Knock, knock, to win a vote

More candidates are seeing the value of going door to door to get a campaign edge.

Published October 15, 2006

Wearing white leather Keds, Pinellas County School Board candidate Jennifer Crockett steps to the front of the yellow house and knocks on the door.

A man’s gruff voice  bellows from inside.

“No thanks.’’  

“Just leaving some information,’’ Crockett replies as she wraps a flier on the door knob and strides to the next house and the next opportunity to spread her message, grass roots style.

It’s another day, another door on the campaign trail.

Even in this age of 15-second TV ads and Internet organizing, the shoe leather style of campaigning, door to door, one family at a time, retains its strong appeal.

Political observers say old-fashioned canvassing has made a comeback since the 2004 presidential campaign and the massive anti-Bush effort, America Coming Together.

The popularity of door-to-door campaigning is fueled partly by studies showing voters tuning out mass mailings, negative TV ads and automated phone messages.

People prefer the personal, said Yale University professor Alan Gerber, director of the Center for the Study of American Politics.

“If you manage to get somebody, it has a huge effect,’’ Gerber said. Candidates “do it because it works.’’
As the Nov. 7 general election in Florida nears, dozens of candidates can be seen hoofing it door to door in the evenings and on Saturdays.

They realize it’s easier (but more costly) to reach more people with mailers and advertising.

Yet candidates say they like the face time with voters, even if some refuse to come to the door.

“There’s nothing more effective in a campaign than going out and meeting the voter, talking to the voter,’’ said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Many people point to Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman, a Republican seeking re-election, as the door-to-door king. Whether it’s campaign time or not, Norman, who has been in office 14 years, makes it a weekly practice.

“It’s my thing,’’ Norman said. “I see it as a service. I’m able to get down to their streets and I hear their problems.’’

Reaching right people

While door-to-door campaigning is older than television, radio and the Internet, it has evolved with technology.
Candidates use computerized databases to help them determine which houses to target. Most will bypass homes where no registered voters live. They can pick houses by party and voting history.

Last week, Crockett, the School Board candidate from St. Petersburg, knocked on the doors of 37 houses.
Although she talked to people at only 11 of the homes in an hour’s time — a ratio of 3 for every 10 houses — the political novice was encouraged.

“A vote is a vote,’’ said Crockett, who is running against incumbent Mary Brown.

During the September primary, state Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, battled the state’s politically powerful, including Gov. Jeb Bush, after he angered some party leaders with his moderate views.

He said door-to-door campaigning was pivotal in the expensive and bitter primary race that he won by 429 votes. He faces an independent Nov. 7.

“They spent $8-million. I spent one and I won,’’ Villalobos said. “All the ads they bought didn’t work.’’

Door-to-door campaigning is more common in local races, where the districts are smaller, but some candidates for statewide office also use it to sway voters.

Former Florida governor Lawton Chiles picked up the nickname “Walkin’ Lawton’’ after he tread across the state while running for U.S. Senate.

“It’s the foundation of almost any local race,’’ said Luis Navarro, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “It becomes more of an accessory the higher up the scale you go.’’

Anti-knocking policy

At least one local candidate has turned his back on the technique.

C. Burt Linthicum, a certified public accountant from Carrollwood, is challenging Republican Victor Crist for state Senate District 12 as a member of the Constitution Party of Florida. He prefers road rallies to door-to-door campaigning.

By his calculations, he could only reach one person every five minutes, or about 120 people in 10 hours. It would be difficult to reach the 275,000 registered voters in his district.

“What I’m playing is your basic numbers game,’’ he said. “I don’t see the return on the investment.’’

Robert Jester, a retired Inverness truck driver, pulled out of the Citrus County Commission race earlier this year because of the “weirdos and nuts’’ he ran into going door-to-door gathering signatures.

“I just got thoroughly disgusted,’’ Jester said. “People would chase you down the street because you didn’t like George Bush.’’

But for every Robert Jester there is a Janice Caldwell.

The 67-year-old Tampa woman was delighted last week when Democratic state Senate candidate Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg stopped by her house on Tyson Avenue.

She said it was the first time she had personally seen a candidate on her front lawn in 20 years.

“I just thought it was really great that he took the time to do that,’’ she said later. “My mailbox is full of all kinds of paper. It’s different when somebody hands it to you.’’

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.