Thursday, April 5
As spring arrives, there is the annual sense of renewal. But this year, there could be extreme forest fires in Southwestern Colorado, because our snowpack is only 50 percent of average.
This mirrors the political forecast: optimism with an undercurrent of foreboding. The news cycle makes a lot of people jittery. What crazy thing did Trump tweet today? Or, for Trump supporters: Did he make good on his promise to start building the wall yet? Meanwhile, Democrats show every sign of being highly mobilized, and are winning special elections in unlikely districts. In step with mounting Trump chaos, there is growing public protest.
Trump, they say, is “unleashed,” having freed himself of pesky advisers who cautioned him that acting on his instincts presents risks. So, he is doubling down on hostility to immigrants, attacks on federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies and the media, fights with China and Mexico – and never criticizing Putin. As a result, perhaps, his approval rating is ticking up. Some large portion of voters see his outspokenness and apparent boldness as fulfilling his promise to shake things up. Others see deliberate provocation and distraction, and increasing threats to racial and religious minorities, democracy, the economy, the environment, and world peace. The tension builds.
This is all prelude to the most consequential election since … well, since forever? And that doesn’t seem like hyperbole. For both sides, Trump and anti-Trump, the stakes are so high that the campaign for the midterms is well underway. Trump knows that if the Democrats win both the House and Senate, he is certain to be impeded and could be impeached. The Democrats know that if Republican majorities in both houses of Congress survive, there will be nothing to restrain Trump from doing virtually anything he wants.
We also know that between now and election day, as Mueller bears down, there will be major news events, unforeseeable and potentially distressing to one side or the other. It’s a safe bet that by November, the political climate will be different than it is today, but we can’t know how. Better for Trump because more Americans are seduced by his authoritarianism? Or better for the Dems because Trump goes too far for too many voters? It is impossible to game this out. But we can be sure that the national political climate will be determinative in the election.
Thus, the political forecast: optimistic with an ominous undercurrent of foreboding.
There’s only one thing to do: knock on more doors. Since I started knocking on March 23, I’ve knocked on 323 doors in Montrose, Telluride and Cortez. That’s about 3.5 percent of the 9,490 on my target list. But my pace is decent. I think I’ll be able to hit them all before the election, but that’s not good enough. There aren’t a lot of people home weekdays, so I need to revisit the same neighborhoods again at a different time of the week. My weekends for the next seven months are booked.
And there is absolutely no way to know how much good it is doing.
There are contradictory signs. These signs are all-the-harder to read because I’ve targeted swing voters, people who, to the extent that the Votebuilder software can determine, are neither strong Democrats nor strong Republicans, but who do vote. One quality I can easily observe is that many of these voters are disengaged. Also, they are not quick to reveal what may move them one way or the other. If I were targeting Democrats, I’d likely be feeling really positive, heartened by the warm greetings I’d receive, and if I were targeting strong Republicans, I’d likely be deeply depressed by rejection. The swing voters have me swinging in befuddlement.
If I knock on a swing voter’s door and nobody’s home, and I leave my door hangar, does it do me much good? I’m not talking about the individual voter but the generic swing voter, or the average behavior of swing voters collectively. Logically, the door hangars must work in some cases, if only by boosting my name recognition.
If the person who answers when I knock is just barely polite, takes the door hangar, and closes the door, might they vote for me? Some might.
How about the person who is pleasant, but totally noncommittal? Several of these last week in Cortez were young mothers with small children. They seemed too frazzled to give any time to a stranger at the door.
“I’ll take a look,” these young moms and others nonplussed to open the door to a stranger usually say, referring to the door hangar I have handed to them. This is easy to read: they are inviting me to leave, quickly, please.
Not too many people want to talk politics with me. But some do.
