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Kerry on
Our intrepid reporter braves the New Hampshire cold to canvass for the Massachusetts senator, whose campaign is suffering from more than the chill
Primary foot soldiers

CANVASSERS ARE the unsung heroes of any political campaign. They go door to door with campaign literature and try to engage potential voters in conversation about their candidate. Their ranks are populated with students, impassioned political junkies, and, in some cases, singletons looking for a date. Regardless of motive, they’re on the frontlines of retail politics and can best gauge how the public is responding to candidates. With less than three weeks to go before the New Hampshire primary, we sent three staffers to the Granite State for a day to volunteer for the campaigns of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Retired General Wesley Clark, and Massachusetts senator John Kerry. We wanted to see how Granite Staters — perhaps the most influential voters in the country when it comes to presidential-primary elections — were engaging with the campaigns of the leading candidates. In order to get as authentic a reading on the political climate as possible, our staffers did not identify themselves as journalists to the campaigns. That said, they were instructed to do what the campaigns asked of them; in other words, there wasn’t a saboteur among them. Our findings are below.

Camille Dodero freezes for Dean

Mike Miliard joins the Clark contingent

David S. Bernstein hooks up with Kerry's kids

MANCHESTER, NH — New Hampshire was supposed to launch John Kerry’s presidential campaign, but with the latest polls showing him in a distant third place here, it’s clear he needs an Iowa surprise to salvage the New England state. That leaves the staff and volunteers at Kerry’s state headquarters in Manchester in the unexpected position of looking elsewhere for optimism. There is a lot of talk about how well the Iowa campaign is going — how many people are attending rallies, which newspapers are endorsing Kerry, and so forth — and relatively little talk about New Hampshire.

I was in Manchester on Saturday to witness the campaign from the inside, by joining volunteers canvassing for Kerry. It was arguably one of the campaign’s toughest days yet in the Granite State. For one thing, the man himself was in absentia. After falling far behind Howard Dean in New Hampshire polls last fall, the Kerry campaign decided to place all its hope — and time and money — in Iowa. As a result, by the time I arrive Kerry has spent just seven days over the past month in New Hampshire, compared with 17 in Iowa.

In addition — or perhaps as a result — Kerry has plummeted even further in the polls. An up-to-the-minute American Research Group (ARG) tracking poll shows just 10 percent of likely primary voters planning to cast their ballots for Kerry, putting him well behind Dean, at 36 percent, and Wesley Clark, at 19 percent, and barely ahead of Joe Lieberman, at eight percent. Kerry’s support has fallen by half in just the last two weeks, an incredibly dispiriting blow. (Last July, just six months ago, the same poll had Kerry in first place, with 25 percent.)

Add the frigid temperature, which started the day below zero and peaked at eight degrees, and you don’t have a perfect recipe for voluntary door-to-door Kerry-stumping. Nevertheless, more than a dozen have come to join the effort, most of them regulars. There’s a big-smiling, middle-aged blond-haired woman from Memphis (where it was 41 degrees on Saturday), who had come to the dull, frozen town of Manchester for the campaign, and whose daughter was working for Kerry in Iowa. Kerry strikes her as most like the candidate she’s volunteered for in the past, Tennessee’s own Al Gore. A younger woman from southern Rhode Island, who seems well-versed in the issues, is a veteran volunteer who has just been asked to run as a Kerry delegate in her home district. Frank, a married, middle-aged, underemployed marketer from northern Massachusetts, has been devoting most of his unwelcome free time to the Kerry campaign — he had gotten to observe Kerry up close many years ago, and feels a native-son attachment to the senator.

They are all enthusiastic about Kerry’s persona: the liberal, presidential-looking war hero. (The war-hero aspect in particular seems to resonate.) They share a sense of revulsion for George W. Bush. And they all seem motivated as much by the political-volunteering bug as by any particularly strong affinity for Kerry.

Kerry headquarters, located in an office within a huge converted mill, is considerably smaller than the Amoskeag Bingo Center, which shares the building. But the space is still large, larger than appears necessary for a campaign that has brought together a total of perhaps 30 people, including staff and volunteers, on a Saturday three weeks before the election. Laptop computers, campaign literature, and handmade signs are plentiful.

Before the canvassing starts (the campaign coordinators are waiting for either late volunteers or above-zero temperatures), the volunteers are put to work making handwritten postcards with a blunt "good-versus-bad" message: "Dear _____, The upcoming Democratic Primary is too important to waste on Howard Dean. We need to replace George Bush with a real leader, and that leader is John Kerry. Please join us in supporting John Kerry for President on January 27th."

Before we head out, Kerry’s daughter Vanessa makes an appearance, giving us a quick pep talk. "My father is so full of energy for this," she says, referring to the campaign’s final stretch before the first caucus and primary. She speaks of the tide turning in Iowa, where she says her father will surprise everyone with a great showing.

