In the months leading up to the 2018 Midterm Election, I volunteered on the campaign for Denny Wolff, a Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District.
Without factoring in for traveling time, I canvassed from around 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a Saturday in mid-October in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania, a small town in southern Schuylkill County, with a population of around 5,000.
According to Keith Pemrick, Wolff’s Campaign Manager, and one of the men I canvassed with that day, many of the areas that were chosen to campaign in were selected due to their demographics: most of these towns consisted of moderate Republicans or inactive Republicans who, while still registered to vote, had neglected to do so in previous elections.
A “Blue Dog” endorsed Democrat, Wolff was considered to be a more conservative Democrat, and on this basis, it was assumed that more open-minded Republican voters could be persuaded to support Wolff. Pemrick had made the point that, in order for Wolff to win the election, Wolff would need the support of around 3% of Republicans in the district, in addition to most of the Democrats and Independents.
Because of his status as a moderate Democrat, as opposed to Meuser’s presence as a more conservative Republican, the median voter theorem gave Wolff an advantage of reaching out to more middle of the road voters. However, given that Pennsylvania’s new 9th Congressional District is historically conservative, Wolff’s success in the campaign was seen as a long shot.
The town itself, or at least the voter list with which I was provided, was overwhelmingly Republican, with only a handful of the several hundred voters on my list having affiliation with the Democratic Party, or any third party. Despite this, Party Affiliation appeared to have no impact on whether or not someone would answer their door, or took the time to answer the questions I was provided.
Of the several hundred houses I visited, less than 10 people actually answered the full set of questions, with many others politely asking me to leave after finding out that I was working for a political campaign; many of the Republican voters who initially answered their doors would ask me about Wolff’s party affiliation, and would ask me to leave immediately after finding out he was a Democrat, which speaks to how powerful a factor Party ID is in determining how someone will vote.
A significant portion of the doors I knocked on fully refused to answer, or were not home. Many other participants would say they were planning on voting, but were unwilling to answer any other questions about voting preferences.
The questions I was provided with were pretty standard for a campaign, and sought to gain an understanding of how people in the district were planning on voting, while also providing a reminder as to when the election would be, gaining an idea of what priorities were important to voters and how to market Wolff to more conservative voters, and in turn mobilizing likely voters.
While we were instructed to ask each of the questions if the participants were willing, we were also told to customize the questions, and treat the experience like a casual conversation; the questions were:
- On a scale of 1-5, how likely are you to vote? Five meaning, “I have a plan and I will vote” and one meaning, “I do not plan on voting.”
- Which of the following will be most important to you when you vote in November?
- Education, Jobs and the Economy, Healthcare, Senior Assistance, Criminal Justice, or Other
- On a scale of one to five, how well do you think a candidate can represent his constituents after less than two months of being their neighbor?
- This question specifically applied to Dan Meuser, the Republican opponent to Wolff, who bought a house in the district, his third overall, after winning the Republican primary. While Meuser technically did not need to own property in the district to hold a congressional seat, this was likely a strategic move on Meuser’s part to appeal to voters in the district, and to avoid the “carpetbagger” label.
- Do you know who you’re going to support in November?
- Denny Wolff (Sure), Denny Wolff (Likely), Unsure/Other, Dan Meuser (Likely), Dan Meuser (Sure).
I was instructed to read off each question, beginning with how likely someone was to vote. If someone was deeply unlikely to vote, we were instructed to continue with the questions, modifying them if necessary, though it was unlikely that anyone would continue answering questions if they had no desire to vote. With each of the people who answered my full range of questions, all showed a strong likelihood of voting, despite not necessarily knowing whom they would vote for.
I found that party affiliation had a limited impact on how people answered each of the presented questions. Only two people, both Democrats, showed strong predilection for Wolff. Many of the Republicans I spoke with had no preference for a candidate, or actually supported Wolff, further supporting the idea that Wolff’s campaign could attract more conservative voters.
