The 67-year-old who walked the quiet residential neighborhood Aug. 28 has canvassed for Democratic candidates since 2004, and was busy this week on behalf of the Democratic Club of Greater Tracy. Before walking up to the home, he guessed what he was likely to find.
“Finding people at home is always good, and that can be a little tough around Tracy,” he said.
There was no immediate answer. Even when the door eventually opened, it wasn’t the person Dickinson hoped to inform about a pair of candidates his club supports.
“Also very common — he wasn’t the person we wanted to talk to,” he said.
But the Tracy resident was undeterred, and turned to the next house on his clipboard-bound list. He continued to knock, door after door, until his roll was finished — because he knew his humble work could sway an election.
Dickinson is not alone in Tracy. Hundreds of volunteers for Republican and Democratic causes and candidates are making phone calls and knocking on doors as the Nov. 6 general election draws near.
According to University of the Pacific political science professor Keith Smith, who teaches U.S. government and politics and is closely following 2012 campaigns, local groups and volunteers have good reason to be persistent.
Grassroots campaigning, Smith said, is more important than ever.
“There’s only so much that mass advertising can get you, and the real mobilization effects are in the ground game,” he said Tuesday.
He said both liberal and conservative campaigns have learned from past elections that smaller, local organizations can have an outsized impact, even in national contests.
“I think the lesson from 2004 in the (President George W.) Bush-(Sen. John) Kerry race was you have to have really strong ground operations, so you can do the kinds of things to mobilize your voters,” Smith said.
He said people respond well to personal appeals — especially the kind Dickinson was trying to pitch.
“The effect of someone coming and knocking on your door and asking you to vote is significant,” he said. “Phone banking doesn’t work quite as well.”
Campaigns with more resources, he continued, use sophisticated data gathering techniques to identify voters who can be targeted for mailed literature, phone calls and in-person visits. Smith said those campaigns, in addition to the Republican and Democratic national campaign committees, often pass along their information to local volunteers, who supply the time and effort.
“The parties do (data gathering) and make it available to some campaigns, but there are lots of external groups that develop the databases and then sell them to the campaigns,” Smith said. “Depending on the money you have, (it can determine) who can buy the better database.”
Both Republican and Democratic grassroots outfits in Tracy are part of that sophisticated ground-game machine in 2012.
Republicans hit ground running
Alma Morley is the president of the Tracy Republican Women and co-founder of the Tracy Tea Party Patriots, local conservative groups whose members have flung themselves into the 2012 election spirit.
Morley became involved in grassroots efforts during the unsuccessful 2010 congressional campaign of Republican David Harmer, but she and the 50 or so core members of the Tracy Republican Women are as dedicated as ever.
She plans to host a Tracy Republican Women phone bank at her house Wednesday, Sept. 5, to help Rep. Jeff Denham, who hopes to represent Tracy south of Interstate 205 and Stanislaus County in the 10th Congressional District. He’s running against Democratic candidate Jose Hernandez, a San Joaquin County native.
Denham’s campaign, Morley confirmed, has helped her group by providing lists of prospective voters her members can call and supplying the phones they will use.
“Our main goal is to help candidates, as well as to educate people about Republican values,” she said.
By club estimates, 20 or 30 people regularly walk precincts hoping to promulgate what Morley considers to be conservative causes: traditional marriage, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, limited government and fiscal responsibility.
She said getting out and talking to people carries special impact.
“For the most part, we’re getting very positive response, not only from Republicans, but independent, decline to state, even Democrats,” she said. “The grassroots efforts are always better than just paid (advertising), because most of the people that do this believe it. That’s the huge difference between grassroots and paid staffers.”
Morley and Tracy Republican Women membership secretary Monica Diaz both said their membership is highly motivated — not only by the presidential campaign pitting President Barack Obama against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but also by campaigns up and down the ballot.
In addition to backing Denham, the local Republican groups are boosting Ricky Gill in his 9th Congressional District campaign against Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney, a contest that will decide who represents Mountain House and Tracy north of Interstate 205; and Assemblyman Bill Berryhill in his race for the 5th State Senate District against Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani. The group is also supporting Tracy City Councilman Bob Elliott in his quest for the county’s 5th Supervisor District against Tracy Planning Commissioner Rhodesia Ransom, though that race is technically nonpartisan.
“Now we’re hot and heavy, we’re in there helping everybody we can,” Morley said.
Democrats on the campaign trail
Like its local Republican counterparts, the Democratic Club of Greater Tracy and its 50 core members are busy boosting candidates from the level of supervisor all the way up to Congress.
And they’re also receiving help from other local campaigns, according to Mitch Oster, who works for the California Democratic Party in San Joaquin County.
Dickinson’s Tuesday canvass was aided by information submitted by Hernandez, a former astronaut who looks to unseat Denham, a farmer and first-term congressman.
