Dougie O Subway 2

Obama’s coattails, subway handshakes, 1,000 calls a night: How candidates try to get voters to care

Updated: Wednesday, April 15, 4:20 p.m.

Almost every morning and evening, mayoral candidate Doug Oliver canvasses a SEPTA station with Mustafa Rashed, his campaign spokesman. They carry pre-stamped voter registration forms and introduce themselves to anyone willing to listen.

“Ed Rendell told us to go on the subways,” Rashed says. “He said that’s what he did when he ran for mayor as the underdog.”

They want to get people thinking about Oliver. Their goal has been 850 people a day for the 100 days before the election (for a total of 85,000), and Rashed says they have been keeping pace.

Though “Get out the vote” strategies can turn an election in the last five days of a race, candidates must first build a foundation. Their staffs repeat messages over and over wherever people are: Mass transit stations, front doors, at events and forums or on the phone. On weeknights, volunteers can make up to 1,000 phone calls on a mayoral candidate’s behalf. They can knock on 1,000 doors on the weekend. They’ll try to reach the same people multiple times in hopes that they will actually remember to mail the voter registration form — or, better yet, convince someone the candidate can do something for them.

“If you’re not excited to vote,” says Barry Caro, communications director for Nelson Diaz, “you’re not going to vote.”

Thanks to Barack Obama, the registration part has been easier than ever. In fact, it’s almost unnecessary. During the year before the 2008 general election, about 90,000 people registered as Democrats in Philadelphia. About 30,000 registered in the year before the 2012 general election.

Though the number of registered Democrats has gone down from a high of 841,126 in 2008 — as of Monday there were 778,014 registered Democrats — the total is still about 5 percent higher than it was in the 2007 mayoral primary.

Steve Preston, the field director for Jim Kenney’s campaign, and several other staffers worked for Obama in 2012. He says Kenney’s staff has been focusing on the people who voted for Obama and trying to convince them to vote in this municipal election. In 2012, about 58 percent of registered voters voted in the general election.

To get their attention, Kenney’s team has been drilling prospective voters with phone calls and house visits. Information on when people vote is public, so Kenney’s staffers and volunteers started by calling the inconsistent voters. They’ll often continue calling, or visit those people in person.

“They learned in the Obama campaign it takes eight or nine contacts to make someone who might not vote want to vote,” Preston says, adding that municipal elections require even more repetition. “So you have to make sure you contact them as many as times as possible.”

Caro says Diaz’s staff and volunteers are trained to recognize “magic words” from the people they visit or talk to on the phone. He declined to say what those words are but says they help campaigns better realize when they’ve made an actual connection with someone.

Barbara Grant, the campaign spokeswoman for Anthony Williams, says they want people to ask questions, or even disagree with Williams’ message. That’s how they know they’re really reaching voters.

“People try to get really scientific about it,” Grant says. “But I don’t think there’s any substitute for somebody responding or letting you know if they agreed or disagreed.”

Home visits, phone calls and mailings are staples for every campaign. But not all forms of exposure are equal. Caro says Diaz’s campaign has had success setting up tables at churches. Grant says Williams and staffers have been doing “action days,” where the campaign visits the main hubs of different neighborhoods and throws events.

“We’re a city of neighborhoods,” Grant says. “You want to know your neighbor, and you want to know the mayor.”

Rashed says the SEPTA station introductions have been most effective, and networking events have been surprisingly ineffective.

“It’s a good idea to say, ‘Let’s have some beers and a party kind of thing for young people to come,’” Rashed says. “But after the first couple (minutes) people don’t like to get registered to vote. You have to go early and talk to them and leave because after a certain time the music is too loud and people are feeling too good.”

Caro says Diaz spends his weekends visiting the houses of prospective voters, but volunteers or staffers do most of the outreach. It’s the same with Kenney. Preston says they’ve found using volunteers to be more effective.

That hasn’t been the case with Oliver’s campaign. Rashed says the subway introductions haven’t worked with volunteers. To convince voters to actually pay attention, Oliver is going with the personal touch.

“People are always handing you something or trying to sell you something,” Rashed says. “It’s very different when the candidate himself is doing it.”

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