Front-Porch Campaign 

In a bellwether city in a battleground state, the Democrats are walking the walk

Thursday, Aug 19 2004
Photo courtesy Kerry-Edwards
2004, Inc./Sharon Farmer

CANTON, Ohio — When Alice Carrington shuffles onto her front porch to answer Dave Leasure’s question — does she prefer Kerry, Bush, Nader or somebody else for president? — she’s cautious at first. “Nobody does us much good,” she mumbles. But as she warms to Leasure’s friendly manner and homeboy bona fides (he’s been a lifelong resident of Canton, except for his time, he notes, in Vietnam), she also warms to the topic of George W. Bush.

“I wouldn’t vote for Bush if you put a pistol to my head,” Carrington cackles. “I’m 88 years old, and he stole me blind over Social Security. This Kerry deserves a chance.”

Leasure, who’s the lead canvasser in Canton for America Coming Together, the largest of the “527s” waging independent campaigns for the Democrats this year, is holding a Palm Pilot that can display five 20-second minifilms on such issues as job loss and the cost of the Iraqi occupation, all customized to Ohio. The Palm Pilot films can be icebreakers on the front porch; already this afternoon there have been two truculent-looking guys who seemed about to slam the door, when Leasure showed them the film on job loss, after which they chatted with Leasure for several minutes about Bush and the collapse of the local economy.

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And Alice Carrington initially seems like someone Leasure will need help breaking through to — he’s white, she’s black, and she’s spent her life in working-class Canton, where door-to-door political solicitations have been few and far between. But they connect, and after a few minutes, she invites Leasure into her living room, where he arranges absentee ballots for both her 90-year-old sister, who’s not up to coming to the door anymore, and herself. It’s warm and dark in the room — electricity costs money, after all — but Carrington lights it up with her zeal. “After Florida, nobody could trust Bush, even me,” she says. “I’d like to do what I can” to defeat him.

As sentiments go, that’s some distance from “Nobody does us much good.”

“There’s this ambivalence out there,” says Jeff Rechenbach, who heads up the Communications Workers of America’s industrial Midwest region from his Cleveland headquarters, “this rust-belt mentality: Nobody will really be able to help us. It plays into Bush’s hands. People are upset and say it doesn’t make a difference. But when they’re shoved, they fall our way.”

Between now and November 2, Ohio will be the shoving capital of the Western world, the Gettysburg of the battleground states. A state that George W. Bush carried in 2000 by a scant 3.5 percent of the vote, despite the fact that the cosmically inept Gore campaign gave up on the state in early October, a state that has seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, chiefly good-paying manufacturing jobs, since Bush took office, Ohio is today home to a campaign whose scale and intensity are without parallel in modern American electoral history. The airwaves sag under the weight of the political commercials, but the air war pales alongside the field campaigns that the two sides are waging. Republicans are politicizing the churches right up to, and likely beyond, the limits of the law in a search for enough evangelical voters to keep the state in Bush’s column. They are working furiously to qualify an initiative to outlaw gay marriage, emboldened by the success of such a measure in the Missouri primary two weeks ago, an initiative that brought right-wing voters to the polls in record numbers.

On the Democratic side, the state party has long been one of American politics’ bad jokes — barely able to field statewide candidates. But Ohio has always been the number-one target for America Coming Together, the de facto ground campaign for Democrats this year now that campaign-finance reform has made it impossible for the national and state parties to raise soft money. Funded by huge contributions from the Service Employees International Union (over 2,000 of whose members will work full time for ACT as of Labor Day), George Soros and numerous other wealthy liberals, ACT will spend a breathtaking $15 million on its field campaign in Ohio alone, says Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the national AFL-CIO who is now ACT’s national president.

To put that in some context, I doubt there’s ever been an election in California where the cost of the field campaign of one of the parties, plus those of its respective labor or business allies, came to more than $5 million. And California is three times as large as Ohio. (ACT is also planning to spend $12 million in Florida, and smaller amounts in the 15 other battleground states.)

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