I met a person who said he was a Democrat moving to the right. He likes Trump, said it’s “refreshing” to hear a president stand up for police. He voted for Obama, twice, and now regrets the second vote. Obama divided the country, he said, by failing to stand up for cops involved in police shootings. Somehow, he heard Obama call him racist after Ferguson. Yes, I think to myself, Obama did say that institutional racism needs to be addressed because so many unarmed brown and black people die in encounters with police. This man told me he was a cop but now works as a school custodian. I wondered if maybe he’d lost his job in law enforcement due to an infraction. He likes the extra dollars in his paycheck, thanks to the Trump tax cut. If eighty percent of the tax cut goes to the top one percent, well, he said, the rich pay more taxes so they get to keep more when the tax rate is cut, and that seemed fair to him. “Because they earned their money,” he said, and what’s more, the rich create jobs. California is run by the Democrats, and it’s a mess, he said. His daughter lives there. She’s got a good job but can’t seem to get ahead. She just got hit by a huge rent increase.
His wife told me that she can’t afford health insurance and has to pay a tax penalty. “How does that help people?” she asked. She stepped back inside to tend to a child.
The husband told me that cops don’t see color. They are just well-trained to defend themselves. He is not a racist, he repeated. He was glad that he and I had a good conversation. His wife offered me some water.
Will they vote for me? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe, because at least I showed up.
A few blocks away I met a Navajo man in his sixties, who said the local cops discriminate against him and his son. “All they see is color,” he said. His wife is a teacher who has to purchase supplies for her students out of her own pocket. I tell him I support more money for teachers and education. His wife works across the border in New Mexico, though, so even if I’m elected and help win more money for education in Colorado, it won’t help her.
His biggest gripe, he said, is watching city workers do a shitty job repairing potholes.
“But I guess that’s not an issue you’d have anything to do with in the state legislature,” he allowed.
“Well, the state has not put enough money into transportation,” I said. “If they put more into it, some would come to Cortez.”
That wasn’t the right answer, so I added: “But I’ll agree there’s nothing I could do about public workers with a bad attitude. I can’t promise to fix a bunch of problems if I get elected. But I can promise to work on getting them fixed.”
“I don’t like politicians who say they can fix everything overnight,” he said. I think it was a veiled criticism of Trump. It was also a recognition that abusive cops who “see color” won’t be off the beat any time soon, even if he votes for someone like me who agrees that police abuse of minorities is a problem.
“It takes a long time for problems to get fixed,” he said.
“Yes, it does,” I agreed.
He said he would vote for me and would tell his wife about me. And his son, too. Maybe I’d won three votes. I don’t think they would have voted Republican, but if I hadn’t stopped to chat with him, he or his wife or son or all three of them might have skipped the line for state rep on the ballot, not knowing the candidates. Maybe they will remember that I walked their neighborhood and asked for their vote.
I met a person who said she is registered Republican but is starting to vote Democratic. She didn’t want to talk issues, particularly. She wasn’t even on my target list, which means the Votebuilder algorithm calculates that she votes one party or the other at least 70 percent of the time. The algorithm could be wrong, but if it is right, I had no idea if she is at least 70 percent likely to vote Democrat or 70 percent likely to vote Republican. I knocked on her door because Votebuilder wanted me to talk to her 20-year-old daughter, who is registered Unaffiliated. I asked about the daughter. In Denver at college.
“Good for her,” I said, then I added. “November is a long way off, but I hope when it comes time to vote, you’ll remember that a really nice guy knocked on your door in April and asked for your vote.”
She laughed, so I started to use that line whenever I found myself talking to someone who was approachable but not terribly interested in issues. If I could win a smile, maybe I’d win a vote.
If a door has a Duck Dynasty doormat, should I knock anyway? Maybe the doormat was there when the resident of the house moved in – it looked worn – and he or she never gave it much thought. Maybe someone put it there as a goof. Or maybe Duck Dynasty is the current resident’s favorite show. It looked like nobody was home, so I left a door hangar, but didn’t knock. That was my “middle ground” at that particular address.