Regardless of party affiliation, the people of Schuylkill Haven seemed fairly unanimous in their responses as to issue priorities. Healthcare was probably the most popular issue, though the few democrats that responded felt that each of the issues were of equal importance. Given the importance of healthcare as a policy position, and the increasing support of healthcare from voters across party lines, it is not surprising that this is a more popular issue, and one of the focuses of Wolff’s campaign.
When asking about Meuser’s residency, we were required to read the following from the script we were provided:
“Denny’s opponent, Dan Meuser, just bought his third house, which is the first one that lies inside of the district, because he was sick of people calling him a carpetbagger.”
Despite becoming aware of Meuser’s status as a wealthy outsider, the people who responded, again regardless of party, felt that where someone lives does not determine their ability to represent a district.
This essentially means that, while Meuser is not from the district that he would eventually go on to represent, this factor does not dissuade voters from either party in supporting him. The purpose of this question was solely to demonstrate Meuser’s status as an outsider, and suggest to potential swing voters that Meuser could not possibly have the best interests of the district at heart, as he was not from this district; a distinct advantage Wolff possessed was his lifelong residency in the district.
Given that the race was largely ignored by many media outlets as a result of the almost guaranteed victory for Meuser, canvassing, or simply obtaining answers from voters in the district for Wolff’s campaign allowed for data collection and internal polling that would not have been possible through other means.
My phonebanking activities took place on the day before the election, in about a two-hour period. As the campaign was in its final moments by this point, the goal had shifted from attempting to learn more about the beliefs of voters in the district, to attempting to mobilize likely Wolff supporters.
In this instance, the voters on the list I was provided were Democratic voters from and around the Catawissa, PA area. As such, the questions that were asked on the phonebanking script were a more straightforward than those on the canvassing script, and were not designed for the purpose of gaining information about voters, as with the canvassing related questions. These questions were:
- On a scale of one to five, how likely are you to vote? Five meaning, “I have a plan and I will vote,” and one meaning “I do not plan on voting.”
- This was likely to get a last-minute idea of the final vote count, and have a projection of how voter turnout would look.
- Is there any assistance you’ll need either getting to the polls or either voting once you’re there?
- Ride to the polls, Language Assistance (if non-English Speaker), Disability, None.
- Would you like a phone number to call in case you have any issues voting on Election Day?
- We were instructed to provide the phone number of Wolff’s Field Director, Nathan Lund, as a hotline for any general questions or concerns voters may have. This was mainly to provide any additional information to voters, though neither of the people I spoke with requested the number.
As my phonebanking session occurred during the afternoon of the day before the election, I had assumed before starting that I would have few, if any, answers when making phone calls. Of the nearly hundred calls that were made, only two people picked up, both of whom were, according to the voter list I was provided, over 80 years old, and likely retired, meaning they were considerably more likely to be home at the time of the call, and if need be, would be more likely than their younger counterparts in receiving assistance on voting day.
Given that a lack of access to transportation, or an inability to physically get to the polls, is often cited as one of the main reasons why eligible voters fail to cast their vote, by providing rides to those who need them, Wolff’s campaign was actively making the voting process easier and guaranteeing more votes for Wolff from those who would otherwise be unable to vote.
In the event that someone did not pick up a call, those of us phonebanking were provided with a script to read off as a voicemail, which could be customized to sound more natural based on our dialect. The voicemail script was clearly designed to inform voters of the election:
“Hello, my name is [YOUR NAME] and I’m calling to make sure you have a plan to get out and vote for Denny Wolff for Congress on Tuesday, November 6. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thank you for your time!”
Ultimately, the polls leading up to the election were mostly accurate, as Wolff unfortunately lost the general election, with a vote share of roughly 60% to 40%. Although Wolff inevitably lost the election, I was thrilled to be a part of the campaign, even in my limited capacity; and for anyone who is interested in becoming involved with the process of electoral politics, I would strongly recommend volunteering on a campaign in the future.