March 16, 2010

Trench warfare: Where elections are won and lost lost


— By

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Gordon Chibroski

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Gordon Chibroski

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Political Correspondent

It's a beautiful August evening, and Bill Gardiner should be out on the golf course, teeing one up.

Instead, the 59-year-old Falmouth resident hunches over a folding table in a Portland office building, where a dozen people sit elbow to elbow at a bank of telephones.

Gardiner punches a number into his telephone keyboard, pauses, and reads casually from a printed script.

''Good evening,'' he says into the receiver. ''My name is Bill, and I'm a volunteer for the Maine Republican Party.''

Welcome to the political trenches, where campaigns for the White House, Congress and state offices are fought, won and lost. Traditionally, Labor Day marks the unofficial start of the campaign season, after children return to school, adults re-enter their work lives and the airwaves are seemingly saturated with political advertising.

But all summer long, Gardiner and other volunteers with the Republican, Democratic and Green Independent parties have been waging a determined grass-roots campaign. Armed with telephones, time, leaflets and conviction, they have been building support for candidates by calling voters, canvassing neighborhoods and descending on shopping malls, parades, county fairs and other large gatherings.

Compared to the relatively glamorous job of running a mass-media campaign, staging a press conference or making public appearances, this is tedious, demanding and utilitarian work, done largely without pay.

But experienced political operatives say the labor-intensive, time-consuming task of grass-roots campaigning is a critical component of running for office, and that one-on-one contacts are key to Election Day success.

''We know scientifically that they make the difference in especially close elections,'' said Randy Bumps, a former Maine legislator who is now regional political director for the Republican National Committee. Close contests, he said, ''are often decided by the intensity of grass-roots, neighbor-to-neighbor contacts.''


For Maine Democrats, the job of building a grass-roots campaign began in February, when more than 45,000 people statewide turned out in a snowstorm to attend the party's local caucuses.

Many indicated they wanted to volunteer for the party or its candidates this year, and they have provided the frontline troops in the Democrats' Victory 2008 Coordinated Campaign.

It supports the candidacy of presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama; 1st District U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, who is running for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Susan Collins; and Chellie Pingree, who is running against Republican Charlie Summers for the seat now held by Allen.

The Democratic Party now has 29 offices open seven days a week in all 16 Maine counties, and another three offices are set to open in the next two weeks, according to Peter Chandler, the campaign director.

''I have never seen such a level of activity at this point in the campaign,'' said Chandler, who managed U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud's election campaigns and is on leave from Michaud's staff for this election cycle.

Chandler said nearly 3,000 people will volunteer for the Democratic effort.

They will canvass neighborhoods, going door-to-door to distribute leaflets and talk with residents; attend events such as county fairs and local parades and festivals; and staff phones to take polls and encourage people to vote.

Nearly 20 people worked the phone lines one evening last week at a Democratic Party office on the Portland waterfront.

The basement-level space was furnished with folding chairs and tables, and the walls were hung with campaign posters.

Telephone lines dangled from the ceiling, and snack foods were heaped near neatly organized stacks of flyers touting the campaigns of Democratic candidates.

Sarah Wissler, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College, had been there for two hours, patiently telephoning voters from a prepared list of names, fielding reactions that ranged from indifference to enthusiasm.

''Sometimes it's a bit more encouraging, especially when people get excited,'' said Wissler, 22, who has also volunteered for neighborhood canvassing.

Chandler said the one-on-one campaigning demands extensive organization and oversight, but the large corps of volunteers means Democrats have the opportunity to talk with individual voters about such issues as the war in Iraq, health care and the Bush administration's economic policies.

''That's the kind of thing we can do because of the operation we've built,'' he said.


The Green Independent Party isn't running any candidates for statewide or federal office in Maine, but it has 10 members running for the Legislature. And the party's political director for Cumberland County, Ben Chipman, says grass-roots contact is vital to the candidates' campaigns.

''With the Green Independent Party, it's a matter of going out and reaching people one at a time and convincing them why they should vote for someone other than a Democrat or a Republican,'' he said.

A Maine political scientist who specializes in the study of voter turnout says grass-roots campaign efforts to get out the vote could be especially important in the Senate race between Allen and Collins.

Brian Duff, who teaches at the University of New England, said he believes Collins will be difficult to defeat, given her incumbency and reputation as a moderate who is willing to reach across the party aisle.

He said Allen probably can't unseat Collins by peeling away habitual voters, but he has a chance to capitalize on the enthusiasm Obama has inspired among the young.

''My guess if (Allen) is going to pull off this upset, it would be with big numbers of new voters,'' Duff said.


For their part, Republicans are working to ensure that an Allen victory doesn't happen.

Gardiner, the volunteer who forsook golf for the phone bank last week, said he planned to come back again and encourage voters to turn out for GOP candidates.

He described Collins, McCain and other GOP candidates as ''grinders,'' who are plain-spoken and hard-working.

''I see that in the Republican people,'' he said. ''They're kind of grass roots.''

Like the Democrats, the Maine Republican Party operation is also called Victory 2008. It also features its own phone banks, campaign posters and piles of Doritos and Hershey's Kisses to keep volunteers fueled up for their work.

The party's campaign is aimed at building grass-roots support for the GOP, particularly Collins and presidential candidate John McCain, through telephone work, canvassing and events such as neighborhood house parties.

The Victory 2008 campaign has offices in Lewiston and Bangor, in addition to the Portland office and state party headquarters in Augusta, said spokeswoman Jen Webber.

Bumps, the regional political director for the Republican National Committee, said several hundred different volunteers participate each week in a variety of activities.

More than 5,000 Republicans turned out for the party's caucuses in February.

One volunteer, Rich O'Leary of Falmouth, was calling voters last week from the Portland office, where he has put in time six nights a week since the Republican state convention in early May.

He said he strongly supports McCain and is concerned about the direction of the country.

''It's that important to me that I help in any way I can,'' said O'Leary, 57.

Steve Abbott, campaign manager for Collins, said the volunteer work of phone calls, leafletting and canvassing is designed to reinforce the messages conveyed in political ads.

''For a candidate to be successful statewide, you need to have a successful statewide organization,'' he said.

Abbott, who has worked for Collins since 1994, said grass-roots campaigning is especially important in Maine, where voters want the people who represent them to be approachable.

''It's personal,'' he said. ''I think people appreciate the personal connection between the candidate and the voters.''

Political Correspondent Dieter Bradbury can be reached at 791-6329 or at:

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Additional Photos

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Gordon Chibroski

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Gordon Chibroski

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Gordon Chibroski

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