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A Personal Approach Pays Off as Candidates Take to the Streets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the day of catchy television ads and slick campaign mailers, successful candidates in Ventura County have returned to the age-old technique of knocking on doors to woo voters.

In last week’s election, candidates discovered, and in some cases rediscovered, that their personal commitment to present themselves on the voters’ doorsteps provided the winning margin.

Going door-to-door “was absolutely the critical edge,” said Maria VanderKolk, a political novice who defeated Supervisor Madge L. Schaefer in an astounding upset.

VanderKolk and about 75 volunteers mostly from the environmental group Save Open Space knocked on thousands of doors in neighborhoods concerned about the impact of large developments proposed nearby.

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Schaefer, a veteran officeholder, said she underestimated her competition. She stayed home and lost by 102 votes.

Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) faced the toughest challenge of her political career on Tuesday. Her opponent, Hunt Braly, hammered her with charges that she misused her office by trying to get authorities to fix her daughter’s driving tickets.

But Wright spent the last six weekends leading teams of volunteers canvassing neighborhoods in her district of 210,000 registered voters that stretches from Santa Clarita to Lompoc. She handily won reelection in a race she could have easily lost.

“There’s nothing quite like it,” Wright said. “I think people want to know you are a person, not just a name they read in the newspaper.”

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To be sure, door-to-door campaigning is nothing new. But political consultants see a resurgence of shoe-leather campaigning, particularly in areas such as Ventura County that have no television station of their own and no dominant radio station, newspaper or other central way to broadcast a candidate’s message.

“There definitely is a return to knocking on doors,” said John Davies, a Santa Barbara political consultant who has run several campaigns in Ventura County. “More and more candidates are seeing that the most effective way to campaign is face to face.”

Two years ago, Davies persuaded Oxnard Mayor Nao Takasugi to hit the streets. Takasugi lost 15 pounds walking precincts four hours every day for four months. “That was the most vigorous workout I’ve had,” Takasugi said. “And it paid off well.”

In the evolution of political campaigns, many candidates have grown to rely on letters and brochures designed and mailed to narrowly targeted groups of voters. But direct-mail campaigns have become less effective in recent years, consultants say.

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One reason is that campaign brochures are getting lost in a sea of other junk mail. Another is that voters have become jaded to accusations in hit mail and flyers that try to exploit emotional issues.

“When a fresh face knocks on your door and hands you a brochure, that is a tremendously positive statement about a campaign,” said Kevin Sweeney, public affairs director for Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer in Ventura. “If someone with a friendly voice says, ‘Please read this,’ you read it.”

Sweeney got his start in politics by helping former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado organize volunteers to walk the precincts of every major city in Iowa just before the 1984 Democratic presidential contest. It was the first time a presidential campaign attempted such a feat.

Last fall, he drew on that experience to assist a slow-growth citizens group assemble 80 volunteers to go to the homes of 18,000 voters who were likely to vote in Ventura’s municipal election. Three of the group’s four candidates were swept into office in an election that became a referendum on the city’s growth patterns.

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“Walking works,” Sweeney said. “If I was running a campaign and had absolute assurance I could raise $35,000, or have only $3,000 and 100 volunteers for three consecutive Saturdays, I would choose the latter and win by a landslide.”

On his own time, Sweeney advised VanderKolk and Save Open Space how to mount a door-to-door effort. “I talked a lot with them about canvassing,” he said. “It looks like it paid off.”

Some neighborhoods, particularly those in Simi Valley, saw many candidates and volunteers roaming the streets close to the election.

Making the rounds in one precinct last weekend, Wright crossed paths with a volunteer working for her opponent. “Hi, Cathie,” said Sheila Holt, a Braly volunteer, walking down a driveway as Wright was walking up.

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“I’m sure glad I was one step ahead of her,” Holt told a reporter.

“No,” Wright said later. “She should want to come behind me, so I can’t turn the voter around. People are more impressed when candidates themselves go to their door.”

Bill Davis and Vicky Howard, the top vote-getters in another county supervisor seat, also went door-to-door in Simi Valley, the hub of the 4th Supervisorial District.

“I wish there had been more time to go out and walk,” said Davis, who faces Howard in a runoff election in November. He said he knocked on 600 doors before the June 5 primary and plans to personally visit 20,000 houses in the five months before the November runoff.

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That may be a bit ambitious for one person. But with today’s computerized voting lists, candidates are able to canvass much larger districts.

For example, candidate Mike McConnell, a construction manager from Ventura, spent every spare moment since Feb. 18 walking precincts in the 19th Congressional District that straddles Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. He figures he knocked on more than 6,600 doors.

For a political unknown with virtually no money and no endorsements, he made an impressive showing, winning 35% of the vote in the Democratic primary. He lost to Anita Perez Ferguson, a former aide to state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) who will challenge Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) in the November election.

“He learned that 6,500 doors was not enough,” Davies said. “But he was on the right track.”

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Political campaigns now use computers to pre-sort voters, eliminating the need to knock on every door. Most campaigns only target “high-propensity” voters who are likely to vote in the upcoming election and those who can be won over by the particular candidate--saving a great deal of legwork.

Campaigns can purchase computerized lists of voters from the county registrar of voters and from a whole industry of voter-contact services.

“They seem to be quite sophisticated,” said Ruth Schepler, the county’s assistant registrar of voters. A few years ago, she said, “they didn’t speak our language or the computer’s language. Now they ask for specific computer batch jobs.”

Mark Q. Thompson, Wright’s campaign manager, is one of those political consultants who has learned to skillfully develop voter lists.

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He said he purchased a computerized list from the county and then added information about each high-propensity voter from interviews with voters over the phone. Before the election, he said, the campaign had reached Wright supporters and undecided Republican voters at least four times.

Drawing on longtime Wright loyalists, party regulars and a Simi Valley gun owners’ rights group, he brought together a hard-core group of about 40 volunteers with occasional help from an additional 150 people to canvass precincts in person. “It is an essential ingredient to go door-to-door,” he said. “Cathie was on her way out.”

Davies said going door-to-door doesn’t always work. “Sometimes it can hurt you, if you have a lousy personality,” Davies said. “If you have a caustic personality, you can come across better on TV or slick-looking mailers.”

Nor does everyone believe in walking precincts. Schaefer said she isn’t so sure it helped her win the supervisor’s job four years ago. She said she often found nobody at home when she knocked on doors in 1986. Sometimes, she said, voters grew irritated when she disturbed them at dinner time.

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“I just wanted to run on my record,” Schaefer said. “Maybe that was a mistake.”


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