Hi, I'm Kevin Cowherd. Can I count on your support today?

Maryland Votes 2006 -- A Special Section

November 08, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD

It was 10 in the morning outside the elementary school in northern Baltimore County where I vote, and the usual gaggle of smiling volunteers was working the sidewalk, thrusting campaign literature into the hands of people coming in and encouraging them to vote for their candidate.

This is a weird phenomenon you see only on Election Day.

But it makes you wonder: What if this sort of thing happened in other walks of life?

What if every time you went to the supermarket, there were people at the entrance thrusting fliers into your hands and murmuring, "StarKist Chunk Light Tuna, appreciate your support" or "Thomas' Original English Muffins - can we count on you picking up a package?"

What if each time you visited a car dealership, there were people in Toyota and Ford T-shirts waving brochures in your face and saying, "Check out the all-new 2007 Camry. This message brought to you by Friends of Toyota" or "Ranger: Built Ford Tough. Hope to see you in the showroom!"

Anyway, by the time I walked the gantlet of volunteers yesterday, I had pamphlets for Ehrlich-Cox; Pat Foerster for state Senate; Steve Bailey for state's attorney; and the campaign to "Re-Elect Your 7th District team" of Andy Harris for state Senate and Rick Impallaria, J.B. Jennings and Pat McDonough for House of Delegates.

Personally, I never thought these last-minute appeals to voters did any good.

Whose mind was going to be changed by a piece of paper and a plea from a jittery stranger wired from four 7-Eleven coffees?

Then I spoke on the phone yesterday with Philip Dalton, an assistant professor of communications at Stetson University in Florida and an expert on voters who decide at the last minute.

"There's something in the social sciences called the `primacy-recency effect,'" he began.

I know, I know ... I was ready to doze off at this point, too.

But then it got better.

"It says the mind will tend to favor what it was introduced to first and last," Dalton continued. "If you give me a list with eight names, I'll remember the first one and the last one.

"It stands to reason, then, that a voter who has no allegiance to any candidate might have the candidate's name that he's introduced to most recently with campaign literature ... be the one that stands out" as he casts his ballot.

Dalton stressed he had no hard evidence for this - you'd have to stalk the undecided voter from the time he accepted the campaign literature to when he entered the voting booth.

Then you'd have to debrief him more rigorously than if he'd been held hostage for two months in Baghdad to see whether the literature and last-minute plea affected his vote.

But some of the volunteers who stand outside polling places and do this sort of work think they occasionally sway voters.

After I voted and went back outside, I talked to Beth Gregory, who was handing out literature for the Republican ticket of Ehrlich-Cox. Gregory lives in Southern Pines, N.C., although she grew up in northern Baltimore County. Her brother, J.P. Scholtes, is Ehrlich's deputy chief counsel.

This partly explained her willingness to drive six hours, navigate the Ring of Hell that is the Capital Beltway and stand in front of a school handing out fliers to voters who either hurried past her with their heads down, grudgingly accepted the flier or looked at her as if she were handing out hospital waste.

"Ninety percent or more of voters already know who they're going to vote for," she said with a smile. "But the other 10 percent or so - that's where we come in."

Thirty feet away from her stood Pat Foerster, who taught for 30 years in Baltimore County public schools and is running for state Senate.

Foerster, a Democrat standing not far from her Republican opponent, Andy Harris, was handing out her own literature and greeting voters with a friendly "Hi, Pat Foerster. ... I'd appreciate your support."

She said she thought handing out fliers to voters on their way into the polls is "effective, to a degree." Still, she, too, got the cold shoulder from some passers-by.

But when a man stopped, looked at her pamphlet for a moment and said, "You got my vote," she beamed.

Given that she was in a Republican stronghold, she said, "It really makes every vote you get all the more valuable."

At this point, I was tempted to get into the whole "primacy-recency effect" with her.

But it was Election Day, and she didn't have time for all that.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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