Just before the sun sets and trick-or-treaters overrun the sidewalks here early on Sunday evening, Justin Allegro, a 23-year-old door-to-door canvasser with the League of Conservation Voters, parks his van in an affluent Orlando neighborhood and sets off on yet another mission to convince a dozen or so undecided or infrequent voters of the virtues of John Kerry.
By any reasonable logic, this night, Halloween, isn't the best time to be hawking a political message -- it's Sunday, it's a holiday, and people may resent that you've come to their door without a funny costume, asking for much more than a simple handful of candy. Allegro, who's been at this for months, concedes that he'd rather not be out this late. But what can you do? Orlando is the swingiest city in the swingiest state in the nation, and with fewer than 48 hours to go before the big day, reasonable logic doesn't really apply.
And, anyway, despite the awkwardness, an amazing thing happens here. Just as Allegro and I hit the streets, a man of about 30 who's out with his little girl spots us walking his way and yells, somewhat suspiciously, "So what are you guys selling?"
"We're selling John Kerry!" Allegro responds with a smile. Knocking on thousands of doors has sharpened Allegro's people skills, and like many of the veteran canvassers here he possesses an almost magical ability to disarm strangers, even folks with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers affixed to their pickups. In this case, though, his particular skills aren't necessary. Hearing that we're there for Kerry, the man smiles and says, "You know, I'm a lifelong Republican and I already voted for Kerry." (Floridians have been voting at early voting stations since Oct. 18.) The man, who identifies himself only as Bart, then engages us in a three-minute discussion on the many and various shortcomings of George W. Bush. He explains that he works in the software industry and has frequent dealings with people in the Middle East; Bush has not, in his assessment, handled things well over there. Reelecting him, he says, would be a disaster. As Allegro and I walk off, Bart points to each of the other houses on the street, telling us who lives there and whether or not they'd be receptive to Kerry. Many people in the neighborhood are Republican, Bart says, but many are probably persuadable.
In the two days that I followed pro-Kerry canvassers as they walked around all kinds of neighborhoods in Orlando and Miami, there were more than a few encounters like this one, surprising moments of intense passion expressed by Republican or independent voters for Kerry. If you're an anxious or even pessimistic Kerry supporter -- and in this razor-thin election, which Kerry fan isn't a little bit shaky? -- these encounters can have a thrilling tonic effect.
On the other hand, when you're with canvassers, devastation is never further than the next door down. There's a reason veteran political consultants get frustrated by the kind of politics both Kerry and Bush have been forced to practice in this election, this do-or-die reliance on new, undecided and infrequent voters: It's hard work, and it's risky. For every door at which you find a newly registered voter pledging to go out and vote ASAP, you'll go through half a dozen doors where the new voter isn't home, or doesn't answer, or shoos you away, or, previously undecided, has swung to Bush, or, worse, is, astonishingly, still undecided.
To make things worse, the weather here is hot and humid, particularly unsuited to long hours of door-to-door work. You can't go out for more than an hour without feeling sick with dehydration from the heat and sticky humidity. The bugs are out, too; in one house, a huge wasps nest dangled from a potted plant at the front door. The canvassers I was with marked those people down as "not home."
And then you've got to deal with the voters themselves: Most are quite accommodating and friendly, but the ones you remember, and the ones who may keep the canvassers awake at night, are those who refuse to open their doors and instead yell at you through a window. This happened just a couple of times when I was out, but each time it sent shivers down my spine.
Although there are signs that John Kerry is doing well in early voting here, an on-the-ground view of his GOTV operation reveals it to be far from a guaranteed success. For each candidate, GOTV efforts are vital. The strategic fight in this presidential race -- the high-level advertising and journalism campaign -- is now over. Swift boats, wolf ads, Sinclair, "Fahrenheit 9/11," Dan Rather's memos -- all that's history. Now it all comes down to tactics: On the Democratic side in swing states like this one, the campaign in the last hours will be conducted by van and on foot, by college kids and retirees and aging hippies shipped in by the hundreds from New York, D.C. and all points west, such as the two dozen or so people here from Austin, Texas.
Most of the Democratic volunteers are working with America Votes, an umbrella organization that encompasses some of the nation's largest advocacy groups, including America Coming Together, the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, EMILY's List, the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. Each of the groups in the coalition is charged with targeting a different voter demographic or constituency; ACT is going after what might be called the Democratic base, the union groups are going after labor, ACORN is targeting minorities.
The League of Conservation Voters, which is officially nonpartisan and does not usually conduct get-out-the-vote operations in presidential races, has one of the most interesting tasks -- to target undecideds and "persuadables," Democrats and Republicans who fit the demographic profile of someone who might switch sides, and who may have a history of not voting very often. Between Friday and the poll-close time on Tuesday, 1,600 League volunteers will knock on 80,000 doors in Orlando. Allan Oliver, Florida state director of the League, says he's confident that his effort will add a small bump to Kerry's totals in Florida. Not huge, but enough. "You get 1 or 2 percent and, boy, you're talking about the whole election."
