How to keep it sportsmanlike in the game that is electoral politics 

Campaigns come calling

click to enlarge Ortega will be in blue this summer. - STEVEN ORTEGA
  • Steven Ortega
  • Ortega will be in blue this summer.

Between hellish caucus lines, unsavory dinnertime rants and cringeworthy newsfeeds, election season can start to feel like a bombardment of unpleasantries. And now that the presumptive nominees look more presumptive by the day, the average citizen can expect even more subjection to ads on TV, on the radio, online and by mail, as well as those inevitable door knocks, phone calls and email pleas.

A consortium of professors with the Wesleyan Media Project, using data from market analytics firm Kantar Media/CMAG, found that by mid-May the volume of campaign ads jumped by 122 percent compared to the same time in 2012.

Turning off electronics is a foolproof way to avoid that barrage, but in-the-flesh outreach may be unavoidable. The political parties are starting to deploy their get-out-the-vote strategies — which currently consist largely of voter registration but will soon morph into canvassing, phone-banking and online outreach. Democrats have boasted a sophisticated, relentless apparatus, especially since Barack Obama's first winning campaign, but Daniel Cole, executive director of the El Paso County GOP, says the Republicans' ground game will be more robust this time around.

For the county party, that means a laser-like focus on local races. "Most people already have opinions about Trump and Clinton," Cole says. "So they don't need to hear much more from the local party, but we consider it our job to remind people that there's much more going on than the presidential election."

Though El Paso County reliably votes red, margins here influence statewide elections like the U.S. Senate race. And, of course, local house and senate races could tip delicately balanced scales in the state legislature.

Pikes Peak Dems chair Kathleen Ricker, says get-out-the-vote strategy will evolve as the campaigns do. "[Local candidates] will have to win on their own merits," she says, adding that it's hard to predict how the presidential race will influence down-ballot races.

What you can count on are calls and visits from someone trying to turn out your vote. Someone like Steven Ortega, a 20-year-old Springs native now studying political science at Colorado College. After working on Rep. Pete Lee's campaign in 2014, Ortega volunteered with progressive voter engagement group New Era Colorado and signed up this summer for the Democrats' coordinated campaign. Here's his take on the intricacies of get-out-the-vote etiquette.

Indy: You are, in a way, the direct point of contact between the party and voter. Are those experiences generally positive or sometimes irksome?

Ortega: You get a range. Some people are thrilled to talk and want to just dive in. But there's definitely a cultural norm that you shouldn't bother someone at their home — especially when it's persuasive in nature. Sometimes you'll see these signs out front that say something like "If you're knocking then you're in range,' and usually I'll just skip those because it's not really worth confronting whoever put that up.

The ones who are eager to engage sometimes are just looking for an excuse to debate, right? Do you indulge?

The absolute perfect canvasser would shut that down when they realize, 'Oh, they're going to vote this certain way.' But I don't always do that; I like to treat myself sometimes. If it's the end of the day and I'm talking to a committed right-winger who's set in his ways, I'll take a half-hour to go over all the issues with him. I guess maybe it's more for me than anything, but sometimes it really does make the difference.

Have you ever changed someone's mind?

One time kind of toward the end of Pete [Lee's] campaign this older gentleman came to the door and gave me this whole speech like, 'Oh, don't bother, I'm not going to vote, I never do.' I don't remember exactly how the conversation went but at the end he was like, 'OK, put me down, tell me how to vote,' so that was awesome. Maybe older people seeing a younger person come to their door to talk about the election fills them with this sense of hope or something. I don't know.

I know some campaigns have really tight messaging and strict talking points. Do you stick to that?

I try to, yeah. There are key issues in every campaign that I can talk about, but I also want to use my own words because when you sound like a robot people don't like that. I mean, also, sometimes people care about things you really wouldn't anticipate. I talked to this guy one time for like two hours about landline telephone regulations. That was like the crucial deciding issue for him.

I imagine much of it, too, is just the nuts-and-bolts — telling people where, when and how to cast their ballots. Do you find that's something voters really need?

Oh yeah, especially deadlines. That's what gets people. They think with mail-in ballots that they can just mail it in anytime up until the election but that's just not how it works. So you have to let people know they actually have to go drop it off in person. But some people really like to cast their ballot in person. You get that little "I voted!" sticker. People love that. ... I always vote as soon as my ballot shows up. It's like unwrapping one of your Christmas present early. It's like boom, you do it and it's done.

Plus, once you vote, people like you will stop pestering, right?

That's a part of it too, yeah. If you want us to leave you alone just tell us who you're going to vote for, then do it. But if you're like 'Oh, I don't know,' on the fence about it, then we're going to keep coming back and keep pestering you.

Sounds like a threat.

(Laughs) Sometimes tongue-in-cheek but for the most part, no, because it can go wrong and they'll just lie and say they voted when they haven't, and we don't want that.

What happens when someone says, 'All of the candidates suck, the two-party system is broken, I refuse to choose between the lesser of two evils.' I'd venture to guess there'll be a lot of that this year, given the kind of anti-establishment sentiment we're seeing.

If someone is really adamant, then you've got to cut your losses and just move on. But usually it's worth it to ask, 'Oh well, is there anything in particular that's stopping you from voting?' And then there are the traditional arguments you wanna run through, like by not voting you're not saying anything at all. Or, like as a young, college-educated woman who's traditionally opposed by, say, an older white man who's going to vote regardless of what you do, isn't it worth voting just to prevent that person from having two votes?

But maybe it'll be different this year with all these people who weren't really politically active getting involved with the parties now because of certain "outsider candidates." That means you may end up talking to people you may have not otherwise, right?

Usually it's about finding the people who already agree with you and making sure they vote, but this year's totally crazy. I guess I will end up talking to more people outside the norm for Democrats.

El Paso County is known for its hardcore conservatism. Obviously that's not true across the board, but as a canvasser on behalf of more liberal candidates, are you ever met with animosity?

No, it's really not as bad people would think. There have been some periods where tensions are real high, like during the recall of John Morse. People canvassing then had a terrible time, a lot of threats against their life, that kind of thing. In my experience, that hasn't been the case. But I don't know about this upcoming election.

Do you have any advice to Springs residents who are about to get canvassed a bunch over the coming months?

Well, a lot of canvassers are young, so their egos may be fragile if you just yell at them. By the time they get to your door they've been out there for hours and hours so just acknowledge that and let them down gently if you're going to let them down. Because there's a nice way to say no without slamming the door or being vitriolic. I think it's worth remembering that the person on the other side of it is a person. Maybe you don't agree with what they're about, but they're really just volunteering their time to get more participation in our democracy which I think is noble.


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