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Winning One Vote at a Time

Times Staff Writer

In a dingy cubicle bare but for two telephones, an out-of-work accountant named Bart Johnson does his bit to help Republicans pull together the largest grass-roots army in American history. And finds it tedious.

He snaps his gum and punches in a phone number. “Hi,” he says for the eighth time in 20 minutes, “I’m with the Bush-Cheney campaign. I wondered if I could ask you a few questions?”

Forty miles south, in a noisy conference room with a view of fast-food parking lots, science teacher Patricia Jones conducts a similar drill for the Democrats. Jiggling her feet, sipping a soda, she smiles politely into the receiver as voter after voter hangs up, pleads ignorance or snappishly refuses to answer questions.

In six hours of calls, Bart Johnson and Patricia Jones dial a total of 135 households in St. Louis and nearby suburbs. They each identify a handful of voters committed to their party’s presidential candidate. Between them, they recruit a grand total of one new volunteer.

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Marking yet another name on his list as “did not respond,” Johnson reaches a dispiriting conclusion: “I don’t think you can expect any gratification from this.”

Yet he does it all the same.

And so do tens of thousands of other volunteers across Missouri -- and hundreds of thousands more across the nation.

President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, will spend at least $550 million between them on TV ads and websites, on brochures and bumper stickers, on pollsters and advisors and rousing, photogenic rallies. But even as they scramble to pay for it all, both Bush and Kerry have concluded that victory will hinge on grit, not glitz.

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They expect the outcome to depend on a few thousand ballots in a handful of key states -- and they’re not going to rely on 30-second spots to tilt the margin their way. They want ground forces to round up every last supporter and make sure those voters cast ballots Nov. 2.

That’s why both campaigns have launched titanic drives to recruit and deploy unpaid foot soldiers, especially in pivotal states such as Missouri. Bush won the state’s 11 electoral votes by a margin of less than 79,000 ballots in 2000.

“Our goal is to build the most formidable grass-roots effort in the history of American politics,” says Danny Diaz, who directs communications for the Bush campaign in the Midwest.

To which Jim Kottmeyer, director of the Democratic effort in Missouri, responds: “Our game plans are very similar.”

The most important task for the ground troops is still months away. In the 72 hours before the election, they’ll work phone banks and walk neighborhoods from dawn to long past dusk, urging supporters to the polls. But a successful mobilization in November requires untold grunt work in July: identifying loyal voters, swaying the undecided, creating a buzz of excitement about the candidate.

And, of course, roping in ever more volunteers willing to dial number after number, to endure hour after hour of slammed-down phones, to trudge down street after sweltering street, knocking at doors that rarely swing open.

It’s an old-fashioned strategy that went out of favor in the 1960s when candidates turned to TV to spread their messages. Now that voters are thoroughly sick of ads and cable has fragmented the television audience, the old is new again. Ward-by-ward, neighbor-to-neighbor outreach, long abandoned as inefficient, has become the symbol of a cutting-edge campaign.

As political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan puts it: “It’s really all the rage.”

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And it has inspired a record level of activism among citizens energized by the message that this year, their time may be as important as their money and their vote.

Crammed spreadsheets at Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington, Va., list more than 835,000 volunteers across the nation. The Kerry campaign doesn’t keep a centralized list, but national field director John Norris said more than 200,000 volunteers had signed up through the website alone; he aims to have 1 million in place by fall.

In Missouri, Bush claims 31,000 volunteers.

The Democrats counter with 20,000.

On both sides, the numbers include not only door-to-door canvassers but also many thousands who have pledged to call talk radio to promote their candidate; to post banners in their yard; to invite neighbors over for cocktails and a subtle nudge in the right direction.

Among their ranks are many practiced activists with polished pitches.

But experts say the effort works best when volunteers exude a genuine, unscripted enthusiasm for their candidates.

That’s where novices like Bart Johnson and Patricia Jones come in.

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A seventh-grade science teacher, Jones, 43, has never worked for a politician. The highest-profile campaigning she’s done has been in support of a local school bond issue.

But this year, instead of resolving (again) to lose weight, she made a New Year’s pledge to become more politically active.

She didn’t want to spend four more years griping that Bush’s policies were destroying the environment. She was tired of feeling embarrassed to be an American when she flew abroad on scuba-diving trips.

She read up on Kerry’s policies and was thrilled to note his support for developing renewable energy sources. She hoped that a President Kerry would boost funding for education so her school could hire aides to help her handle the autistic and mentally retarded students who have been placed in her mainstream classroom.

“I want to see our country move in a different direction,” Jones says. “Instead of just sitting there [complaining] about it, I had to try to make a difference.”

So she ventured to a pro-Kerry “meet-up” at a Starbucks, where more experienced volunteers suggested ways to contribute. She registered voters at an Earth Day festival. She made Swedish meatballs and artichoke dip and invited fellow teachers to her home to watch a Kerry promotional video.

