The Politics of Shoe Leather
By William Rivers Pitt
Monday 06 March 2006
All politics is local.
- Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.), Speaker of the House
If you met Rudy Perkins on the streets of Keene, NH, you would not immediately suspect that you were dealing with a shaper of momentous events. If you told him he was such a man, he'd laugh and shake his head. Perkins, with his silver-toned hair and neatly-trimmed moustache, has been a horticulturist and a lawyer in his time. He is self-possessed and soft-spoken, quick to smile and easy to talk to.
The thing is, Rudy Perkins played a significant role in one of the great stories of the 2004 election. The thing is, if you met Rudy Perkins in Keene, NH, he'd likely be shaking your hand from behind a folding table covered with political and campaign literature. Perkins has, for the last several years, been working as a dedicated political activist, and in his own small way, helped to turn the state of New Hampshire blue in 2004.
Rudy Perkins is one of the founding members of a group called New Hampshire Swing the Vote. Swing the Vote was founded in the run-up to the 2004 Presidential election. The goals of the group were neither grand nor epic in scope; their mission was not to stop the Iraq occupation or impeach George W. Bush. They weren't looking to get involved in the national push to get John Kerry elected president. Their goal was singular and narrow, small and attainable, and entirely local.
Swing the Vote sought to flip Cheshire County, in the southwest corner of New Hampshire, to the Democrats.
"There were nearly 30,000 eligible voters in Cheshire County who didn't vote during the 2000 election," says Perkins. "Bush won the state by a margin of 7,211 votes. Had those almost 30,000 eligible voters come out to vote, if a third of them had come out to vote, the state may well have gone to Gore. Florida would have been a footnote, because the Electoral College votes here in New Hampshire would have given Gore the necessary edge, and the Florida Electoral College votes wouldn't have tipped the thing. The Supreme Court would never have gotten involved."
Analyzing these numbers, the might-have-beens became unendurable to Perkins. He decided that the next election was going to be different. It worked like this: 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."
"It is a strange thing in America," says Perkins, "that, for some reason, talking about politics is improper or impolite or rude. But people really want to talk, they want to express what they believe. I had one guy talk my ear off for twenty minutes and then follow me down the driveway after I left so he could keep telling me what he believed. It was great."
Another aspect of their work that was different was the choice of who to canvass. There were many groups making similar efforts in New Hampshire at the time. Some spoke only to registered voters, some only to registered Democrats, some only to registered Republicans. Swing the Vote decided to talk to everyone, Democrat or Republican, registered or unregistered.
Each volunteer was given a specific goal: so many doors per day, per week, per month. They wore out the shoe leather in Troy, Alstead, Swanzey, Keene, Dublin, Jaffrey, getting people to talk about what concerned them in the upcoming election. If people weren't registered, they explained how to register. They let people know that New Hampshire allows same-day voter registration, and if they wanted to, they could go down to their polling place on election day, register right there, and vote.
It worked. On election day 2004, Cheshire County saw the largest voter turnout in recent memory. Some 6,000 unregistered voters came out, people who had not been targeted by any other group because they were not on any voter roll. They registered, and they voted. Cheshire County went blue, and for only the third time since 1948, New Hampshire was won by a Democratic presidential candidate.
"We certainly were not alone in this," says Perkins. "MoveOn, the Sierra Club, America Coming Together and a lot of other groups did great work here. But I do believe that Swing the Vote played an important role in what happened. Kerry lost the election, sure, but not in New Hampshire. We picked a goal, stuck to the mission, and won what we needed to win."
That was the trick, Perkins will tell anyone who cares to listen. One of the great difficulties on the Left is an all-encompassing sense that so much has gone wrong, and that so much needs immediate fixing. It can become unutterably daunting to try to take in the whole forest. Rudy Perkins and the Swing the Vote crew are well aware of everything that has gone sideways in the last several years, but they chose to let the forest be. They picked a tree instead, and bent all their efforts to it.
"It was all about mission," says Perkins. "We couldn't fix everything, but we could do something about Cheshire County. It required the discipline to stick to that one thing, to avoid drifting, to do it every single day. We needed to keep our volunteers on that same disciplined path - so many doors per day, a goal that can be accomplished. And it was hard. We got more than a few doors slammed in our faces. We walked miles and miles and miles."
They picked a critical area and dug in, a small piece of the larger puzzle where they could actually affect change. They did not stop the war in Iraq, end the Washington cronyism, bring accountability back to the White House, or derail the vexing budgetary priorities of this administration and this congress. But had the election gone the other way, Swing the Vote would have, in their own small way, done a great deal to move towards addressing all of these issues.
Swing the Vote is digging in again. The 2006 midterm elections are nine months away, but as far as Perkins is concerned, it is entirely the right time to begin the back and fill. All four of New Hampshire's Congressional representatives are Republicans, all four are stalwart supporters of the Bush administration, and two of them - Jeb Bradley in the 1st District and Charlie Bass in the 2nd District - are up for re-election in November. Rudy Perkins and the Swing the Vote crew are going to tackle Cheshire County again.
"It has been said many times about each of the last two elections," says Perkins, "that each was the most important election in our lifetime. But I do truly believe that these midterms in 2006 are the most important elections in my lifetime, perhaps the most important elections since 1864. This election could very well determine the fate and future of this country, of our rights, of everything. If the Democrats can take back Congress, or even take back one wing of Congress, everything that has been happening can be stopped."
For the record, there are fifteen Republican seats up for grabs in the House this November. Six Republican senators who are running again in November have approval ratings below 50%. Fifteen seats are needed for the Democrats to take back the House, and six seats are needed for the Democrats to take back the Senate. The anemic approval ratings for both Bush and the GOP majority in Congress suggest significant Democratic gains in November are not out of the question. At a minimum, solid gains would position the Democrats to regain control of Congress in 2008, and perhaps the White House as well.
"In every sense," says Perkins, "we are looking to emulate the victors. The GOP didn't come to control the entire government by accident. They picked their spots, small areas of critical importance, and worked them. They built what they have from the ground up, one brick at a time. It took a while and a lot of work, but you can see the results today. That's what we have to do, and that's what we are doing."
Big storms gather around small particles. The folks in Swing the Vote can tell you all about that.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.