Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Retail Politics

When I worked as a volunteer at my local Democratic headquarters in 2004, one of my jobs was rounding up new volunteers, mostly from a list that people had signed during registration or while calling in to get information. I spent most of my time leaving messages but occassionally, I would get through to someone and after talking a minute or so they were willing to volunteer. But I started catching myself when I called people who said no; instead of immediately moving on to the next name on the list, I realized they were just as important in some ways. Usually someone who said no discovered their schedule was tighter than they thought it was going to be or maybe they had just changed their minds. But several just wanted to talk for a minute or so and I let them and they had some strong things to say about Washington. And then I started realizing that they really appreciated that someone was listening, even if I was only a volunteer.

William Rivers Pitt has a post over at Truthout about Rudy Perkins of New Hampshire Swing the Vote that talks about this very thing but by way of door to door:
Perkins, along with Swing the Vote steering committee members Bonnie and Leah, cobbled together a group of volunteers as the 2004 election season began to loom. They mapped out Cheshire County and parceled out areas for volunteers to work. The volunteers went out in pairs, clipboards in hand, and knocked on as many Cheshire County doors as they could manage.

This was not, however, your standard canvassing project. First of all, the volunteers were sternly instructed not to stand there and proselytize to the people they spoke to. They had a series of questions to ask, beginning with "Are you registered to vote?" before moving on to "Do you vote?" and concluding with "What issues are of most concern to you?" The basic idea was to get people talking.

"It was pretty amazing," recalls Perkins. "At first, the person who answered the door would be incredulous, like they were dealing with a salesman. But the questions we asked drew them out, and allowed them to express their opinions without interruption. These days, with the television news convincing people that what they are being told is what they already believe, there isn't a lot of political conversation happening. I got the sense that, for a lot of the people I spoke to, this was the first time they were asked what their opinions were in a long time. For some of them, I really think it was the first time."
If you ask a political consultant about this kind of retail politics, they'll sometimes claim that they already do it. But it frequently turns out not to be the case. Or they'll think they do it but their staff is so focused on raising money or counting bodies that it simply doesn't happen. It needs to happen. We have a president who repeatedly demonstrates that he's unable to listen to the concerns of average Americans. Democrats can win, but they need to demonstrate they can listen. Many are learning to do so. But people like Perkins show that these things need to be organized and they need to be running months before the election.


Anonymous Mike said...

Every local headquarters of the Democratic party should be getting a copy of Mr. Pitt's article.

I don't mind donating to Democrats but I don't much care for the packages their consultants send. I've seen Republican mailers and they're even worse.

9:46 PM  

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