Sunday, October 24, 2004

Campaign foot soldiers work to get out the vote

Bush or Kerry, they push people to polls

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

Rebecca Guerin of Hyde Park, holding her son, Luke Berninger, puts together Kerry/Edwards packages at the campaign's headquarters in Walnut Hills. Guerin is one of the many foot soldiers employed by both sides to get out the vote in Ohio. Guerin calls Luke her "secret weapon" when she's canvassing.
WEST CHESTER TWP. - If Ohio voters will determine the next president, then - for this second - this front porch on Auburn Avenue is where the campaign could be won or lost.

"I'm doing some electioneering today for President Bush," says Vernon Smith, 64, on a brisk October Saturday afternoon. He tells his neighbors, the Whittakers, that Bush is a good Christian and opposes gay marriage. The Whittakers seem skeptical. Bush, says Muriel, hasn't done anything for seniors.

"We're still neighbors, and I love you," says Smith.

He has better luck down the block at the home of 58-year-old Eddie Holmes, who says he heeds what Smith has to say.

"He's a good Christian man," he says, nodding toward Smith. "I know him. I'll listen to him."

Smith is part of the most massive get-out-the-vote effort in history, in one of the closest, most fiercely contested elections ever.

Smith, a garage owner and lifetime National Rifle Association member - it says so on his jacket - signed up for the Bush campaign's "walk the vote" weekend.

The Kerry campaign is also going door to door virtually every day, as are independent pro-Kerry groups like America Coming Together.

At the back end, it's a sophisticated, database-heavy operation. The campaigns know, from millions of phone calls and previous data, who in Ohio has hunting and fishing licenses, who's really likely to vote, who cites health care as their top issue.

At the front end, it's almost primeval: tell stories.

Neighbors talk to neighbors, invite them to coffees, sound out, persuade, and then make sure they show up on Election Day.

Most door-knockers, like Smith, don't use scripts. Corey Ealons, who is running the Kerry campaign in Cincinnati, prefers that his volunteers tell their own stories of how they came to support Kerry.

Her 'secret weapon'

Kerry supporter Rebecca Guerin, 30, of Hyde Park, frequently canvasses with her secret weapon - her 4-month-old son, Luke Berninger.

"We want him to grow up in a better world," she tells people answering the door. An economist on maternity leave, she tells people that she's seen the economy "tank."

Kerry canvasser Jill Byrd, 30, of Landen, sometimes tells people, if they talk about the economy, about how she personally saw the toll of layoffs.

As a human resources staffer at a clothes distributor, Byrd had to deliver the news to workers.

"I hate doing that," said Byrd, now raising 7-month-old Alistair. "We just can't take four more years of the same."

She and the Bush door-knockers share the same low-tech tools. They've got clipboards, maps of neighborhoods called "walk sheets" with routes highlighted in yellow.

A few days earlier and two hours from West Chester, in the Appalachian riverfront city of Portsmouth, Angela Leedom - "as in freedom" - says she's gotten six visits in the last month, some from each side.

High-tech convincing

Two canvassers from America Coming Together are at her door. Unlike the workers from the campaigns themselves, they carry $200 personal digital assistants, which show who and where the likely Kerry voters are on Portsmouth's Third Street. Also unlike most Kerry and Bush volunteers, they are paid between $8 and $10 an hour.

If voters are interested in a particular issue - health care, or Iraq, or the economy - ACT canvasser Carissa McCann, 22, can show them a 30-second commercial on the PDA.

Leedom tells McCann there are so few jobs here that her husband, a utility lineman, was unemployed for a year - until hurricanes ravaged Florida. Now he's down there, and she doesn't expect to see him until Christmas.

"Bush had his chance," Leedom said. "We're voting Kerry."

"Oh, wonderful," said McCann, who lives in Portsmouth and attends Shawnee State University there. She notes it on the PDA . Leedom can expect to get another call or visit on Election Day and, if she needs it, a ride to the polls.

Won on the ground

"There was a time in politics when the people in the business weren't so serious about the ground game. It was all about TV and mass media. There's been a refocus ever since the 2000 campaign on the ground game," said Bob Paduchik, who runs Bush's campaign in Ohio.

