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Wisconsin's Moves Ahead With Tuesday Primary As Campaigns And Polls Adapt

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Wisconsin is forging ahead with its April 7 primary despite the coronavirus pandemic and calls from some state leaders to postpone. It's a critical state for both Republicans and Democrats in the 2020 presidential race. And as Maayan Silver from member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports, while in-person campaigning is off the table, both parties are figuring out how to get out the vote without getting together in person.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: At early voting at Racine City Hall last weekend, voters had their temperature checked by a firefighter in a surgical mask before they could enter the building. Voter Carol Rawlinski brought her own pen to fill out the ballot.

CAROL RAWLINSKI: Can I have my own pen?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, yes ma'am.

RAWLINSKI: (Laughter)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I am not upset with you for having your own pen.

RAWLINSKI: OK. Sign here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, ma'am.

SILVER: A squeeze of hand sanitizer, and Rawlinski was on her way. She says while these are unusual times, some things about politics haven't changed.

RAWLINSKI: Well, I do get a lot of messages from both parties. It goes to our answering machine.

SILVER: COVID-19 has meant an end to door-to-door canvassing and events like these.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOE BIDEN: As my mother would say, God love you all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BERNIE SANDERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Hello, Milwaukee. Hello.

SILVER: Instead, campaigning has gone totally virtual. Trump's reelection campaign is using an app, so volunteers can call potential voters from home. Callers have a script about how President Trump has handled the coronavirus outbreak. If they don't get an answer, the app leaves a prerecorded message from Trump's daughter-in-law Lara Trump with CDC guidelines to stay healthy. Still, it's not ideal, says Mark Jefferson, who heads the Wisconsin GOP.

MARK JEFFERSON: We still recognize that when people are able to talk at the doors and have face-to-face conversations, it is still the most effective way to dial down the animosity that people have towards this president when they watch cable news or something like that.

SILVER: But all of this online activity helps keep volunteers and voters from feeling isolated, says Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democrats.

BEN WIKLER: Democracy is a group activity most of the time. So the fact that we're all shut up in our own homes is very different. And what that has meant is the kind of - the release on the pressure valve has been people going online and talking to people on the phone, sending text messages, reaching out through social media.

SILVER: While there is limited in-person voting, many people are afraid to go to the polls. There's been a record number of absentee ballot requests. That's forcing Republicans to shift their get-out-the-vote tactics, says Bill McCoshen, a GOP strategist.

BILL MCCOSHEN: This is an area where Democrats have traditionally done better than Republicans - the early voting and the absentee ballots. Not to say Republicans have been terrible at it, but Democrats have been better.

SILVER: While Republicans have traditionally worried about fraud and mail-in ballots not being counted, McCoshen says this crisis is changing people's minds.

MCCOSHEN: I mean, people are - were less confident their vote would count if they didn't actually hand it in the - put it into the machine themselves. Well, now they're more worried about catching a virus if they go to the polling place, so getting them to return their ballot should be a lot easier this time around.

SILVER: It's not clear whether one side will benefit from moving towards more mail-in ballots. Ultimately, the parties still have to motivate people to vote, says Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist. He notes that's actually something the Republicans did better in 2016.

PAUL MASLIN: So I think this is a jump ball to use - probably bad to use a basketball reference since our poor Bucks can't even play a game.

SILVER: At least for now, both sides have to execute their plays virtually. For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.