The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Presidential candidates battle for every last vote in Wisconsin—with help from volunteers

Canvassing in Milwaukee

With fewer than 48 hours until the close of the 2004 presidential race, Wisconsin’s Kerry/Edwards Get Out The Vote operations are abuzz. Inside one Kerry/Edwards campaign center in the Milwaukee area, floors are littered with mounds of propaganda documents and walls are plastered with Kerry/Edwards and Feingold campaign posters. The detritus—except for the occasional rainbow poster-—forms a collage of red-white-and-blue. Buttons and stickers supporting the Democratic candidates are ubiquitous, covering the sleeves of virtually every volunteer.

“You feel fired up—these last three days, give it all you got,” says a man directing traffic outside the campaign headquarters. About 100 people mill around the complex, a converted union hall. Volunteers sit drinking coffee and eating bagels at tables stretching the length of the parking lot. Some are organizing into groups of four, preparing to spend the morning crisscrossing neighborhoods.

Ben Golombek, a member of Wisconsin Victory 2004 and a graduate of Northwestern University, instructs volunteers on how to execute the morning’s work shift. Since today is Sunday—a day valued as much in Wisconsin for its holiness as for Packers games—there will be no knocking on doors. The instructions are simple: drop off a leaflet and move on. “We generally knock on doors, but due to the Packers game and Halloween, we don’t want to interrupt people, so we are just leaving the drop lit,” said Golombek, referring to the leaflets left on door handles.

Meanwhile, volunteers receive packets of documents detailing their assignments. The manila envelopes include neighborhood maps and a list of houses of people believed to be Kerry sympathizers.

At this stage in the campaign, the emphasis is not on convincing undecided voters, but on getting out the vote of Democratic and Independent voters.

Volunteers are instructed to split the several-block territory in half and then to travel in pairs. The pairs, in turn, take odd and even addresses and walk down the block, in sync but across the street from one another. Golombek is careful to warn volunteers not to place the leaflets in mailboxes, a violation of federal law.


One volunteer group includes two Washington-area professionals, a Chicago woman, and a young labor activist. As they settle into the leather bucket seats of the Saab being driven by Jared Goldstein—volunteers provide their own transportation—they begin to get to know one another.

Sitting shotgun is Melissa Newman, age 40. A D.C. area resident, she says that this is the first time since high school that she has been a political activist. Newman, now a lobbyist, jokes that she should be working the phones.

Behind her, Cecilia Straney, 44, gazes out the window. A longtime Chicago resident, Straney says she almost feels out of place going door-to-door in a suburban community.

Sitting in the backseat is Gabe Kirchner, an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers. Kirchner, especially talkative, says he thinks Kerry is going to win because of the huge volunteering effort on his behalf. “This is part of how he’s going to win,” he says. “The groundwork has been laid for him. All the new voters that have been created, they haven’t been counted in the polls.”

After about 15 minutes, the Saab pulls up to a residential street in West Allis, a well-to-do Milwaukee suburb. Turned leaves crunch underfoot and unlit jack-o-lanterns mark the paths that trick-or-treaters will tread in the evening.

Battleground State

Few Wisconsinites choose to venture outside their homes today, instead remaining glued to their television screens as the Green Bay Packers take on the Washington Redskins. Despite the deserted streets, the atmosphere feels charged. There is a peculiar combination of Halloween adornments, American flags, and political signs planted on well-manicured lawns. In this suburban Milwaukee neighborhood, there are roughly as many Bush/Cheney signs as there are those for Kerry/Edwards. With their political stripes in plain view, one wonders what a Republican might say to his Democratic next-door neighbor. The neighborhood’s apparent quietness belies a tension that pervades the block: Wisconsin is a battleground state.

A few residents of West Allis are outside raking leaves, mowing lawns, and preparing for the Packers game. As Straney passes by one home, a man emerges in a Packers uniform and affixes a Green Bay flag to his mailbox. She hands him a flyer, but he does not seem interested in chatting. “The undecideds say they’re really turned off by the ads,” she says. “But I just don’t understand how people can still not have an opinion by now.”

“Many feel harangued,” Straney continues. “Most people have their minds made up. They say they can’t watch the TV or listen to the radio, the commercials are so bad.”

Kirchner, however, is more optimistic. “When it comes down to it,” he says, “the old methods really work.” Kirchner, who studied sociology in college and as a graduate student, describes the general process of a grassroots campaign. “Sending a mass e-mail really isn’t doing it. Going door-to-door, having a conversation—that’s what you have to do with voters. And many of the voters, in turn, get inspired that we’re coming out to them.”

Kirchner explains that the classic grassroots organization consists of contacting a community, forming a list of possible or likely supporters, and then translating the list—via canvassers, phone calls, and fliers—into active votes. “That’s the basic process,” Kirchner says as the group continues down the street.

A Navy Community

Shuffling along the blocks, Straney says she was drawn into political activism in part by her childhood as a Navy brat during her father’s service in the Vietnam War. Straney, emphasizing that she supports the troops in Iraq, draws a parallel between the current war and Vietnam.

“There’s a lot of kids overseas, and we as a nation are just not talking about it,” she says. “It’s just terrible, and I don’t think this war’s going to hold up much better than that one.”

Straney says her experience in a Navy community gave her a strong sense of community during wartime. ” There was a lot of support,” she says. “But I’m not sure it’s like that now for families.”

Straney also thinks the polls are wrong. “Apparently I’m not a likely voter, I’m a single woman in her forties, so they didn’t count me, but I’ve never missed an election,” she says. “We’ll know in a few days.”

“Or in a few months,” Kirchner chimes in, as they meet up at the end of the block.