Then we grab our materials (a pamphlet on Kerry’s plan for his first 100 days in office, and a CD-ROM of campaign information and commercials) and venture out into the cold. Canvassing is a time-honored political activity, thought to leave a more lasting positive impression than phone calls. Canvassers normally walk neighborhoods with lists of their party’s registered voters, knocking on doors and engaging in conversation about the candidate. Campaigns often provide a script, which is usually ignored, but the gist is pretty standard. Tell them whom you’re campaigning for, ask them whom they plan to vote for, tell them a couple of positive things about the candidate, ask them if they have any questions about the candidate. Leave campaign literature. Check off appropriate boxes on your form so the campaign staff can sort them into appropriate categories: supporter (target for contributions and get-out-the-vote reminders), potential supporter (target for more contacts), or non-supporter (waste no more time and money). If nobody’s home, leave a pamphlet tucked into the screen door.

This can be tough slogging in the best circumstances; what we have, 19 days before the election, is bottom-of-the-barrel canvassing. We are targeting only those houses with a registered Democrat who has not been successfully contacted in previous canvass efforts. According to the coded notations on the sheets, the campaign has "dropped" some of these addresses — left literature — as many as three times before. Only about one of every 20 houses is on the list, and the majority of these result in yet another drop. Several residents are clearly at home but do not come to the door.

I am paired with Frank, the underemployed marketer; he drives as we hunt down the addresses on our printouts. We make human contact at 18 of our 50 listed households in the quiet, middle-class Ward Seven neighborhood. The vast majority of the folks who answer their doors are pleasant, friendly, and undecided — nine of the 21 we are able to poll claim no preference, six name Dean, and one each favors Kerry, Clark, and Lieberman. Three plan to vote for George Bush. (Our forms had not been updated in some time — they included a space for Senator Bob Graham, who withdrew from the race in early October, but not one for Clark, who entered in late September.)

Attempts to engage them further — "Can I answer any questions you have about the senator?" — are for the most part pleasantly declined. They weren’t going to invite campaign workers into their homes, and they didn’t want to stand in the doorway very long. Even most of those who stated preferences said they were still uncertain. Almost all knew the names of at least several of the candidates — not surprisingly, since they said they had been contacted by quite a few of the campaigns — but few seemed to know much about any of them beyond broad impressions. Clark is the general. Dean is the brash outsider from Vermont. Dick Gephardt is the old veteran Democrat.

Everyone seemed to have a pretty positive opinion of Kerry, or at they least weren’t willing to say otherwise to a Kerry campaigner standing at the front door. Even so, their impressions were mostly on the surface. One older gentleman, choosing between Clark and Kerry, was hung up on the sole objection that Kerry had, as he understood it, claimed to be Irish but really wasn’t. Apparently those things do stick.

Frank and I did engage a few of our prey in conversation. Frank, who had made a lot of phone calls to Iowa voters for the campaign, had worked out methods for drawing out potential supporters and addressing their concerns. "A woman once said that she liked the war record of Clark, but the government experience of Dean," Frank told me. "I said, ‘Okay, so you’re a John Kerry supporter. He’s got both.’ She was taken aback, but I got her to think about it."

Fearless Frank didn’t even let a massive clark 2004 sign on the lawn of one house stop him. A very pleasant but divided older couple were inside; the Clark sign was his, while she was undecided but leaning toward Dean. Frank was pleased with himself afterward. "You never know," he said. "You never know where you’re going to turn over a vote."

We encountered a young man — not the person we were looking for at that address — who denounced all Democrats and Republicans as "evil," and said he would vote only if Ralph Nader ran again. At another house a very pleasant woman in big furry slippers confessed that just that morning she and her husband had talked about how the primary was coming up and they needed to get some information about the candidates. She said she wasn’t really sure what issues in particular she was interested in, but she very happily accepted the pamphlet and CD-ROM.

Back at headquarters, the paid staffers did not offer Frank and me any of the crock-pot chili they had made, but did express gratitude when taking our sheets and sending us on our way. Our results, as far as I could tell, were not atypical. "I got three undecideds, one Kerry, and one Lieberman," said a volunteer named Barbara. "Last time was better. In Nashua last week it was Kerry, Kerry, Kerry."

Frank and I brought back one big prize from our outing, a coveted "Q-slip." The Q-slip is a specific request from a voter for follow-up information. It came from a woman who was not on our list; she lived on the other side of the duplex from the person we were looking for. Her boyfriend was hanging out (quite improbably, given the frigid temperatures) on the front porch; when he found out we were campaigning, he said that his girlfriend was a registered Democrat, and called her out. Apparently unaware of the political import of her question, she innocently asked what Kerry might do about getting Medicare to cover some of her prescription drugs, which were costing her a fortune. I told her I was pretty sure the campaign staff would be more than happy to answer that question for her, and took down her name and address. After all, they don’t have much else to do for the next nine days while waiting for Iowa to vote.

David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein[a]phx.com

Issue Date: January 16 - 22, 2004
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