Changing Rural America One County at a Time

A Wisconsin schoolteacher shares her strategy for turning out progressive voters

Joel Bleifuss March 30, 2023

Twelve years ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP state legislature passed Act 10 in Wisconsin, slashing benefits and collective-bargaining rights for public-sector employees. For Leslie DeMuth, then a public-school art teacher, the attack on her profession was an awakening.

Since then, DeMuth, now 68 and retired, has immersed herself in the political life of her community.  Last year, she began a “deep canvassing” program in her Republican-leaning county, organizing volunteers to go door to door to talk with voters about what really matters to them and their neighbors. She believes that, over time, conversations like these could transform Wisconsin politics.

DeMuth, who became co-chair of the Jefferson County Democrats this past January, spoke with Barn Raiser about life in her county, what voters care about, and the fine art of deep canvassing.

Joel Bleifuss: What should we know about Jefferson County, Wisconsin? 

Leslie DeMuth: We have rural areas, but the majority of people live in small manufacturing towns, like Watertown, which is the largest, with 23,000 people. It has really taken it on the nose with the loss of manufacturing jobs. These were union towns that were blue and are now very red. 

To our west is very blue Dane County, where Madison is. It’s very educated, much wealthier. To the east is Waukesha, very suburban, much better off; and then you go into Milwaukee.

Watertown is coming back. People are moving there because housing is more affordable and then they they’re commuting out of town. There’s a big population of people of Mexican descent and they’re reviving the downtown. It’s starting to come back with shops and everything. And a lot of those shops are Latino. 

Bleifuss: How would you describe the political life of your county? 

DeMuth: It’s red. A couple of the towns are purple, and a couple of the towns are blue. Watertown is very red, and the rural areas tend to be very, very red. But we’ve made our greatest gains toward blue in certain wards in Watertown. With the last few elections, we are about one, two, one-and-a-half percent bluer with each election. 

Bleifuss: What personally motivated you to get involved in county politics?

DeMuth: I am a retired schoolteacher. I taught art. I was in Wisconsin during [Gov. Scott Walker’s] Act 10, which radicalized me. I had never experienced top-down power like that. You know, it took my labor rights, it took my income and denigrated us as lazy. And I know how important the work that teachers do is for everybody. 

I became politically active. And in December 2016, after Trump won, I and some others got on the phone organizing people for Indivisible Jefferson County, doing what the county Democratic Party could have been doing but wasn’t.

So when I started this deep canvassing project in 2022, I was looking for the best vehicle to use. I considered Citizen Action of Wisconsin. They were very open and very generous, and worked with us for two days, training us in deep canvassing. But in the end we thought we could get what we needed from the VAN [Voter Action Network] voter data from the Democratic Party, and they would have been organizing in the county anyway. So that’s what we chose to do. I became a board member of the Jefferson County Democratic Party in 2018 and co-chair since January. 

What we wanted to do in Jefferson County was similar to what Dave Fleischer did with the Leadership LAB  in the suburbs of Philadelphia in 2020. The deep canvassing Leadership LAB did made about a 10% difference in voter turnout, and that carried the state for Biden. They were talking to voters who they thought would not vote for Trump but had a low propensity to vote. And so, what we wanted to do was talk to infrequent voters, voters who might not vote, but who we thought would vote for Gov. Tony Evers and eventually Mandela Barnes, who was running for Senate. We couldn’t keep doing what we were doing if we were actually ever going to change anything. 

Bleifuss: What were you doing? 

DeMuth: The transactional, get-out-the-vote kind of canvasing. You know, knock on the door, and say, “Will you support so-and-so? Oh, great. Thanks. Bye.”  That doesn’t engage people in any real way about what really matters to them. 

With that kind of canvassing, the volunteer retention is really poor. It’s like using people like a Kleenex and then you throw them out because you’re just organizing around that one election. You have to treat your volunteers as if they are valued. They have wisdom to share. 

Bleifuss:  How big is your volunteer network now? 

DeMuth: Well, for the 2022 midterms we had—and this includes Chicago Indivisible coming up—over 50 volunteers. We started in January on the phones, and were on the phones into March calling low-propensity voters. By May, we canvassed during the day and during the weekends in groups of two or three or four or six and once a month Indivisible Chicago would come up and that would be a big canvass. Indivisible Chicago contributed a lot to this project. 

