I wasn’t sure Deval Patrick would be re-elected Governor of Massachusetts
and the thought gave me a knot in the stomach for the past few weeks. After Scott Brown was handed Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in January, I didn’t know what to expect from voters in my home state. Especially when people in The People’s Republic ofCambridge said things like, “Oh, I’m one of those Scott Brown people who think the Democrats have just gone too far. Giving health care, education to illegals. I want to throw all the incumbents out. Shake things up.”
Why not? Shaking things up is always a good idea when you aren’t willing to consider the consequences.
The field operation of any campaign has three phases: 1) Identifying voters, 2) Persuading voters, 3) Getting voters for your candidate to the polls on election day. In the first phase, you just try to make sure you have the right names, phone numbers and addresses for voters—as well as finding out who they think they’ll be supporting. Voters get categorized as being for your candidate, leaning toward, undecided, leaning against, or definitely against.
In the second stage, you go back to all those folks except the definitely against. You reconfirm the ones who are already in your camp and try to persuade everybody else over to your candidate.
Both of these stages build the foundation for the most crucial part, Get Out the Vote (GOTV), the final phase of the campaign. It’s of no use for folks to be with you if they don’t bestir themselves to actually vote. So in the GOTV phase, which usually begins the weekend before the election and continues through that Monday and Tuesday (for most elections) you make sure that all the people likely to vote for your side actually do so.
All three phases primarily involve two techniques: knocking on doors (canvassing) or telephoning voters to ask them questions to determine where they stand. Every campaign uses a balance of both because each has its advantages: phoning is far more efficient, but talking to people face to face can be more persuasive. Each method reaches some voters the other cannot. For example, these days of high cell phone usage are hard on campaigns because cell phone numbers are not listed publicly. Also, some people answer the door when they ignore the phone—or vice versa.
Men in Bathrobes
As a volunteer, I’ll do both phoning and door knocking, the latter being a time-honored tradition. Some volunteers stick with one or the other. The Coordinated Campaign (which tried to get votes for all the Democratic candidates) in Cambridge, like most of the state, ran a primarily walking campaign this time around rather than mostly phoning. That’s not the norm these days, and it’s risky because it requires tons of volunteers to make it work.
So legions of grunts like me carried a bunch of literature and, armed with the names, ages, addresses and gender of particular voters we were after in a household, knocked on specific doors. For days, I did my general neighborhood and got to meet lots of people I hadn’t known before.
Then I went out to help Somerville, a neighboring town, in an area with lots of blue-collar workers and students. Once I asked two young women of color walking down the sidewalk for their votes. When it turned out they were avowed supporters, I asked if they could spare a couple of hours to volunteer. “I work two jobs,” one of them said. “Me too,” added the other. “And I’m taking courses.” When I looked more closely, both had shadows under their eyes and appeared exhausted.
These are exactly the kind of people Democrats need to work for, I thought as we said our goodbyes.
But honestly, the highlight of that Sunday’s canvassing came when I rang the doorbell of an apartment with Latin music pounding out from behind the door.After two rings, the door opened.
There stood a well-built guy in his thirties wearing nothing but a towel gripped in one hand and riding low on his hips. He had a beautiful smile. Though it was in the 40°s, he seemed happy to stand there for days while I delivered my pitch in halting Portuguese, which I switched to when it became clear he didn’t speak English. Did I mention he had a beautiful build?
Unfortunately, my guy wasn’t yet a citizen though he promised to give the lit to his roommate, who was, and get him to vote for Deval. Do you think I should go back and see if he did?
‘Twas The Night Before . . .
My friend Mary Ann and I joined hordes of volunteers all over the state who went out to hang on doorknobs of likely Democratic voters royal blue, vertical signs which proclaimed in huge letters VOTE TODAY!
In Cambridge, where the great majority of voters vote Democratic whether registered as Democrats or unenrolled, we did a “blind pull.” We hung the signs on every door, blindly pulling out voters on the assumption that the bulk of them would vote as we hoped even if some did not.
Mary Ann and I, armed with flashlights, cruised the streets we were assigned, affixing signs to door knobs. I tiptoed past windows where I could see folks cleaning up from late dinners or watching television or putting their kids to bed, feeling every bit like one of Santa’s elves, imagining their surprise when they woke up in the morning to find our signs decorating the houses and apartments on their street.
Finding Votes in Public Housing
Election Day I was assigned to a part of Cambridge with more Spanish and Portuguese speakers, since I studied those languages in college. For the morning and early afternoon, I buzzed apartments in a large public housing project in East Cambridge, one that was built the year and month I was born. Many of the entryway doors sported VOTE TODAY! hangers from the night before, I was happy to see.
Some of the guys walking by with hoodies covering their heads and part of their faces looked scary. I gamely asked one, a white guy in his thirties, if we could count on his support today for Deval Patrick and the Democrats. He gave me a cold look and kept on walking. “Never voted in my life,” he growled over one shoulder. “Never will.”
