Changing the Channel to GOTV

On the Sunday before the New Hampshire primary, I was sitting in somebody’s living room listening to the local Dean organizers talk about Geo TV. I figured it was an environmental cable channel that wasn’t part of my package, and I wondered when we were going to get down to business. It took a few minutes for me to realize that we had gotten down to business. GOTV stands for Get Out The Vote, a.k.a. the Ground Game. “The winner isn’t the candidate with the most supporters,” the Dean guy told us. “It’s the one who gets the most votes.”

Now it’s time for GOTV again, and it’s not too late for you to be part of it. Unlike the campaign you see on television (the Air Game), the Ground Game depends on foot soldiers: voters encouraging other voters one-on-one. There are a lot of things last-minute volunteers can still do: make phone calls, wave signs, drive people to the polls, and so on. By the time Election Day rolls around, the high-priced consultants and pollsters and focus-group organizers have done their jobs, and the rest is up to people like you and me.

I wasn’t part of the Ground Game in 2000. By the time it occurred to me that I should do something, I was already so angry and frustrated at the electorate that I figured I’d do more harm than good. (I could see the headline: “Gore Volunteer Arrested for Assault”.) On Election Night everybody was paying attention to Florida, but it was New Hampshire that broke my heart. Our paltry four electoral votes went to Bush by 7,211 votes out of 569,081. (Nader got 22,198 of them.) It was the difference. With New Hampshire, Gore would have had exactly the 270 electoral votes needed to win, and Florida would have been a footnote.

I didn’t officially volunteer for Kerry until last Saturday (October 24). Before that, I’d been running a one-person letter-writing campaign. I got two published in my local Nashua Telegraph and another in the state’s largest newspaper, The Union Leader in Manchester. I probably wrote ten letters for every one that made it. I took several shots at national venues like The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, or The Washington Post, but I couldn’t break through.

Meanwhile, the people at my Unitarian church were shaming me with their effort. Nashua is right on the Massachusetts border, and I still go to the Bedford, Massachusetts church that I belonged to before I moved here. Massachusetts is Kerry’s most secure state, so droves of Bay-Staters have been campaigning in New Hampshire for weeks now. Democrats from Bedford, Chelmsford, and other Fords I hadn’t even heard of were wearing down their shoe leather all over southern New Hampshire. Where was I?

I was late. But I got there.

How GOTV works

In practice, GOTV could daunt an ant colony, but the concept is quite simple: Voter registration lists are public. Before Election Day, you want to talk with every registered voter and find out which ones are planning to vote for your candidate. On Election Day, you call all your supporters to make sure they’ve voted and to tell the ones who haven’t voted yet where their polling places are. You visit the ones you can’t get on the phone. And you give rides (or do whatever else you have to do) to get all your voters to the polls. In the Kerry campaign, much of the pre-election work has been done gradually over several months. But on Election Day everything happens at once, so there’s no getting around the need for a large number of bodies: to make calls, to knock on doors, to drive people to the polls, to be poll watchers, to wave signs as close to the polls as is legally allowed, and so on.

I go canvassing

Nashua Kerry headquarters on Main Street was packed with volunteers Saturday morning, most of them from Massachusetts – including one I recognized from church. It was the second-to-last weekend before the election, and marked the campaign’s final attempt to persuade undecided voters. After that weekend, the focus would shift to delivering the votes we had, not rounding up new ones. They wanted us to canvass – go ring doorbells and talk to people face-to-face.

I had been dreading the whole experience, because I don’t think I’ve knocked on the doors of strangers since I sold circus tickets for the Cub Scouts. (The less said about that day, the better.) But I mastered my dread well enough to team up with two people I didn’t know and take a list of 40-50 allegedly undecided households in Hudson. Covering those houses didn’t take as long as I feared, because about three fourths of the people either weren’t home or didn’t answer for some other reason. The ones who opened their doors weren’t undecided; no one who wasn’t already for Kerry wanted to talk to us.

I can report one amusing detail from that afternoon. When people weren’t home we were supposed to leave a pamphlet, preferably someplace where it wouldn’t blow away and become litter. One unresponsive house was all decked out for Halloween, including a ghoulish hand resting on a ledge next to the doorbell. I couldn’t resist re-arranging the hand so that it offered the Kerry pamphlet.

