate, on a less frenetic mission. I want to listen, one by one, to a cross-section of Wisconsin voters, hoping to discover what I can about how Iraq is registering, especially among Bush voters, not only as a campaign issue but as a portent of what the country may face in the years ahead. But nothing much seems to be happening on the sun-dappled autumn weekend before the first debate between President Bush and his challenger, John Kerry. The battle is at its fiercest indoors on TV screens, where images of terrorists, terror bombings, and troops under fire are starting to pop up in political ads, but given the run of good weather, most of those screens are unattended even when they’re on.
In other words, battleground states are like anywhere else, except that they soak up television dollars and the travel time of candidates. The President is said to be ahead in the polls, but Wisconsin polls of registered voters can be unreliable because registration here is ongoing, all the way to election day. George and Laura Bush have been to Wisconsin on separate visits in the last few days; Kerry and Dick Cheney are on their way. And, of course, Wisconsin is a ground zero of a relentless television duel being waged by the campaigns and their supposedly arm’s-length surrogates such as the Progress for America Voter Fund (anti-Kerry) and the Public Campaign Action Fund (anti-Bush), in a contest that’s all but invisible to viewers in most of the states where the campaigns, reading their polls, don’t bother to buy broadcast time.
TV stations in Eau Claire and La Crosse, by contrast, have received, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, $3.36 million of the $22.4 million already spent on political advertising in Wisconsin, enough for thousands of airings in these overlapping media markets where a single showing of a thirty-second spot can cost under $300, unless it’s in prime time or during the breaks of Green Bay Packer football games. For the moment, the Bush and Kerry brands are likelier to show up on screens in western Wisconsin than Levitra and Viagra, even Honda and Ford. And campaign attack ads, it soon becomes apparent, are one way of bringing home what’s termed the global war on terror. (By coincidence or design, another way will follow hard on the election: a National Guard unit from western Wisconsin, the 128th Battalion of the First Infantry, is in training in Mississippi under orders that assign it to Iraq for a year starting in November. Maybe a quarter of its 680 troops are from Eau Claire, a city of 62,000 that has sustained only one casualty, shrapnel wounds to a sergeant in the Army reserves. But four men from nearby counties have been among the twenty-one Wisconsin soldiers killed, so far, on those remote battlegrounds, the real ones.)
The attack ads bring the war home with a vengeance. These people want to kill us, confides a sepulchral voice-over in an ad launched by the pro-Bush Progress for America Voter Fund, as images of Mohamed Atta, Osama bin Laden, and other terrorists are succeeded by shots of bleeding Russian schoolchildren, blown-out Madrid trains, and smoldering ruins at the site of the World Trade Center. Would you trust John Kerry to deal with these dangerous fanatics? It’s scary all right, but after the shock wears off on the second or third viewing, it becomes noticeable that one subject is glossed over and another dodged completely in this impossible-to-ignore example of the fearmonger’s art. What’s glossed over is the fact that Osama is still at large with five weeks to go to the election.
What’s dodged is Iraq; the war there is not alluded to at all. In what appears to be intended as a riposte, the Democratic National Committee fills the gap with its own attack ad, moving from images of the President in his flight suit under the now notorious “Mission Accomplished” banner to footage, punctuated by explosions, of American forces under fire in Iraq. How can you solve problems, it asks, when you don’t even admit that they’re there? (The answer from the Bush campaign comes swiftly, in yet another attack ad quoting Kerry against himself. Bush’s ad guys are on top of their game and, you can tell, they’re enjoying it. How can you solve problems, they shoot back, when you don’t even know where you stand?)
In the days leading up to the first debate, the challenger appears to be placing his biggest bet of the campaign on the proposition that voters are starting to have doubts about the Iraq adventure, which up to now has seemed to work in George W. Bush’s favor, allowing him to stand as a bold leader, one who has shown he won’t shrink from decisive action in defense of “the homeland.” Kerry’s bet is a risky one, not only because of the trail of sound bites and votes he has left on both sides of the Iraq issue, but also because if he now questions the basic wisdom of the enterprise, he can be portrayed as saying that more than one thousand American troops have died in vain. (If your memory goes back that far, it’s hard not to be reminded that Richard Nixon won the third presidential election of the Vietnam War in 1972 in a landslide.) If Kerry can’t make his case here, he’s probably doomed. After all, Wisconsin was carried by the Democrats in the last four presidential elections, even when Michael Dukakis was their candidate.