This went on until early October, when we switched to a traditional get-out-the-vote canvass.

Bleifuss: Do you have any stats on the number of doors you knocked on?

DeMuth: I had 35 to 40 devoted local canvassers. We had more than 1,500 actual conversations. I don’t know how many doors we knocked, but if we had a 30% contact rate that would be around 5,000 doors.

In the end, we identified 520 infrequent voters we believed would vote for Evers and Barnes. This does not include the people who were not on our list, but we spoke to by chance or opportunity. We followed up with many of those we met with phone calls. 

If each of 72 counties in Wisconsin could have swung 520 votes [37,440 total], Barnes might have won; he only lost by 27,000 votes. 

What’s fascinating is the change of what people said as things changed in the country. In June, when there was that leak about the Supreme Court [anti-abortion] Dobbs decision, we immediately heard about that, from men, young or old, all kinds of men, and all kinds of women. They were all upset about that. And as the summer wore on, it was about inflation and the cost of things. And then after the August primary, when the GOP was running all those terrible ads about Mandela Barnes then it was all about Mandela Barnes and crime.

Bleifuss: Is there a crime wave in Jefferson County? 

DeMuth: No, there’s no crime wave, but you would hear things about crime or “those people in Milwaukee.” And that’s a code for a racsist comment. 

But the thing about deep canvassing is, you can take a comment about crime, and say, “Well, what do you mean by that? Do you have a lot of crime in your neighborhood?” It gives you an opportunity to talk about it.

Bleifuss: Can you explain more about how deep canvassing works? 

DeMuth: So you start with, broad, non-invasive, non-personal questions and you drill down to find out what really matters to them. It’s so interesting. 

I knock on a door and if they answer, I say, “Hi, I’m Leslie DeMuth. I’m here with the Jefferson County Democrats. And we just have a quick question.” We actually want to be there for 20 minutes, but you have to get your foot in that door, right? 

And then I’d say, “So, if Tony Evers was here right now instead of me and you just had one minute to tell him the concerns you have for yourself, your family, the people you love”—softening them up—“what would you want to tell him about?” It’s not like, “I’m just out here about this election, will you support so-and-so.” Right? 

Frequently, people would say, “I don’t like politics.” And because you are always trying to find common ground on understanding, I would say, “Oh, because it’s so divisive? I know what you mean. Well, I’m not here to talk about politics. I just want to find out about what really matters to you.” And the idea there is that you are sharing your own story, making yourself vulnerable so that you get them to a personal place. 

We were recording information and following up. It was very labor intensive. At the end of the canvassing, we would end with a group debrief, with the idea that we were always learning from each other and we were always perfecting our techniques. So we respected the wisdom in the information of our canvassers. 

The canvassers—these are people who are very politically motivated to make a change in the world—loved this because they were having these very, very personal conversations with people they would never have met in a million years, probably very different from themselves, maybe not educated like they are and maybe not as economically privileged as they are. It was gratifying,. and it was so respectful of the people that we were talking to. My volunteers during the week could go out canvassing with their buddies. 

Bleifuss: Why do you think the state Democratic Party is not supporting more of this work? 

DeMuth: Maybe they just do things the way they’ve always done it. 

Bleifuss: That could be because they depend on political consultants who make their living with TV ads and get-out-the-vote canvassing. 

I heard complaints from friends in Wisconsin, in 2016 how the Democratic Party would not invest in yard signs to distribute but would only sell them. My friends wanted yard signs for Hillary Clinton, but they couldn’t get them without paying because, as the consultants say, “Yard signs don’t vote.” 

DeMuth: And the data shows that actually yard signs do make a difference. 

Bleifuss: What advice would you give for people in your situation in other counties across the state of Wisconsin or across the country who feel inspired by what you’ve done and wonder if they could do that, too? 

DeMuth: I would say go talk to the people who are doing this and get trained. If we would do this, we could bring about the change. My loyalty isn’t to the Democrats, it’s to the change that we could bring about. It doesn’t have to be this way.

We’re not going to change people by telling them they’re stupid or shaming them. It’s not effective. That’s organizing 101, right? To quote Cesar Chavez, “How do you organize? First you talk to somebody and then you talk to somebody else, and then you talk to somebody else.”