I approached a house with huge flags on either side of the porch: one an American flag and the other a POW/MIA flag. There was a “no soliciting” sign on the door. My canvass list indicated that an older couple, both Unaffiliated, lived there. I’d read that political canvassers shouldn’t let a “no soliciting” sign stop them from knocking. So, I knocked. A guy about 70 opened the door. He was burly, tattooed, and looked like a Hell’s Angel ready to rumble.
“I’m a candidate for office introducing myself in your neighborhood,” I said, handing him my palm card.
He scowled as he handed the card right back to me, pointed to the “no soliciting” sign, and shut his door firmly.
I cautiously approached another house with an oversize American flag. The man who lived there was on the porch, having just collected his mail. He was in his late 60s and wore a US Navy t-shirt.
Then I saw a large sign in his window: “Trump is a whiny little bitch.”
“I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to vote for you,” he said. “The Republicans have gone totally insane. I want to see every single one of them defeated.”
He was registered Unaffiliated, which is why he was on my target list, and said he had not closely followed politics before Trump’s election had activated him. He is worried about a nuclear incident, worried about the future of American democracy.
“I know people in this neighborhood who love Trump,” he said. “It’s insane! How can I help you?”
That’s a good question. How can anyone really help me? Donate money? Knock on doors? Talk me up to friends? Try to convert some of those Trumpist neighbors? It’s hard to take up an offer of help when you don’t know what would, in fact, help.
In my afternoon in Cortez I left a door hangar on 48 doors because nobody was home. I spoke to 14 people whose names were on my list and an uncounted number of others, maybe ten or 12, who answered a door but weren’t on my target list, so they’re not recorded in my canvass results. I recorded eight responses from someone who told me the target had moved. There was an apartment complex with 24 targets where the property manager wouldn’t allow me to canvass.
If I have time, I plan to return to this neighborhood just east of downtown Cortez on a weekend or evening, to try to catch some of the people who weren’t home on a weekday. Maybe I can get past the apartment complex property manager, who likely stands guard only on weekdays, from 9 to 5. Or maybe I’ll try that – unable to resist despite being warned away, because apartment buildings make for such efficient canvassing – and I’ll get myself arrested.
There is nothing important that I can see to be gleaned from the statistics that are the only sure measure of my canvassing. They only show that I put the time in, hand delivered campaign literature to targeted addresses, and spoke to a number of voters. I guestimate that maybe I picked up a dozen votes. But the hard fact is, for all the emphasis campaigns put on canvassing, there is no empirical evidence I can find that says it works. Somebody could do a study where they revisit people who were canvassed before an election to find out how they actually voted. But they would have to do a bunch of studies in different years with different canvassers and different campaigns to try to filter out the impact of the canvassing from all of the other noise that distinguishes a specific candidacy in a specific place in a specific year.
The strongest evidence is that the demographic makeup of a district is by far the most important factor in who wins elections. Next in importance is the national political climate, which moves those swing voters one way or the other but can also motivate more campaign volunteers to knock on more doors. Then you have to ask whether it the climate or the door-knocking that moves votes. Most likely, the climate and door knocking contribute to each other in a positive feedback loop.
The last factor that decides elections are the quality of the candidate and campaign, which one election expert told me is good for two or three points at best.
The numbers say that if I pick up ten or twelve votes every time I canvass, I can pick up one or two of the two to three points I can win for myself. As of now, I’m thinking an adequately funded, well-conceived and well-executed social media campaign can get me an additional one or two points.
Say the Democratic vote in the 58th in a wave election can reach about 40 percent. Say I add three or maybe even four points by running an effective campaign. Can the political environment add another six or seven points from swing voters? Election results since Trump’s election prove it can happen.
I’ll do my part. I’m pretty confident that this year, the Democratic base will do its part. That leaves the final outcome to those mysterious swing voters and the fates that will move them between now and the time they cast their ballots.