While Dickinson prepared to hit the streets, Oster was busy training about 20 volunteers who were set to make phone calls in support of Ransom and Hernandez.
“There’s only 70 days until the election, including Election Day,” Oster said Tuesday, stressing the importance of convincing voters and enlisting volunteers before he handed out scripts for phone calls.
Only Dickinson and Laura Desousa volunteered that day to pound the pavement. Usually, Oster said, there are more people who want to go door to door and rally support for Democratic causes and candidates.
“The reality is, person-to-person contact is more intimate,” Oster said.
He and Democratic Club President Linda Jimenez said the group also put emphasis on registering new voters, especially within the city’s Sikh community.
“That community really hasn’t had a voice, and we are registering new voters and individuals who have just become citizens and want to vote,” Jimenez said.
“It’s one of the joys of the political process,” Oster said of registering someone for the first time. “I don’t even know if (they’re registering as) a Democrat or not.”
Whether by educating people about a candidate, by registering new voters or by informing voters about the new district lines adopted in 2011 by a citizens committee, Jimenez said her organization has been dedicated to reaching out at a person-to-person level.
“We’re phone banking every day,” Jimenez said. “Canvassing really didn’t stop (since the primary election season.)”
Motivated to man battle lines
The social aspect is one reason many participate in grassroots outfits.
Frank Aquila helped found the South San Joaquin Republicans in 2005 and said the group is a clearinghouse for Republicans in the south part of the county to mingle, exchange ideas and meet candidates. But the intangible benefits of the organization he described are true for any party affiliation.
“It goes beyond just getting people elected. You establish friendships, and then you can speak for a cause,” Aquila said. “People feel like they make a difference. You still can make a difference on a local level.”
But political motivations are also a prime factor.
Individuals identifying with both the Republican and the Democratic grassroots groups said the presidential election added extra energy to their organizations and increased the number of people volunteering.
“When we’re in a presidential election, a lot of people want to come out and help,” Jimenez said.
She said the Democratic Club of Greater Tracy has seen a significant bump in volunteerism in 2012, a trend Morley also sees with local Republican groups.
Many are motivated by a perceived battle of values.
Aquila sees this year’s election as a struggle for the future, and he sees San Joaquin County as a gate between what he described as a more liberal Bay Area and a more conservative Central Valley.
“Where the battle lines are drawn, is right here in San Joaquin County,” he said.
According to the San Joaquin County registrar of voters website, the county’s voter split is virtually a dead heat between the two main parties.
Forty percent of registered voters identify as Republican, 41 percent identify as Democratic, 3 percent choose a third party, and 15 percent choose no party affiliation whatsoever.
The 10th Congressional District is a similar statistical tie, as 40 percent say they are Democrats and 39 percent say they are Republicans, according to the California secretary of state website.
The 9th Congressional District, which includes most of San Joaquin County and some of the East Bay, trends more heavily Democratic, 43 percent to 37 percent.
Aquila said he and other GOP-aligned groups in the area are trying to limit a government — especially on the state level — that has overstepped its constitutional bounds and dug the citizenry too deeply into debt.
“People don’t realize as (the government) keeps pandering to more and more people, … well, soon, the government is going to be in full control of the people, and that’s not what the base of the Constitution is about,” he said.
Diaz of the Tracy Republican Women added it’s also about the specific candidates and the values they represent.
“This is our opinion … we need to replace Jerry McNerney,” she said. “He doesn’t really represent San Joaquin County — he kind of represents over the hill. He really doesn’t understand agriculture. … You need to have people understand this community.”
Democrats are also motivated by what they see as the best interest for local communities and the country. According to Jimenez, many seniors have volunteered since Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was named Romney’s vice presidential running mate.
They’re concerned, Jimenez said, that a Romney-Ryan administration would privatize Social Security and eventually turn Medicare into a voucher system, the latter of which is a plan Ryan advocated in a recent budget proposal.
“I’ve had a number of seniors volunteer, saying, ‘This is my issue,’” she said.
Jimenez also said volunteers expressed concern that reforms to health insurance and health care championed by Obama would be overturned by a Republican-held White House.
Oster said he’s encouraged by the slate of local candidates running on the Democratic ticket this year and said they all have a shot to win their respective races.
“I think we’re competitive,” Oster said. “We know we have good candidates, and they’re going to appeal to a broad spectrum of the people.”
The challenge for both sides is familiarizing people with those various candidates — a challenge that makes grassroots campaigning “extremely important,” in the words of Jiminez.
“It gives you the opportunity to introduce a candidate they’re not aware of,” Jimenez said.
Smith said both parties would do well to strengthen their local outreach as Election Day draws nearer, because elections can be won or lost based on which campaigns can get more of the less politically motivated voters to cast a ballot.
“If you’re not a strong partisan, the civic duty arguments don’t really work that well,” Smith said. “What works is someone coming and telling you that, ‘Hey, it’s important to me that you vote.’ That social aspect.”