Cultural War

Kirchner and Straney are having trouble hanging the flyers from screen doors, and they wonder what to do. After a few moments, Kirchner has a solution. “The Republicans are ripping up voter registration documents of Democrats in Nevada,” he says. “And I’m wondering if I should open a screen door?”

Kirchner, when asked if he thought the competing volunteering efforts constituted a rivalry, has harsh language. “This is a cultural war,” he said. “There are people who argue that America’s more divided than it’s ever been.”

He claims that the Republican Party has a long history of suppressing the Democratic vote, and he cites posters in minority areas of Detroit—considered Democratic strongholds—that remind voters to visit the polls on November 4.

Kirchner says the volunteering process has stirred up a mix of emotions. He points out a particularly uplifting interaction, describing a poor, religious, middle-aged black woman with five children. The woman, Kirchner says, was “waiting for God to tell her who to vote for.”

“A lot of the working poor have no time to study the issues, so we just had a conversation at her door,” he says. “That’s why we’re here.”

By contrast, Kirchner says that people who won’t engage in discussion frustrate him. “One woman ran out screaming about abortion, then she slammed the door on me,” he says.

One vote per precinct

In 2000, Gore carried Wisconsin by about 5,600 votes—about one vote per precinct. Volunteers at the Kerry headquarters cited this statistic throughout the afternoon, emphasizing the importance of capturing every vote.

Janet DeCoopman, a Milwaukee-area nurse, says the salient political issues in Milwaukee are the economy, the fear of losing health insurance, and the Iraq war. “They’re afraid of the draft,” she says.

DeCoopman, in her 14th or 15th day of volunteering for the Kerry/Edwards campaign, says that she spent the first six or seven days gauging community opinion.

“A lot of the Bush people are soft,” she says. “That was a very pleasant surprise.”

She adds that several of her patients told her recently that they have registered to vote. “I don’t think we’ll ever see this kind of apathy again,” she says.

The challenge now, she believes, is convincing citizens to not be cynical about the government. “That will be determined by how much Kerry can get done,” she says.

A Hike in Activism

DeCoopman may be right about the new level of voter participation. In the final months of the 2004 campaign, many have said that this is one of the most important elections in American history. At the Kerry-Edwards headquarters, unprecedented swarms of volunteers testify to the truth of this sentiment.

Scott Heaslet, the Get Out the Vote (GOTV) Lead for Milwaukee, speaks of the massive volunteer efforts at his site: “We’ve filled 6,033 shifts in the last five days,” Heaslet says, noting that a volunteer typically works between one and three shifts per day. Heaslet served as a GOTV Lead for the Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000, and says that this year’s volunteer participation has doubled from that of four years ago.

Now a senior policy advisor for Congressman Chris Bell of Texas, Heaslet attributes the increase in activism to the tight race in 2000. “People got a sense for how even a presidential election can come down to a few votes,” he says. “60 percent of the volunteers are new to the process, and that’s exciting.”

Asked if he is worried about “volunteer bombardment”—a surplus of volunteers turning away potential voters-—Heaslet says he is not, recalling a lesson from his eighth grade earth science teacher: Repetition is the key to remembering. “I believe in pushing everything to the limits of budget, time, and resources,” Heaslet says. “What I’m worried about is the weather. I’m hoping for a pretty day on Tuesday.”

Like most volunteers at the Kerry-Edwards camp, Heaslet sounds an optimistic note. “I know we’re going to win,” he says with a grin.

Chicago Participation

Eric Van Lente, a graduate student in psychology at the University, chose to get involved in the election campaign, even though he is not an American citizen. Van Lente, who holds joint citizenship in Ireland and England, says he is campaigning for the Kerry ticket because of his disappointment with President Bush’s Iraq policy. Van Lente first became politically active a month ago when he volunteered for another group. Besides that, he says he has never been involved in an American activist group.

“You just assume that you can help to influence things even though you’re not from here, and that your life won’t be threatened,” he says. “Often, you just take that right for granted in a democratic country.”

Kristin Greer Love, a campus activist and third-year in the College, says her involvement in the campaign is important. Love says she encountered an undecided voter impressed with the visibility of the Kerry/Edwards campaigners. “I felt that I was able to raise some good points about why voting for Bush was not a good idea,” Love says.

Daniel Biss, a post-doc student in the math department at the University, has spearheaded volunteer efforts for various activist groups on campus since beginning to work for the Kerry-Edwards campaign last May. While Biss is not a member of any group in particular, he has been in close touch with pro-Kerry groups such as the UCDems and NoMoreW. “It just sort of happened,” Biss says in the mess hall at the Kerry volunteer headquarters. Sipping warm apple cider, Biss adds that he has been “blown away” by the level of U of C student activism. “We’ve had between 20 and 30 student volunteers on any given weekend since the summer,” he says.

Slumped in a chair with droopy eyelids, the final days of the campaign have taken their toll on Biss. “Research has been attenuated,” he says of his math work. “You spend hours organizing stupid stuff, and it’s hard to believe how draining it can be. You’re in charge of getting people on a bus, making sure there are enough seats, and arranging for there to be enough food once everyone arrives.”

Despite his exhaustion, Biss feels he is making a difference, and is “absolutely optimistic” about a Kerry victory.

Packers Versus Redskins

The Packers-Redskins game, which began at noon, blares all over the Kerry/Edwards campaign center as the volunteers enjoy a lunch of pizza, subs, salads, and soups. For those who put stock in superstition, this game has special significance. Tradition has it that the victory or defeat of the Washington Redskins on the eve of the presidential election mirrors the electoral success of the incumbent. “If the Redskins lose or tie, the current president will lose the election,” explains a volunteer. Excitement is high as the Packers jump ahead to a quick lead, and the mood remains upbeat as the lead grows.

The Packers eventually defeat the Redskins 28–14.

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