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Old Hat but Still in Style

Grass-roots politicking has an important role in modern elections, experts say. Boxer and Jones advisors think it can have an effect.

September 12, 2004|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Cheryl Simpson and Charles Eldridge's paths crossed on a recent hot September morning, a chance encounter at the Orange International Street Fair that neither of them is likely to remember in much detail.

Eldridge, a 23-year-old government teacher at Santa Ana's Calvary Chapel High School, was looking for November campaign literature for his classroom. Simpson, in a bright red shirt and white summer hat, had Republican fliers to hand out from behind a folding table flanking a life-size, cardboard George W. Bush. After a flurry of small talk and the shuffling of brochures, Eldridge was on his way, unaware that he had just become another notch on the belt for a key grass-roots campaign worker for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Jones.

This is old-school politicking, a practice that some believe has outlived its usefulness in a world of television ads and phone banks, Internet sites and instant e-mail updates.

Yet even in a state as large and unwieldy as California, there still is a role -- and a need, proponents say -- for old ward-style electioneering, where envelopes get stuffed and sealed, lawn signs are meted out and stickers are added to lapels with a robust slap of confidence.

For the faithful, this is where political campaigns live and breathe -- and where they can be won and lost.

"You get a close election, you start losing statewide by 100,000 votes or 75,000 votes, that's when it's a factor," said Bruce Nestande, campaign manager for Jones, who is trailing incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in recent polls. "That extra door knock is what's going to make a difference in a close election. Our attitude is, you run your campaign as though you're one vote behind, and you chase that vote, and then whatever shall be, shall be."

A 2000 study by Yale University's Institution for Social and Policy Studies tracked the effect of the old-fashioned approach. Field tests in a 1998 New Haven, Conn., election found that voter turnout increased by more than 9% in areas in which voters were contacted face-to-face by nonpartisan canvassers, while turnout increased by less than 1% among voters receiving only direct-mail reminders.

"It is effective because we do it on a precinct-by-precinct basis," said Simpson, an Orange accountant who helps maintain Orange County Republican databases, registers voters at local shopping malls, and walks door-to-door urging Republicans to vote in November. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard the response, 'Gee, nobody has asked us to vote before.' They really appreciate it."

Neither Jones nor Boxer is relying solely on grass-roots organizing, but each places significant importance on the effort. It is time-consuming and, at times, a logistical nightmare -- although the advent of e-mail and the Internet has made it easier to distribute training instructions, precinct sheets and other key information.

But the labor is free, the contact personal, and the pitches are sincere.

"You can't buy that," Nestande said. "What the volunteers do, the work they put in, if you had to pay them an hourly wage you couldn't afford it. It's a tremendously valuable asset."

Jason Kinney, an advisor to former Gov. Gray Davis and longtime Democratic campaign activist, estimated that a strong "field program" could add as much as 8 percentage points to a candidate's vote if the opponent ignored his or her own grass-roots work.

"In this race, I'm not sure it's going to leave a huge footprint" given Boxer's comfortable lead, Kinney said. But Boxer's position can't be taken for granted -- or her grass roots left untended. "She's got to run for self-preservation, and you have to exhaust every weapon in the arsenal.... She's leading the ticket in California, and she has a responsibility, not just for her own race but for Democrats up and down the ballot, to lead by example."

Not that Boxer would overlook grass-roots work. It is, she says, what launched her career as a Marin County supervisor in the 1970s. It also landed her a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1992, first helping her outdraw better-known and better-funded Democrats in the primary, then helping her prevail in the general election.

"Everyone said grass-roots politics wouldn't mean a thing in such a large race," Boxer told supporters at the recent opening of a neighborhood Democratic Party campaign office in East Los Angeles. "They said you just had to have millions of dollars -- I believed that. But I also believed that that wasn't enough, that you needed to see the people face-to-face, needed to encourage people to understand the connection between what goes on in Washington, D.C., on a daily basis and the quality of their lives."

In the 1992 election, Boxer became a standard-bearer for women angry over the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas faceoff in the Senate's Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Thomas.

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