Al Gore held on to the state in 2000 by a margin of only 5,708 votes, twenty-seven of which came from the adjacent seventeenth and twenty-sixth wards on the southern side of this city, which, in a near dead heat, cast 788 votes for Gore and 761 for Bush. It’s a middle-class neighborhood of tidy ranch houses and small two-story homes which sell for between $90,000 and $160,000, where the streets are named after American military heroes—Grant and Lee, MacArthur and Patton, Nimitz and Halsey. Boats with outboard motors sit in driveways or garages on nearly every block, waiting to be hauled to nearby lakes; American flags left over from the burst of patriotism that followed September 11 still fly, often now faded, from every fifth or sixth house. It seems a good place to start my random, highly unscientific conversations, in which I try to listen rather than steer in hopes of encountering a full spectrum of Eau Claire’s views.
On Iraq, I soon learn, those views are occasionally fierce, more often half-formed, but seldom a clear indicator of the vote a person expects to cast. If the electorate is as polarized as we’ve constantly been told throughout the election year, it isn’t the overriding question about Iraq—whether it’s a legitimate part of the war on terror or a costly diversion spawning more terrorists—that’s polarizing it. In the days leading up to the debate, only the most partisan or watchful voters see that as the decisive issue on which they’ll have to make their choice; precisely the voters, that is, whose choice was never in doubt.
For the rest, Iraq evokes a range of conflicting instincts and feelings of inadequacy, a sense that they don’t know enough to know what or whom to believe. Hubert Fischer, a retired highways engineer who was the second of the thirty-six voters with whom I’d eventually speak, said he wished he’d read more about Iraq and its history. But he didn’t have a good feeling about where the situation there was heading. “Bush certainly showed leadership,” he said. “He showed that he’s not afraid to make a decision. The only question is how right has he been. You can have a lot of leadership and still be wrong. Look at Germany in World War II.” That was a surprising throwaway line, given that the retired engineer had already made clear his determination to vote for the President. He would vote for him because he was a single-issue voter, he explained. His issue was abortion. “There’s no issue out there that can trump it,” he said. “What’s more important than life?”
There were other pro-life voters and other single-issue Republican voters, notably owners of small businesses who felt grateful for the tax relief they’d already gotten from the Bush administration and hopeful of gaining more. None of them was hopeful about Iraq. “I feel like we did our part, and now it’s time to get out,” said Emily Nordlund, a Bush supporter and co-owner with her husband of a small food distribution business, whom I met when I ventured on my second day into the thirtieth ward, a neighborhood known as East Hill. “I’d like to stop hearing about war,” said her husband, Todd, who’d placed a Bush-Cheney decal on their front door. In fact, of the fifteen persons who told me that they planned or were strongly inclined to vote for the President, just three were steadfast in saying they wanted to “stay the course” in Iraq or support him in finishing there what he’d begun. “On the basis of the information he had at the time, he acted in the national interest,” said one of these Bush stalwarts, a physician’s assistant named Brenda Rodel. “If Kerry wins, I’m afraid we’ll pull out and leave it to the UN.”
Surprisingly, some single-issue Democrats and undecided voters wind up in about the same place, making the partisan divide on Iraq difficult to trace in Eau Claire’s wards. Yet beyond Iraq as an election issue, a free-floating anxiety seemed to hover over the open-ended Bush commitment there, begging a question that neither candidate and few other elected politicians have wanted to address: If more troops were needed, where would they come from, and how long would it be before restoration of a draft starts to be discussed as a serious option? “I’m praying they don’t bring back the draft,” said Sheri Holtey, a pro-life voter and strong Bush supporter with a fifteen-year-old son. “Talk of the draft makes me crazy,” said Mary Casey, a Kerry supporter whose son is ten. The draft was on no one’s agenda—Donald Rumsfeld, in fact, had to issue a denial as rumors flew around the Internet—but plainly it was on the minds of voters who couldn’t help thinking ahead and wondering where this all would end.
At the same time, the easy assumption that there was something noble about the crusade to bring down a tyranny and franchise our democracy in the Middle East tended to push aside the now confused question of what exactly had been the threat, leaving behind the issue of weapons of mass destruction and UN inspections; WMDs seemed to be ancient history, a forgotten question on last year’s final exam. Angie Yates is a part-time speech therapist in a grade school who will vote for Kerry because she deplores the No Child Left Behind program for its overemphasis on testing and its shortfalls in promised funding: in other words, a single-issue voter on the Democratic side. She didn’t follow the debates at the United Nations leading up to last year’s invasion but takes it as axiomatic that presidents don’t lightly send young soldiers to war, that this president against whom she means to vote must have acted in good faith, which is to say that he must have believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001. She has continued to believe it herself, not knowing that it’s a view the President long ago had to disavow. “I’m not somebody cracking down on George Bush,” she said. “It may be taking longer than he thought but I still feel there’s a job to be done.”