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Votes

Sealing the Deal with a Handshake

Hundreds of volunteers from both parties practice “retail politics” on election day.

In Britain, they call it “knocking up the neighborhood.”

“It’s one way to win elections,” said Richard Strange, a British transplant who is now a U.S. citizen. American campaign organizers agree. On Election Day, the same practice is known as “flushing,” as in flushing out potential voters, and in the final days of a campaign that has achieved notoriety for mean-spirited accusations leveled by the faceless voices of political advertisements, it is one of the ways that hundreds of volunteers from both parties practiced the most time-tested method of getting out the vote, the personal appeal.

When the 27 polls in Mount Vernon opened at 6 a.m., campaign workers from both parties were already there, waiting with detailed lists of registered voters likely to support their candidate. Anyone on the list who had not shown up by the afternoon was likely to receive phone calls and even home visits.

These get-out-the-vote efforts require money and manpower. The balance of the two elements dictates how the district committees will proceed: precise, but pricey, micro-targeting, or broad, but time-consuming, blanket campaigns.

Strange is a volunteer for the Jim Webb campaign. Ironically, he said he got involved in the Virginia Senate race because, as a D.C. resident, he is disenfranchised from the congressional contests. On Tuesday morning, Strange was sitting in the conference room at the Mount Vernon Government Center, which had been transformed into a command center for the Mount Vernon Democrats. He was taping the address of the Bucknell polling station onto hundreds of door-hangers that would soon be distributed.

Mount Vernon Republicans were undertaking similar efforts. “It’s just text-book election day activities,” said Doug Jones, the chairman of the Mount Vernon Republican Party. He said Republicans would be tailoring their strategy to each precinct. To make the pitch as convincing as possible, the lists of Republicans who had yet to vote would be given to their neighbors. “That’s more effective than any impersonal phone bank. It’s a neighbor calling a neighbor to remind them how important their vote is.”

Jones said Republicans began canvassing their precincts in July. They also had access to the Republican National Committee’s online database of likely voters. Jones described how he could use specific filters to select anyone from undecided voters to “hard R’s, ”then use a mouse to shade the geographic area he wanted, and the computer would print out a list of names and addresses.

Across the country, the RNC has been assisting local committees with a 72-hour campaign to get the base into the voting booths. But no matter how many databases and lists the party generates, it won’t see results unless the numbers translate into eye contact and handshakes. “That’s what I love about grassroots politics,” Jones said. “It’s retail politics, not wholesale. It’s face to face, one on one.”

MOUNT VERNON DEMOCRATIC COMMITTEE Chairman Scott Surovell said they rely on state and county committees, not the national committee, for support. “The DNC has very little involvement in anything we do.” He said the Democrats use lists based on primary voting data and information accrued from years of polling and door-knocking.

Surovell said the Democrats used door-to-door and phone campaigns to catch a wide swath of potential voters in this election. The reasons were both strategic and practical. They wanted to catch as many independents as possible, because they felt independents were more likely be on their side. Also, the Webb campaign’s lack of cash for most of the summer made it difficult to get more targeted data.

Surovell said the committee sent out 10,000 letters in the weeks before the election. And Vice-Chairman Laura Sonnenmark said they placed over 3,000 phone calls.

On Monday night Surovell and 20 volunteers went out at about 9 p.m. and put flyers on car windshields in parking lots along Route 1. Ron Stevens was a Webb volunteer in Lee District. He had been helping organize bilingual volunteers to knock on doors in apartments along Richmond Highway. He said door-knockers would come to houses three or four times during the day until they met owners who hadn’t voted yet. “Sometimes people get distracted so we’re just there to remind them.”

Jones estimated there would be 15-20 Republican volunteers at each polling station. And Surovell said there would be about 30 Democrats. This added up to hundreds of volunteers on each side to scour the district for recalcitrant voters and to take one last shot at securing the votes of those who arrived at the polls.

Pamela Doyle-Penne said she’d been waiting decades to be where she was on Tuesday morning, standing in front of Stratford Landing Elementary with a stack of Republican ballot guides. As a federal employee, she said she was allowed to donate, but not to physically campaign. “It’s exciting,” she said. “I’m not here to sway, I’m here to inform.”

Margie Fargo, stood next to her. She estimated she’d given about 12 hours to the Webb campaign by leafleting, stuffing envelopes, hanging reminders on doorknobs and greeting people at the precinct. “But that’s not as much as most of the regulars.”

Fargo said that earlier in the week she’d visited apartments along the Richmond Highway during her door-knocking campaign. Residents there were among the most appreciative of all the people she met. One man asked her if she was with building maintenance, when she explained her mission, he thanked her for coming, saying the area is often bypassed by political campaigns.

Ward Morrison was passing out flyers for another cause. He was a volunteer for the Commonwealth Coalition, which opposes an amendment to the constitution containing language that bans gay unions and, its foes argue, any other contract between unmarried people. His strategy has been simple, hand out a copy of the amendment, look someone in the eye and say, “Please read it.” He said that in the last month he’s been handing out flyers wherever he goes. “Let them read it. If they read it they’ll make the right choice.”

Steve Berggren, a Republican volunteer at Stratford, praised the congeniality of the neighborhood, despite its nearly even partisan split. “At the local level, politics is personal. It’s really sad that at the national level it’s gotten so violent and divisive.”

He added that he had knocked on many doors in the last 72 hours. He doesn’t waste time trying to change people’s minds, rather he looks for the people who aren’t quite sure who they’ll vote for or whether they’ll vote. “It’s on those margins that elections are won and lost.”

Then Beggren, who has been volunteering for ten years, reflected on the hours he had devoted to face-to-face politics. “Did I move the polls? No.” He paused, then chuckled. “Maybe me and a few thousand others.”