When Oliver and others involved in Kerry's get-out-the-vote operation talk about their faith in door-to-door canvassing, they often cite the work of Donald Green and Alan Gerber, two political scientists at Yale who've long studied the efficacy of different ways of mobilizing political constituencies. Green and Gerber's work highlights the value of person-to-person contact in politics; through rigorous analysis of various state and federal campaigns, the pair has shown that one of the truest ways of boosting a voter's likelihood of going to the polls is by talking to the voter at his door right before the election. (And now, with the advent of early voting, you can even talk to him while the polls are open.) "Get Out the Vote!" -- Green and Gerber's book detailing their findings -- is something of a bible among GOTV enthusiasts; in conversations with canvassers, you'll often hear the authors' research being offered as justification for the difficult work, especially Green and Gerber's finding that last-minute door-to-door canvassing can boost turnout by between 8 and 10 percent, far more than the boost from other methods of reaching people.
What this means is that for every 10 people the League of Conservation Voters speaks to in the last few days of the campaign, "at the minimum between one and two people will get out and vote because of that," Oliver says. But since the League and other groups are boosting their efforts with repeated visits -- some voters will have been personally visited by the League three times during this presidential race -- and with mailings and phone calls, Oliver expects the rate of voters contacted to votes cast to be much higher.
The Yale research prompted Brian Kettenring, who heads the Florida GOTV efforts of ACORN -- an advocacy group that managed to register more than 200,000 new voters, most of them minorities, in the state this year -- to also adopt a get-out-the-vote method very much focused on door-to-door canvassing. "We're putting most of our eggs in the face-to-face-contact basket," Kettenring says. He's not trying to suggest that ACORN is taking any kind of risk in doing that; Kettenring is as firm a believer as you can find in door-to-door efforts. Over the course of the year, ACORN's goal has been to contact each of the new voters it signed up between eight and 10 times, four of them in person. The door-to-door canvass that it has been doing in this last phase of the campaign is supposed to be the final "touch"; ideally, voters whom the group is approaching in the final hours ought to be primed and ready to vote, or possibly should have voted already.
But life rarely works out ideally, and neither does canvassing. On a door-to-door trek with two ACORN workers on Sunday morning in the lower-middle-class Orlando neighborhood of Kensington, few of the people who answered their doors seemed to have been contacted before, though most said they planned to vote or had already voted. To Lisa Smith, the 35-year-old ACORN "team leader" who headed the group, many of the people who promised to vote seemed credible. There was an intensity to what they said, she felt, that rang true. In addition, Smith had the voters -- about half a dozen people opened their doors in about an hour of canvassing, not a terribly bad rate, but still tough when you're out there in the sun -- sign a form pledging to vote in the race, and to vote yes on Florida's Amendment 5, which would raise the state's minimum wage. (ACORN is not taking a position in the presidential race, but since its program is targeted at African-Americans, its efforts are likely to help Kerry.) If these people sign a form pledging to vote, the thinking goes, they're much more likely to actually go to the polls.
I have to say, however, that I didn't see the kind of intensity in some of the voters that Smith says she saw. If I were to put money on it, I'd guess that only one or two of the people she spoke to will eventually make it to the polls. For these people, what seemed most helpful was the information Smith passed on regarding polling locations, polling hours and the kind of I.D. voters would need at the polls. If they suddenly decide to vote on Tuesday, at least now they know how to do it.
The main reason to be skeptical of efforts to bring new voters to the polls in Florida is that voting here is not easy. Early polling locations across the state have been inundated with voters, and lines to vote have consequently grown quite long. Smith says she waited in line for three hours at her Orlando early voting location. While it's possible to find some extremely lucky voters who report having been able to vote in as little as 15 minutes, for many people -- especially those in areas with large minority populations -- the lines are close to unbearable. At one location I went to on Saturday in a neighborhood in the southwest corner of Miami, the line to vote stretched for about an hour and a half. At another precinct in northern Miami on the same day, a location where virtually every voter in line looked to be a minority member, the line was longer than three hours. (Still, there's something undeniably thrilling about the lines at these early voting stations, with people waiting so defiantly and so long -- not just four hours but four years -- to exercise rights that have been so badly abused in the past. The lines take on the sensibility of a rally rather than a simple queue, an arrangement that's at once a protest and a party, complete with food, music and the kind of fun that can't be dampened by the handful of suited lawyers roaming about.)
For new voters in Florida, finding the time -- from work, from child rearing, from other obligations -- to go to the polls over the next two days may prove to be the biggest hurdle in the path of their democratic rights. And this is the one problem that the GOTV groups can't solve. Many groups plan to offer rides to and from the polls, and over the past few months, many have offered voters plenty of incentive. But how do you persuade someone to wait in line for one, two, three or even four hours -- especially someone who wasn't keen on the whole idea of voting to begin with? "We let them know that if they have to get in line and wait for a few hours, it's going to be worth it if we don't have to have four more years of George Bush," canvasser Allegro says.
It's an interesting message: Four hours of your time beats four years of Bush. And perhaps it can work. As the League of Conservation Voters' Oliver points out, what's most interesting about the get-out-the-vote coalition that now stands ready to defeat Bush is that it was essentially formed as a response to the excesses of his administration. "There's a certain irony that the thing that has brought all the environmental groups together with all these passionate progressive groups is an aggressive opposition to his policies," Oliver says.
So maybe the best GOTV inducement is not the door-to-door canvassing. Maybe it's simply the prospect of four more years.