Trying to Tip Virginia Senate Race With Pinpoint Door-Knocking
Sunday, November 04, 2012
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
Faiza Abdulle, a worker for Virginia New Majority, talking with Reginald Mervine as she canvassed for President Obama and Tim Kaine, a Democrat running for the Senate, in Sterling, Va., last month.
STERLING, Va. — Faiza Abdulle hopscotched through the tidy middle-class streets of exurban Washington one evening last month, carrying an iPod Touch that directed her surgically to the houses of a very certain type of voter.
Komlan Sessou, 29, a Togolese barista at nearby Dulles Airport, yawned in his pajama bottoms and asked, “Now when is this election?” Abdalla Nasir, 54, a government security worker from Sudan in a flowing white dishdasha, exchanged salaam alaikums with Ms. Abdulle and promised to vote for President Obama and for Tim Kaine for the Senate. Aldemar Ceballos spoke no English but invited the young canvasser in, vowing, through the translations of his 16-year-old niece, to vote but agonizing over his indecision.
With the Senate election in Virginia coming down to a photo finish, Mr. Kaine, a former governor, is figuring that a Democratic army of Faiza Abdulles will make the difference on Tuesday. Republicans, with their own army of door knockers, are hoping that their ground game can eke out a victory by one or two percentage points for George Allen, a former governor and senator. It is a street-level fight of neighborhood canvassing and phone banks conducted largely out of sight and distinct from the ad wars carpet-bombing televisions in Virginia.
Hurricane Sandy disrupted the effort for two days, but both sides were back at it on Wednesday. The state Republican Party started a seven-stop “Victory” bus tour that rendezvoused with Mitt Romney’s bus in Leesburg, then barnstormed through Loudoun and Prince William Counties before heading south from the Washington area to Fredericksburg, Chesterfield and Richmond.
“The way the presidential and Senate races are coming down, this could be decided by a point or two,” said Chris LaCivita, a veteran Republican campaign consultant who is close to Mr. Allen. “Could the armies deployed on the ground actually determine the outcome either way? Absolutely.”
The battle for Virginia between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney has held significant pitfalls for Mr. Kaine. Animus toward the president in the western coal country and in parts of the military-dominated southeast has done Mr. Kaine no favors.
But by piggybacking on the president’s turnout operation, Mr. Kaine may turn the presidential campaign into a last-minute advantage. The Obama campaign maintains 47 offices in Virginia to Mr. Romney’s 29. The state Democratic Party runs a “coordinated campaign” to augment the Obama team’s efforts and promote Mr. Kaine and other Democratic candidates, with hubs in Alexandria, a Washington suburb; Richmond, the capital; the Hampton Roads area, a military center; and Charlottesville, a student bastion.
On the periphery are separate get-out-the-vote, rally-the-faithful efforts motivated by Mr. Obama but carrying along Mr. Kaine’s message. Canvassing has been going on for months, financed by at least three unions, Planned Parenthood and Virginia New Majority, the group Ms. Abdulle was working for, which is aimed at an expanding immigrant community that has helped turn Virginia from reliably Republican to a battleground.
Republicans boast of similar operations. The state Republican Party’s Victory campaign claimed its one millionth door knocked on last week, and says its canvassers and phone bank workers have contacted nearly 4.5 million voters, more than two-thirds of the state’s voting-age population. Democrats scoff at the figure.
No matter, Pete Snyder, the Victory chairman, said the ground game this year was nothing like the moribund ground effort of 2008, when a Democrat took the state in the presidential race for the first time since 1964, or of 2006, when Mr. Allen lost his re-election bid by 9,000 votes. “If you had gone to McCain headquarters in 2008 and said, ‘I’m really worried about Virginia,’ they would have laughed you out of the place,” said Mr. Snyder, a professed ground-game convert. “Next to nothing went on in 2008.”
The surge of Republican support that swept Gov. Bob McDonnell to power in 2009 and three Republicans into the House in 2010 has presented a tricky task for Democrats: finding the voters who were with them in 2008 but did not show up in the next two elections, and the ones new to the state.
“In a close race, the person-to-person matters more than anything else,” Mr. Kaine told canvassers crammed into an office in Dale City before heading out one recent weekend into Prince William County. “Look, they’ve already seen millions of ads, but it’s still close. They’ve already seen millions of ads, and there are still undecided voters.”
It is a voting universe that requires a lot of coaxing. They may be reliably Democratic, but the women, immigrants and minorities targeted by Virginia New Majority are unreliable voters.
“We are focused almost exclusively on the voters who wouldn’t come out to vote without the attention,” said Rishi Awatramani, the communications director for Virginia New Majority. “If we hit that 2 percent vote share, then we’ve done a good job.”
Two weeks ago, organizers sent out about 15 canvassers, white, black, Asian and Hispanic, some in knit caps, others in head scarves.
“What’s our chant?” Ben Byron, an assistant field director, asked at the meeting hall of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
“Virginia New Majority, 40,000 doors,” the group responded.
“Let’s do it,” Mr. Byron concluded.
The sophistication of the operation was evident in the palm of Ms. Abdulle’s hand. Her iPod took her on a meandering path. On some streets, she knocked on only one door. On another, she hit two doors in a row, skipped five houses, crossed the street and approached another, before doubling back to a missed one far up the block. She encountered a skunk on East Lee Street, a lot of empty houses and many doorbells ignored. Darkness fell quickly in neighborhoods with no streetlights. But it was better than the previous week, her first canvass, when she braved a rainstorm.
The canvas coordinators who load the maps onto the iPods use publicly available voter files, identifying women and minorities who have voted no more than once in the last four Virginia general elections. For more frequent voters who vacillate between Republicans and Democrats, the group’s political advocacy arm assigns “persuasion” teams.
Infrequent but reliable Democrats are more likely to get people like Ms. Abdulle, a novice, shy and sweet and not a hard seller.
“I could never do sales,” said Ms. Abdulle, a Somali immigrant who came to Ashburn, Va., 10 years ago by way of the Netherlands.
For all the sophistication of the group’s back office, its utility could be in question in the hands of such young, inexperienced canvassers. Mr. Komlan, one of the voters she contacted, was unpersuasive in his promise to vote after Ms. Abdulle informed him that Election Day was Nov. 6. Bob Bechara, 72, a Greek-Lebanese retiree, was happy to chat, but he said the door knock had not made a difference.
“She’s here, not here, I’m going to do it,” he said with a shrug, speaking of voting.
Ms. Abdulle made no effort to press William Echevarria, 51, when he said he was undecided. She was happy he promised her that he would vote.
But Mr. Echevarria, a military contractor, seemed an easy target. He had two children with health issues whom he had been able to keep on his insurance because of Mr. Obama’s health care law, a change he clearly appreciated. On the other hand, he said he had “at least the impression” that high gasoline prices stemmed from the Democrats’ emphasis on alternative energy, a hunch that may well have been disputed with a little effort. None was made.
Still, he said, Ms. Abdulle’s visit was helpful as the race draws to a close.
“It makes me think, ‘You know what? I probably should pay attention and make a decision,’ ” he said.