All in all, I came to the conclusion that I am not a natural canvasser. Usually, I only require courage to get started on an stressful project; once I’m into it I calm down and go with the flow. Public speaking is that way; I’m nervous until I start talking. But not canvassing. I never did relax, and it took just as much courage to ring the last doorbell as the first one.

Swelling the crowd

Sunday was another canvass day, and I let myself chicken out. I sent off a final wave of letters-to-the-editor and watched as the Patriots won their 21st game in a row and the Red Sox took Game 2 of the World Series. As penance, I got up before six Monday morning and drove to Dover to see Kerry in person.

This political season began for me a year and a half ago, in April, 2003 when I went to see Kerry in Peterborough. Then he spoke to maybe 150 people in the basement of the public library. Just for fun I went back and read what I had written about that speech: “He brought up his vote (in October) to authorize Bush to invade Iraq. He says he wanted the President to have maximal negotiating power in assembling a coalition and putting pressure on Saddam, but that he expected war to be the last resort. He was disappointed both in the administration's bungling of diplomacy and with the rush to war before all other options had been exhausted.” That sounds to me like the same thing he’s saying now – remarkable persistence and consistency, given the Bush claim that Kerry has had eighteen different positions on Iraq.

Kerry may have stayed the same, but I had changed. In Peterborough, I had been giving Kerry a hard examination, and even asked him a tough question about the Patriot Act. (No voter has asked President Bush tough questions at any point in the campaign, because only worshipers are allowed into his rallies.) But in Dover I was consciously trying to be a prop for the TV cameras. I didn’t want to hear reports that Kerry was drawing disappointingly small crowds, so I was doing my bit to make this crowd larger. I was glad I did. The Dover rally drew about 2,000 people – an impressive number for a weekday morning in a small town – but the gym wasn’t full. My absence would have made it less full. (In Philadelphia later that day, Kerry and President Clinton drew close to 100,000.)

The Dover crowd was enthusiastic and Kerry spoke well, but I remember little of what he said other than that he mentioned the lost Iraqi explosives for the first time. I wasn’t there to analyze or judge, so I don’t remember the speech in anything like the detail that I remembered speeches before the primary.

I do remember thinking that I was happy with Kerry as a nominee, and that he’ll be a fine president if he gets any cooperation from Congress at all. One spin that started with Republicans (but has been picked up by a few unwitting Democrats) is that Kerry is somehow disappointing to his supporters. It’s a self-fulfilling spin, as all good propaganda is. If you think about it long enough, you’ll find yourself being disappointed that our candidate is disappointing. And then you start having what-if thoughts about the Democratic candidates who lost, or other wonderful people who decided not to run.

Get over it. We could nominate Jesus Christ and pick Buddha as his running mate, and it would be just the same when the Republican slime machine got done with them. Think about all the damage that the Swift Boat Veterans did to Kerry, and how little substance there was to any of their claims. Could we have nominated somebody so perfect that no one could lie about him? I don’t think so.


Tuesday afternoon I started sign-waving. We sign-wave (the technical term is “visibility”) three times a day in Nashua: 7-9 in the morning on the Exit 6 overpass on Route 3, for two hours at lunch downtown at the intersection of Main and Amherst, and back at the overpass for the evening rush 4-6 p.m. (I think of it like Moslems saying their prayers.) If something special happens (like when Mitt Romney came to town Wednesday) we may do some special sign-waving just to show the flag.

I’ve done five shifts now in the last three days, and I find I enjoy it. The size of the group has varied from five to seventeen, but there is always good camaraderie. We chat, try to stay warm, wave to the cars who honk at us, and talk to the occasional pedestrian. Thursday at the noon shift I was standing next to an eight-year-old boy with a cancerous brain tumor. He lives nearby, and his Mom brought him out because he’s rooting for Kerry and wanted to do something. (Mom is rooting too; she and her husband have four kids and insufficient health insurance.) We had a good time.