Bleifuss: If you live in a city, it’s easier to stay within your group and associate with people who are just like you. But in small towns and rural communities, you have to interact with your neighbors and sort of everybody. What are your relations like with people in the Republican Party in your community? 

DeMuth: I try to love them for their very good parts. We do something called Church Chat on Sunday mornings at the home of two strong Republicans. And they can’t even joke about politics, it just makes them so angry. 

But I’ve said, “I think we have the same values. We actually have the same beliefs.” Because they’re good, generous people, but they’re buying into Fox News, and it’s easier to do that than actually think things through. But we have to talk to people and we have to treat them respectfully. 

Bleifuss: According to the Census, 10% of Jefferson County is Hispanic. What role do Latinos play in your group? 

DeMuth: It’s a challenge for us because we don’t have any Latino volunteers, but we do have some Spanish speakers, so we have had some follow up with voters. There are a lot of recent immigrants and it would be ideal if we all spoke Spanish, because sometimes we do come to the door and we do talk to people who cannot speak English, so we have to send somebody back who speaks Spanish. So yeah, we could really use help with that. 

Bleifuss: Are you involved in local elections, too? School board elections?

DeMuth: Yes. It depends on whether the candidates want help. And if they do, we help them with their literature, yard signs, phone banks and going door to door. 

School board elections are nonpartisan. But there are attempts to take over school boards and county boards. They have all of that agenda, you know, throwing out the books, anti-vaccination, anti-LGBTQ+, all that “trans kids in bathrooms” stuff. 

Bleifuss: Do you find that those issues resonate locally when you go door to door? How do you address, say, the fear of trans people in bathrooms? 

DeMuth: Well, that’s never come up in a conversation. Mostly They are fearful of this right-wing movement against people’s rights and who they are as people. I hear from people that they’re afraid for themselves or for their family members or somebody.

Bleifuss: What do you call that right-wing movement?

DeMuth: The MAGA group.

Manufacturing towns like Watertown and Jefferson, have really taken it on the nose since NAFTA and the job losses. Talking to people during deep canvassing you hear it: There’s economic anxiety and insecurity that people are experiencing and it’s very real. 

Bleifuss: How do you bridge the cultural divide?

DeMuth: You’re going to have to meet people where they are. You have to really listen to what they really care about. Read Dorian Warren’s interview with Anand Giridharadas, author of The Persuaders, and Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working People’s Party. It speaks to what we need to do.

We are out here talking to people who might not have so many privileges or great educations. 

I talked to two Republicans recently last week in Watertown, when I was going door-to-door for Judge Janet Protasiewicz. I asked them about what their concerns were for their family. And they said, “I don’t want Biden taking money to pay off college student loans.” 

These are people living in their seventies in a very, very modest home. They probably didn’t have a college education and really don’t want their tax dollars to pay for someone else’s college education. We may see it in a different way, but it doesn’t help not to understand them or not to directly speak to their concerns. 

So, when we’re speaking at the door we really do have use that inclusive language. We all need health care, right? You know, it’s so effective. 

Bleifuss: What do you think about the power of social media?

DeMuth: I see it as a form of slacktivism, like talking to your friends. It makes you feel good, but I don’t think that’s going to bring in anybody new or convince anybody to think differently. 

As soon as this Supreme Court election is over, I plan to return to more deep canvassing in Jefferson County. I just want to build on this because I want to win before I die. Because, honestly, we have to do better than this. Right?

This Barn Raiser interview is part of an ongoing series on rural changemakers and organizers.

Joel Bleifuss

Joel Bleifuss is Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher and Board President of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is a descendent of German and Scottish farmers who immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the 19th Century to become farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. His grandmother was born in the Scottish Highlands to parents listed in the Census of Great Britain, 1881 as “farm servants” on land owned by the Duke of Fife. Joel himself was born and raised in Fulton, Mo., a small town on the edge of the Ozark Highlands. He got his start in journalism in 1983 as a feature writer and Saturday reporter/photographer for his hometown daily, the Fulton Sun. Bleifuss joined the staff of In These Times magazine in October 1986, stepping down as Editor & Publisher in April 2022, to join his fellow barn raisers in getting Barn Raiser off the ground.

Have thoughts or reactions to this or any other piece that you’d like to share? Send us a note with the Letter to the Editor form.

Want to republish this story? Check out our guide.

53