They also serve who stand and wave

Campaign volunteers do grass-roots tasks

March 04, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

For years, every time an election has rolled around, Bob Waldman has driven by the intersection of Greenspring Avenue and Northern Parkway not far from his Northwest Baltimore home and wondered what sort of people would stand in that little island of grass waving signs for their favorite politicians.

Now he knows: people like him.

"I even know what it's called: a visibility," says Waldman, 53, who plans to be visible at that corner Monday, the day before Maryland's primary, waving a sign for Al Gore, who is competing with Bill Bradley for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Waldman and his wife, Leslie, have always paid attention to politics, but this year they have turned that interest into activism, joining the hundreds of volunteers in each presidential candidate's campaign who provide the ground troops for their quadrennial assaults on the electorate.

Some might spend a few hours one weekend helping a candidate. For others it becomes close to a full-time job. They staple signs, they direct traffic, they go door-to-door handing out literature, they make runs for coffee and doughnuts, and, most of all, they make phone calls. Phone call after phone call after phone call.

The essence of grass-roots organizing is getting lists of registered voters, calling them to determine whom each is voting for, then calling the ones voting for your candidate just before the election to remind them to go to the polls.

There are variations. John McCain's Maryland campaign for the Republican nomination is calling registered independents to tell them that they may vote in the Republican primary. The McCain organization lets volunteers download lists of independents from its Web site and call from their homes.

Most campaigns gather volunteers at phone banks and spend evenings going through the phone lists, often targeting counties or areas thought to be favorable to their candidate.

A daughter's influence

The Waldmans were led into this arena by their daughter Jennifer, whose interest in politics began when she was a student at Tufts University and joined the Gore campaign as a paid staffer. When her parents went to New Hampshire to visit her in December, they got hooked.

For Leslie Waldman, this was rekindling an old flame. She was involved in establishing Common Cause in Maryland in the 1970s, but family and career -- she works at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions -- took her on a different path.

"I found myself right back into it," she says.

For Bob Waldman, an estate attorney, this was a first.

"I wish everyone in Maryland could experience what goes on in New Hampshire before that primary," he says. "I learned an awful lot about the process and saw how lucky the people of New Hampshire really are."

All of New Hampshire is turned into a big political convention, the Waldmans say. Anyone in the state who wants to see and hear a candidate gets that opportunity, usually up close and in person.

"Here, too often all we get are the 30-second spots," he says.

The Waldmans visited New Hampshire three times, taking time off work for the primary there Feb. 1. They have been taking half days here and there to work in Maryland and plan to take more vacation time for Election Day.

Savoring little victories

They talk of their time in New Hampshire like high-schoolers recounting those little victories that meant so much at the time. Such as when they joined a group of cheering, sign-waving Gore supporters, helping to make the crowd so big and noisy that Republican George W. Bush decided not to make a scheduled campaign stop there. Or the night Bob was directing traffic at a Gore appearance and found himself being interviewed by French television.

"New Hampshire is the place to get hooked," says Kevin Hula, a political science professor at Loyola College. "I was a graduate student in the Boston area, and you had busloads of students going up every weekend. It's small enough that the volunteers actually get to meet the candidates. Once you get into primary season, you just can't do that in larger states."

Volunteers' importance wanes as primary season wears on.

"Once you get out of Iowa and New Hampshire, the presidential campaigns are driven by the national media," says Carol Arscott, a pollster who has worked in numerous Republican campaigns.

"Grass-roots organizations get less and less important the further away you get from those two contests," she says. "In a very close election, grass-roots organizing might give you two, three or four [percentage] points, but not any more."

Experts agree that this kind of phone call-based organizing makes the most difference in local elections lacking publicity in the news media. Still, Arscott said, when she was working for campaigns she always looked forward to presidential years because it brought out a lot of volunteers.

"It was a great way to bring in new blood," she says. "You hope they get bitten by the bug and stay around."

The volunteers are useful in presidential years. "You do need volunteers to keep offices open, to get yard signs out, because you don't get a whole lot of money spent in Maryland," Arscott says. "Presidential candidates come here to raise money, not spend it."

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