That was the saddest thing I heard all day.
Not surprisingly, the only people who weren’t out working were the elderly or students. I was shocked the first time when, without asking who it was on the intercom, someone buzzed open a door for me into a stairwell going up several flights of stairs.
Should I go in? If something happened, no one would know where I was. On the other hand, it was broad daylight. But I myself had advised canvassers never to go inside houses or apartments. Was the person buzzing me in trusting or malevolent? Was I trusting or stupid to climb those stairs?
I went in. What struck me first was how clean the hallway and steps were. Just like the buildings and grounds outside. No litter, no urine smell like in the movies or other places I’ve been. No graffiti anywhere.
I learned that the people who buzzed me in without even asking were the elderly and sick, unable to come down stairs. I don’t know if they looked out their windows and checked me out before buzzing me in; didn’t seem like they had time to, but maybe so. I tend to think that they just trusted and let me, or anyone else, in. Which spoke to how safe it was, I decided, as this happened over and over.
I don’t speak French, so I wasn’t very helpful to the Haitian folks. But I met a lot of kind people from a number of countries, including my own, handed out my lit and hoped someone who came home later on would get the message. I got a lot of warm smiles and soft handshakes as I left.
Driving Ms. Maria
A few streets over from the public housing buildings, a woman stuck her head out of a third floor apartment after I rang her bell. As we spoke, I learned she really wanted to vote, but had hurt her knee and couldn’t manage the three blocks to her polling place. We arranged for me to come back at 3:00 p.m., giving her time to get dressed and eat some lunch, to drive her over to vote. She was 82.
When I arrived, five minutes late, I confess, there she was, all bundled up in coat and scarf, with a cane, sitting on her doorstep. I got to know her a little as I walked her into the polling station, and then on into the booth. Her hands shook so much she couldn’t fill in the little ovals next to candidates’ names. I did it for her.
There’s nothing so humbling or inspiring as watching people overcome hardship, of all kinds, to go out and exercise their civic rights by voting. I’ve often found older people reluctant to vote by absentee ballot, and while this may just be a case of not wanting to admit one’s limits, I suspect that, having watched Maria speak to all the attendants on our way in and out, they would miss the physical reality, the concrete process, of filling out the form and filing it, getting that little red-white-and-blue sticker that says I voted. It’s something about citizenship and the pride of doing what’s right in public, feeling connected and witnessed. It’s a ritual that still gives me a thrill each time I do it.
Over the many years I’ve been canvassing, I often find the people who most treasure the right to vote, who are most willing to discuss candidates and issues are those who are either elderly or originally from other countries.
Crashing the Guitar Lesson
In the late afternoon, I teamed up with Susan, another volunteer in East Cambridge. We worked together, she taking the odd numbered side of a street and I the even, knocking on doors to draw people out to vote. Since people were starting to come home from work, we also accosted people on the street. Susan had a gift for this.
“Hi there! Had a chance to vote today?” Lots said they had, or they were on their way to the polls, but every now and then, someone would startle. “O my god, I’d forgotten. It’s today?” And Susan and I would grin at each other as they hustled off.
When we finished our “turf,” we went back to the local office for more work. We added a third woman to our team, a young college woman named Tiffany. By now it was full dark, and none of us wanted to be out on the streets alone, so we grabbed flashlights and piggy backed with each other, one taking one house, another the next, the third an apartment a couple doors down the street. We never got far from one another.
Sometimes we double-or-triple teamed a door, adding extra voices to pry a supporter from their comfy homes or out of their pajamas to vote. One young woman came to the door with a bone-colored guitar pick in her hand. “I really wanted to vote, but I forgot and now I’m in the middle of a guitar lesson.” Tiffany and I pleaded with her, telling her how close the election was and how much her vote could mean.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “My guitar lesson.”
Tiffany and I slumped away to rejoin Susan, several buildings down the street. The three of us were knocking doors on another block, when who should walk by but the young woman and her guitar teacher. “You guilted me into it!” she called with a smile. Tiffany and I slapped hands.
The last vote we got was a woman walking down the sidewalk with a man, 100 feet from the polls, at five minutes to 8:00 p.m. One of us called across the street to them, “Had a chance to vote today?” and, when they shook their heads, “Deval really needs your vote! It’s a close election, and your poll site is right there!”
Nothing happened for a few steps, then the woman turned around and started running to vote before it was too late. Yes!
Rewarding? You bet it was. I loved the collegiality, the fun of working with Susan and Tiffany as well as the thrill every time we added another vote to our tally. Plus it beats sitting at home and stewing about all that could go wrong and how awful I might feel waking up Wednesday morning if the votes didn’t go my way.
If you haven’t already worked in the field for a candidate you care about, I hope you’ll try it some time. Let me know how you like it.