He walked up South Main Street on a winter morning, a heavy overcoat covering his suit. He was here to check out the business district, stopping by a shoe store, diner and post office, where he ran into one of the few Democrats in town.
And when an eighth-grade teacher brought his class to see what a presidential race looks like, Sen. John F. Kennedy jaywalked across the street through the large crowd to greet them.
Accompanied by his wife, Jacqueline, Kennedy’s stop in Fort Atkinson on Feb. 16, 1960, was followed a few weeks later by primary challenger Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.
They were brushes with political fame for locals and a small-town campaign for a candidate that really hasn’t been copied since.
Saturday marks 60 years since Kennedy traveled to Fort Atkinson. He came to show the Democratic Party that a Roman Catholic could draw the votes needed to win. And both Republicans and Democrats turned out to shake his hand.
Andy Jorgensen has heard all the stories about the time when national politics literally came to this area’s front door.
He can name hotels like the Monterey in Janesville and talk about Main Street in Fort Atkinson that was filled with media attention for a day.
Having been a state Assemblyman in the 37th and 43rd districts, Jorgensen, of Milton and formerly of Fort Atkinson, knows the history of Jefferson County’s brush with political fame.
He wasn’t even born when Kennedy came through this area, but he has run into others who were and knows how that impacted their lives.
As the national spotlight on a presidential primary once again shines, Wisconsin is a battleground state both parties want to win.
But 60 years ago, an idea of swinging through small cities and towns to share that personal touch was a plan that worked for Kennedy, who traveled to places like downtown Baraboo, Beaver Dam, Whitewater and Fort Atkinson.
The idea of a candidate doing that today is difficult to imagine.
Certainly, candidates visit cities like Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay, but they don’t stop in rural Wisconsin.
The closest Jefferson County since has had to a presidential politician coming here was Dennis Kucinich more than a decade ago in Jefferson. (And campaigning on behalf of Barack Obama in his first run for the White House, music legend Carole King came to Fort Atkinson’s Café Carpe.)
But this state is getting primed for a brush with political fame that might reach farther than the metropolitan cities and the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.
Susan Johnson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said it is less clear whether Wisconsin is too late in the primary field to matter, but noted that the state will be a top contender for the general election.
While the 1960s was a different time on the political campaign trail, the idea of candidates coming to nontraditional regions of the state could happen again.
“When you have a race that’s seen as every vote counts, yeah, I think you are looking at seeing candidates in small places,” Johnson said. “And do a swing through Fort, Whitewater, or wherever.”
A shifting strategy
With a little more than an hour before he started teaching his class, Eric Loepp, a political science professor at UW-Whitewater, was adjusting his topic for the day because the winner in the Iowa Primary was undecided, even though many were claiming victory.
Loepp noticed that students were uploading videos and studying the situation in Iowa, even though there was no assignment.
“These are people who are into politics, and engaged with it,” he said.
As a professor who gives lectures on presidential campaigns and elections, Loepp said these are incredible times to be doing what he is doing, describing Iowa being like Christmas Eve.
While the campaigns are heating up, what Wisconsin will look like in four weeks when candidates will be here leading up to the April primary election is anyone’s guess. But one thing Loepp said is that there is less of a focus on people changing parties to vote, but more focus on getting people to the polls who did not vote in the last election.
“The decision to vote is almost more important than who you vote for,” he said.
With the early races like New Hampshire and South Carolina, the campaigns resemble retail politics, with baby kissing and shaking hands, Loepp said. Those are areas where candidates have been in a state going to small towns, large cities and everywhere in between.
“You don’t typically have these massive rallies,” he said.
Not like the number of voters who decorated that Capitol lawn in Madison during a campaign stop by Obama during his first run for president.
Fact is, by the time later primaries happen, the number of candidates often have dwindled and their stops often target larger cities.
Loepp said politicians in today’s political climate usually focus on numbers, but if a race is close, the chance of more visits to a state increase. And stops to smaller cities might include names you know.
“You also might have senators coming through (smaller towns),” he said.
Loepp said that if a candidate can get the numbers he or she wants in places like Waukesha and Milwaukee, then traveling to other areas becomes unlikely. This race, he pointed out, will be about mobilizing voters everywhere.
While no one recently has done what Kennedy did 60 years ago, there seems to be a new blueprint for success in this state — showing up.
In the 2016 election, then-Republican candidate Donald Trump stopped in large cities and a smaller city in Janesville, as did Bernie Sanders.
Sanders carried the state in the Democratic Primary and Trump won the election here. Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, ignored Wisconsin.
Loepp said the candidates will go where the vote is competitive. He said you could see candidates like Joe Biden say, “I’m your person, if we are serious about taking back Wisconsin.”
And getting that message across is something in which Jorgensen said smaller towns can still play an important role.
“I think you can do that in a way that’s powerful,” he said.
When Kennedy walked down the street of a Republican town like Fort Atkinson that day, did he change any voters’ minds?
