PEABODY, Mass.—What becomes evident very quickly is that most people are not home. It is midday Saturday, and Derek J. Bekebrede ’13 and Samuel L. Coffin ’14 only get to talk to a handful of voters, a select few from the 42 suburban homes they approached along the tree-lined cul-de-sacs here. They ask a few survey questions; they smile when they meet supporters, but, mostly, they tuck campaign literature in between storm doors and walk away.
“Richard Tisei: Honest, Independent-Minded Solutions,” reads one of the fliers.
“Do no harm,” Bekebrede says, by way of explaining the chief rule of canvassing. “You don’t want to disrupt someone’s day because that reflects on the candidate.”
On this quiet mid-October afternoon, about a dozen Harvard and Boston University Republicans are canvassing for U.S. Senator Scott Brown and 6th District Congressional candidate Richard R. Tisei—both moderate Republicans. Their chief task for the day is to find out how independent voters in this swing district are leaning.
Fall canvassing trips like this one are a biennial rite of passage for Harvard College’s politically involved. Blurry-eyed and hopeful young Republicans meet at buses early in the morning and drive somewhere else—away from the securely Democratic Cambridge, to New Hampshire or, as on this recent Saturday, suburban Massachusetts to play foot soldiers in the state’s biggest political ground games.
The day begins with a rush of energy. Stuffed into a large van, the student volunteers jump in their conversation from campaigns, to college Republican happenings, to Republican Club alumni and mutual friends. For new canvassers, expectations run high. For veterans, there is time to trade canvassing notes.
“When you spend as much time as we do working on campus with the Republicans, it’s worth fighting for the candidates you believe in, who share your values,” Bekebrede, the Harvard Republican Club president, later says.
The whole day unfolds mostly uneventfully, from pick-up to canvassing to phone surveying—a testament to modern campaigning. Each house and each voter is targeted: With only a month until election day, time is running out.
Brown officials estimate there are 78,000 registered independent voters in the district. For Brown to win Mass., he will have to out-poll his opponent, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, here.
Tisei will have to win outright, and the hope is that each of the canvassers can help push him and Brown over the edge.
Statistics are hazy and each campaign has its own wisdom, but Bekebrede and Coffin say hand-to-hand campaigning works.
“You’re making a personal connection with people,” Bekebrede says, adding, “It’s definitely worth the effort. Door-to-door is important because I think people like to feel that the campaigns feel that their vote matters.”
To this end, Bekebrede and Coffin are careful. They keep a respectful distance from doorways, and they do not bother homeowners they see at work in the back yard. When they do meet a voter, they are polite and direct. No deviating from the script.
Canvassing can be frustrating, and it takes huge logistical organization. In the course of one afternoon, the volunteers reach 1700 or so independent voters targeted specifically by Massachusetts Republicans. By the day’s end, they have knocked on 657 doors and made 1189 phone calls.
Back at Tisei headquarters, Andrew B. Pardue ’16, Andrew Sun ’16, and Devi R. Nair ’16 take a break from phone banking.