Of course, not all the reaction is positive, but I find I’m OK with that. Some drivers wag their index finger in a no-no-no fashion. Some give a thumbs-down or yell something like “Go, Bush.” That’s fine. I’m expressing my opinion and they’re expressing theirs. Some people go further: they give us the finger or yell “Kerry sucks” or even “Eat shit.” If they’re idiots, they honk to get our attention and then give us the finger – we smile and wave and all the other cars think they’re our supporters. The only guy who annoyed me was the one who gave the finger to me and the eight-year-old. That’s family values for you.

A lot of people denigrate sign-waving. After all, a Kerry sign just tells you that John Kerry is running for president – and what kind of idiot doesn’t already know that? But I began to see the logic of signs, bumper stickers, buttons, and other forms of personal endorsement after the Dean Scream, which happened just a week before the New Hampshire primary. The Scream played non-stop on the all cable news channels for days. If the Powers That Be had planned a concerted campaign to shame Dean voters, they couldn’t have done better. Instantly, Howard Dean became uncool, like last month’s fashion that nobody wants to be seen wearing now.

The only way to break a spell like that is to become Nobody and do the thing that Nobody is doing. Every little act of support breaks it a little more. Expressions of continued support started tentatively, but by primary day Dean had made it back up to a respectable second place.

The point of sign-waving is to show courage, to go so far out on the limb for your candidate that lesser expressions of support start to seem like no big deal. We freezing sign-wavers are giving those morning commuters cover for making lesser expressions of support later on. Maybe they’ll find the courage to mention to their lunch group that they’re voting for Kerry, or protest when some co-worker repeats the latest Fox News slander.

I think there are two kinds of undecideds: voters who aren’t sure who they’re voting for, and other citizens who may like one candidate better than the other, but haven’t decided whether they’re going to bother to vote. I’m hoping my sign-waving nudges a few of the second kind. Implicitly, I’m saying that if it’s worthwhile for me to get out in the cold for a couple hours every morning, maybe it’s worthwhile for them to take ten minutes to vote on Tuesday.

My Tuesday calendar

My Tuesday looks pretty busy. In the morning I vote and then sign-wave in front of my polling place. By 11 I’m supposed to be at volunteer headquarters to captain the Ward 4 “pull team”. I’m hoping captaining is no big deal, because nobody has told me how to do it yet. I got the job because I actually live in Ward 4 and might be able to tell my team (probably a bunch of Massachusetts Unitarians) how to get to the addresses on their lists. At least I understand what a pull team is. We’re the people who go visit the Kerry supporters that the phone people haven’t been able to contact. We offer rides to the polls, which I think (more than anything else) shames people into voting.

It’s canvassing again, which I know I hate. But at least I only have to deal with people who have claimed (at some time or other) to be Kerry supporters. And the unspoken question “Why are you bothering me?” has the unspoken answer “Because it’s Election Day, you idiot.”

What you can do

I hope I’ve made it clear that no special talent or training is necessary to be useful in the final days of a campaign. You don’t even have to be in a swing state (though it helps). The Kerry campaign has phone banks all over the country. You can probably remind Kerry supporters in Ohio or Wisconsin to get out and vote from some location conveniently close to your home. (The place to start is A friend tells me you can even phone bank from home. He spent one evening downloading phone numbers from the website so that he could tell Kerry supporters in Florida about a rally they could go to.

If you are in a swing state, or close enough to drive to one, just do what I did: Wander into a local headquarters and say, “What can I do?” You’ll need to have a little patience – all large organizations have a certain amount of hurry-up-and-wait in them – but I have great confidence they will find something for you to do.

Do something

Do you remember the opening scene of Patton? George C. Scott is standing in front of a huge American flag making a speech to the troops. This is how he explains the benefit of being in his army: “When your children ask you ‘Daddy, what did you do in the great World War Two?’ you won’t have to say ‘I shoveled shit in Louisiana’.”

Well, it’s like that now. You’ve seen the last four years – disinformation, war based on disinformation, loss of civil liberties predicated on war. Imagine four more. Democracy may won or lost in the next several days. Don’t spend those days shoveling shit.

Doug Muder

28 October 2004