Kennedy said people were “pleasant and agreeable” when he came here. But can a campaign stop switch a vote?
A great speaker like Kennedy, Bill Clinton or Obama have that “X-factor,” Loepp said, and can affect a crowd and even boost enthusiasm in the moment. But how long that moment lasts is questionable.
In the general election, the number of voters who cast ballots for their own party is about 90 percent, Loepp said.
But where it gets interesting is a primary contest that might have three candidates vying for the nomination of their party. Loepp said people might attend an event looking to separate the three.
There is a certain brush with fame that also can get voters to turn out to see a candidate in person. Loepp said that in today’s politics, voters know where the candidate stands on issues and likely is there to support him or her.
“No one goes to a rally to learn Bernie’s position on health care,” he said.
But the campaign stop still does have a purpose.
“Someone may post a Facebook message about taking a selfie with Mayor Pete (Buttigieg), and that might start a conversation around a dinner table somewhere. Maybe seeing a sign that Elizabeth Warren is coming to town will remind someone to register to vote,” Loepp said.
With social media today, voters can be there for a selfie with candidates like Warren, who has smiled for thousands of them.
Loepp said he has seen the effects people might have meeting a candidate — from goosebumps to enthusiasm.
He said whether people want to tag themselves in a post on Facebook or wear a sticker that announces they voted that day, there is a sense that they did their civic duty.
The times, they are a changing
In 1968, the Democratic National Convention was a mess. The party split between who they wanted as a candidate and riots were going on in the streets.
In Chicago, half the party supported nominating Hubert Humphrey. Then you had others who wanted another choice.
What happened was a landslide victory for President Richard Nixon over Humphrey.
Since then, things have changed, said Johnson. What you’ve seen since 1972 is the birth of the modern-day primary with the delegates linked to what voters decide.
The delegates were not committed to any candidate or required to vote for any specific person, she said.
And since then, every four years, a party will try to make rule changes to correct what it deems went wrong in the previous election.
In the 2016 Democratic primary, the issue of the “super-delegate” was a concern by Sanders supporters who felt it was unfair that Clinton had that support.
“This year, those super-delegates have a lot less power as who will be the nominee,” Johnson said.
Wisconsin has flirted with moving the primary time over the years, but Johnson warned that if it does that, there could be penalties in the form of the number of delegates that a party could, in turn, cut.
Johnson explained that with a traditional primary instead of a caucus, candidates with higher name recognition tend to do better. And with the Trump impeachment issue having been covered by media so much, the election has kind of taken a back seat.
“There are a lot of people who don’t even know that Iowa happened last night,” she said a week ago Wednesday.
And the idea that there is no bad press, even for a president, could be reflected in Trump’s poll numbers going up.
“It doesn’t seem to be hurting him,” she said.
Super Tuesday, with so many delegates at play, will be a test to see if many candidates can withstand the race. If the field is cut, Johnson said, it is unlikely candidates will make those swings through smaller cities.
But the general election, she said, will be quite active ... something Wisconsinites are seeing with both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence recently.
Last spring, along a chilly Lake Monona in downtown Madison, Sanders held a rally to kick off a campaign in a state that he won four years ago. But would his supporters travel outside of traditional blue areas to see him or another candidate? That is something Loepp said would be interesting to see.
Meeting a candidate at a campaign stop these days usually doesn’t sway a vote, but it reminds a voter to be active, he said.
There can be a sense that if a candidate shows up to an area, it is a sign that he or she cares. But those swayed by that often are fringe voters.
“But when national elections hinge on only tens of thousands of votes, it is quite possible for the fringe to matter,” he pointed out.
Philip Shulman, a director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said he believes candidates “absolutely” will come to more areas than simply the largest cities this time around. He said the purpose of the party in the state is not to pick sides, but to stay in contact with all of them and get the word out.
Shulman said he wouldn’t be surprised during the primary that Wisconsin sees a large influx of candidates.
He said the focus is on increasing voter turnout. Some of the historically main strongholds that Obama carried were lost to Trump in the last election.
But one thing all people watching this upcoming election agree upon is that Wisconsin will be a major player.
“We are really excited about it,” Shulman said. “The state is pivotal for taking back the White House.”
What Kennedy did so long ago was a different time, but the effects seem to last more than an election. There was a personal connection that people remembered for the rest of their lives, whether they voted for him or not.
For Jorgensen, the time of a candidate traveling to a smaller city in Wisconsin might not be over. He said he believes someone will try a new blueprint, or perhaps an old one, to win the state again.
But it will depend upon the candidates, he said. If they want to stand on a stage and talk to voters, they don’t need to leave a place like Milwaukee. But if they want to be retail candidates and stroll down a street, they will come to other areas.
Jorgensen knows the stories about Kennedy and the towns to which he traveled. People, he said, thought it was so cool that someone came to their community.
And shook their hand.
“They still talk about that,” he said.
But can that work again in 2020?
“What is old is new again,” he said.