Jim DeMay, who runs the Democratic coordinated campaign in Ohio, has about 260 paid staffers working in Ohio, all now aimed at getting out the vote. In 2000 there were about 50.

"I've got a guy whose sole job is to buy stuff for Election Day," he said - rain ponchos, flashlights, and food for the volunteers getting people to the polls, working at Kerry offices, making last-minute phone calls.

Polls show Ohio voters could bestow the state's 20 electoral votes on either man. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and every Republican here knows that. So do the Democrats and their allied groups, like ACT.

Focus on Ohio

Virtually everything that's happening in Ohio is, of course, geared to getting out the vote. That includes:

• Candidate visits. Kerry swept through Xenia and southern Ohio last weekend. Bush was in Canton on Friday. Last week Edwards bused through rural Ohio and Cheney stopped at Price Hill Chili.

• Surrogate visits. Every day brings at least a handful of visits by "surrogates," lower-level Republicans and Democrats representing the campaign. Those are usually aimed at smaller groups: Washington state's Chinese-American governor, Gary Locke, rallied Asian-Americans in Columbus. The Bush campaign sent NASCAR drivers around Ohio.

• TV ads. Toledo has seen more presidential campaign ads than any other market in the nation, by one count. The most recent report from the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project found three of the top 10 markets for political ads were in Ohio.

• Visibility. The Kerry campaign last weekend opened a headquarters in Mason, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has had his own campaign office in traditionally Republican Warren County. The goal: "Bring Democrats out of the closet," said Warren County Democrat chairwoman Barbara Sizemore.

The Bush campaign has "captains" covering all 12,132 precincts. Ohio hosted the largest rally of the campaign, the Sept. 27 rally in West Chester that drew thousands of supporters.

Helping out

So important are the get-out-the-vote efforts in Ohio that Kentucky residents like Michelle Tadaki of Hebron and Patty Morlan of Louisville are helping out in Ohio - albeit on opposite sides.

Tadaki last weekend canvassed her Hebron neighborhood for Bush. But with Kentucky firmly in Bush's column, the 36-year-old home-schooling mother plans to be a GOP poll watcher in Ohio on Election Day.

"I'm really concerned about Cincinnati, about voter fraud," she said.

Morlan, 48, of Louisville, spent Saturday knocking on doors on Cincinnati's West Side for the Kerry campaign.

An analyst for a health insurance company, Morlan said she'll be back - she plans to take vacation time for the six days before the election and campaign in Cincinnati for Kerry.

"I want to wake up on November 3, knowing that I did everything that I could possibly do to ensure a Kerry-Edwards victory," she said.

Personal contact the key

For both sides, the ultimate in getting out the vote is in personal contact.

In an e-mail to Bush supporters, campaign manager Ken Mehlman urged: "Do you have a Christmas card list? Or sing in a church choir? Are you a member of a Veterans group? What about the other parents on your child's soccer team? Have you touched base with your old friends from school lately? Odds are a lot of those people aren't registered to vote, but they may support the president. In the words of the phone company, 'reach out and touch someone.' "

A group of Kerry volunteers locally has taken the person-to-person idea to new levels. Called the Cincinnati Area Riveters, it's made up of women who reach out to undecided or "low participation women voters," in one-on-one conversations - at a library, in a living room, at a coffee shop.

"A lot of women need more to sit down and discuss issues," said Martha Gitt, 42, an economist from Mount Lookout. "What this is all about is letting women make their own imprint, use their own style and just answer questions."

Bush and Kerry headquarters usually supply the names and details on voters to be contacted.

In Villa Hills, Michael D. Kamer led a Bush walk with his family and others who found their walk on the Bush campaign Web site. The Bush campaign gave them a list of 70 homes to hit - likely Bush voters and a few undecided voters.

"We would ask people point blank: We want to know if we and our president can count on your support," said Kamer, 36, who runs a printing business. "95 percent of the time it was a resounding yes."

Michelle Tadaki, who canvassed in her Hebron neighborhood, found a neighbor who needs a ride on Election Day. Tadaki will be there.

"Right now is not the time for any citizen to be complacent. This election by far will be one of the most monumental decisions for America to make," she said.


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