by Michael Beer
As an Arlington, Virginia resident, I volunteered this fall to elect Democrats to become the majority in the House of Delegates and Senate in Virginia. Using Blue Virginia, I researched the electoral contests that appeared crucial to turning the legislature blue. The nearest important races to where I lived were Dan Helmer for House of Delegates in Fairfax County and Del. Wendy Gooditis in Loudoun County.
I spent four weekends in September and October knocking on doors for Helmer and Gooditis.
For those of you who have not knocked on doors in a while, or have not done so, let me share with you some of my experiences. Door knocking can be done for any length of time, but typically a “turf” will take about three hours. I would call up a campaign or Democratic committee to find out the place and time for picking up the stuff and for getting trained. Finding a phone number to call can be a challenge. Most candidate websites don’t have a phone contact, and most county Democratic parties have an old landline that goes to a voicemail. I often got the best phone numbers from Facebook pages for campaigns and local committees.
Door knocking is easy. Find a doorbell and push it….or use the door knocker. Ah, but what do you do when there are two doors on different sides of the house? Or when there is a fence and a gate? Or when there are warnings about dogs? Or signs that say NO SOLICITING and NO POLITICAL SOLICITING? What if the apartment building is locked?
As you can see, there are many interesting barriers to manifesting face to face contact with an actual homo sapien on your list.
Speaking of lists, campaigns are moving away from lists on clipboards to apps like “Minivan” that work on you phone. Apps have many advantages for campaigns, so please use them instead of paper. (Paper also do not work well, such as on election day in 2017 for Danica Roem and Lee Carter in the freezing rain). When you download the app on your phone, the campaign will give you a “turf” number to enter on your phone that will correspond to usually 30 to 70 doors in a neighborhood. I use the map function on the app and click on the little bubbles sprinkled across the streets representing doors to be knocked. Each bubble will open up the address, name and details of the prospective knockee.
A script will appear that you can follow. It usually starts off with the imaginative introductory remarks such as “Hi my name is xxx from the yyy campaign, may I speak with so and so?” Scripts evolved over the autumn; early on voter identification, followed later by persuasion, and finally Get Out the Vote (GOTV) messages.
A voter ID/persuasion script might be “I support Dan Helmer/Wendy Gooditis because she/he is the best thing since sliced bread…can we count on your support?” A GOTV script might be “This is a courtesy call to remind you that election day is on Tuesday. Do you have a plan? And what is it?” This year, I added the persuasive argument that Virginia could have the first progressive government in 400 years. (This is slight exaggeration, because Virginia had a progressive government for four years after the Civil War that was imposed by the Federal government). I also said the voter could help Virginia become the first historical Confederate state to turn progressive “blue.” And yes, I loathe the Dallas Cowboys, but in African American neighborhoods in Norfolk, you better sing its praises. And all pets are “cute.”
Election day of course has its own script of, “you are GOING to the polls no matter what!” Actually my typical line Tuesday was “this is a courtesy call to ask you if you need a ride to the polls.” I got three people to accept a ride who were not otherwise going to vote. One of them I had to reassure that they would also be driven back to their home after voting. Make the offer to everyone, regardless of age; in my case, two of the voters were actually young.
On rural routes, we drive up driveways. In urban areas, we park the cars and walk up stairs. Garden apartments in Virginia Beach were efficient. One time I knocked on three doors all at the same time and was able to deliver a voting reminder to three different households.
By the middle of October, the lists are mostly Democrats or supporters, so hostility can happen but is rare. For GOTV, I ignore “No Solicitation” signs. One man pointed at the sign..and said “can you read this?” I responded without offering a pamphlet, “this is a courtesy call to remind you that tomorrow is election day….” I didn’t directly solicit anything. It was an implicit solicit!
This election, I requested expert advice from the folks at Blue Virginia on where my efforts would be most helpful. I was told that Virginia Beach/Norfolk was a high priority. So I drove down to the area on Sunday night with the intention to work Monday and Tuesday. Monday morning, I went to a joint campaign office for Nancy Guy and Cheryl Turpin. I worked until after dark and knocked on 162 doors. I left a handwritten note on each door hanger when they didn’t answer. Usually, it was something like, “Thank you for your support” – and I circled the election date! This may be a challenging skill for the next generation who hardly know how to write anymore, since they type or transcribe everything onto a screen, but at my age, I was able to manage it.
Monday night, I called voters in Alex Askew’s district. My fellow caller was a prison employee who didn’t want to use their name in case the callee was an employee or former prisoner. People don’t answer phones much nowadays, so we competed with each other to leave the most interesting phone messages.
The Virginia Beach Democratic Party has close to 100 precincts. They asked me to be on standby in case any of the precincts had a 6 am cancellation. They only had one cancellation (which is super impressive). I got the text at 5 am, and it was in the same neighborhood that I had canvassed the day before. So I opened up precinct #93 in Virginia Beach with my lawn chair, handing out the Democratic ballot. The precinct voted close to 85% for the Democrats. At 7 am, a man walked up and introduced himself as Mr. Cory, the Democratic poll watcher inside the precinct. We were both stunned that he and I, both from Arlington, were coincidentally volunteering at the same poll in Virginia Beach.
I was relieved at 9 am and rushed off to knock on doors in the rain. One hand for the umbrella, one hand on the phone, one hand on the door hanger, and one hand for the pen. As you can imagine, this requires some dexterity. I knocked on about 220 doors until 5 pm. I begged and pleaded and praised and encouraged and believe that I convinced people to vote.
Cheryl Turpin lost by less than a percentage point. Askew won by three points. Nancy Guy won by 18 votes (subject to recount). Taking off from work and volunteering for two days may have been the difference in Nancy Guy’s victory. Obviously, it is an enormous team effort, and the campaign staff and candidate were superb. I will motivate myself with the narrative (delusional that it may be) that my knocking, poll greeting and phoning made the difference. I hope many of you are already scheduling your vacation days next November to work here or go to North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
So those are some of my experiences canvassing for Democrats this election cycle, in which we ended up picking up six seats in the House of Delegates and two seats in the State Senate. What were yours?