And on this Tuesday evening, she slides on flip-flops and drives out to the local Democratic Party phone bank to try to connect with strangers cranky about having their dinner interrupted.

She’s supposed to stick to a typed script. But Jones keeps getting sidetracked.

“You’re concerned about healthcare?” she asks one voter. “I know, I know. My parents are having real issues with that now.”

“You’re not feeling well?” she says when a 92-year-old woman protests that she’s not up to answering questions. “I’m so sorry to hear that. Is there someone there to take care of you? Do you need some help?”

She listens to a man vent for 10 minutes about the migration of jobs to China. She lets another ramble on about the war in Iraq. She signs up only one new volunteer. Still, she deems it three hours well spent.

“That’s one more than we had before, isn’t it?” she says.

Despite the rude reception some callers give her, Jones is in her element. She plans to spend 10 to 15 hours a week on the campaign this summer and squeeze in what she can once school starts.

Working the phones next to her, a Vietnam veteran grumbles that cold-calling voters with a list of nosy questions doesn’t seem an effective way to win support. But Jones is sure it can work. Her instincts tell her that “schmoozing a little” with the voters on her list -- even when that requires straying from the script -- will help Kerry win in November.

“When you get a flier in the mail, it’s easy to pitch it in the trash,” Jones says. “But when you hear from a stranger who feels so strongly about [the election] that she’s taking time to talk to you, that makes you more accountable, somehow. Maybe it will make you pay more attention.”

In a new book, “Get Out The Vote,” Yale University social scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber make the same case.

Reviewing more than a dozen experiments that they and others conducted in recent years, they conclude that informal but highly personal contact can boost voter turnout by up to 12%. “Its effectiveness seems to outdistance virtually any other technology,” Green says.

It doesn’t matter whether the volunteer campaigner knows the ins and outs of every policy debate -- or whether he talks politics at all. In fact, it’s often better that he doesn’t follow a script, because if he does, he may be dismissed as a paid hack.

“The message and the messenger take a back seat to the simple fact that people are out there communicating with voters in person,” Green says. “Making an authentic, personal connection is what matters.”

That’s the approach Bart Johnson intuitively follows as he works for Bush.

In shorts and a striped shirt, white socks pulled up mid-calf, he sets out to knock on doors in a middle-class suburb of St. Louis, tugging his golden retriever, Hunter, by a ragged rope.

Johnson, 57 and training for a new career in real-estate appraisal, admits he may not be best qualified to promote the administration’s policies.

As he says, “I’m not attuned to the particulars” of many issues. When he does tune in, he doesn’t always agree with the president.

He doesn’t much care for the war in Iraq, for instance -- though he thinks Bush has run it as well as can be hoped. Gun ownership makes him uneasy. He’s not sure about restricting abortion access. He considers gay marriage “disgusting” but can’t see the point of outlawing it.

Johnson will vote Republican this November because of a gut feeling that Bush is a good man.

His admiration for the way Bush handled the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted him to sign up on the campaign website as a volunteer -- the first time he’s ever dabbled in politics. His father taught him to give back to the community, he says, explaining his urge to pitch in. Plus, he has free time this summer. And Bush seems like a guy worth helping.

“I genuinely like [him],” Johnson says.

That genial, understated attitude has Bush’s reelection staffers hailing Johnson as a “superstar volunteer.”

So what if he disagrees with the president on gay marriage? They hope his unrehearsed appreciation of Bush’s leadership will win over voters just like himself -- voters who might be turned off by a more regimented, sound-bite-snapping activist.

“We want Bart to be Bart,” Diaz says.

And so, as Johnson strolls through a well-shaded suburb, he chats with 73-year-old Joe Ancona about gardening. A few doors down, he shows William Barton, 81, the bare patch where a dog groomer went overboard giving Hunter his summer trim.

At each house, Johnson dutifully asks if the president can count on a vote in November.

At each, he puts in a plug for volunteering. But he doesn’t push it.

At the end of three hours, he will have knocked on 40 doors and recruited just one volunteer. Still, he’ll be satisfied. His goal is simply to make a good impression.

“If someone’s on the fence in November, maybe they’ll think back to when I came by their house, and think, ‘Well, he was a nice guy and he was supporting Bush.’ Maybe that will help,” Johnson says, walking up to a porch bright with silk flowers.

There, at Claudine Osborn’s house, Johnson is met with skepticism.

“I don’t think it makes a difference to have someone come to your door. I don’t think it sways anyone,” she says.

She’s not even impressed to see the GOP volunteers out in force so early in the summer: “I figure, the next block over, someone else is doing the same thing for Kerry,” says Osborn, 59.

Yet she stands there in the sun, under an American flag, and talks with Johnson. She pats his dog. They swap tips about nursing homes; both their mothers, it turns out, need round-the-clock care.

When Johnson works the conversation around to volunteering, Osborn tells him she’ll be glad to post a Bush/Cheney yard sign this fall. Then she suggests the campaign call her next month, when she gets back from vacation.

She might be ready to enlist.


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