Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - November 2, 2012

Passionate about politics

Local volunteers travel to swing states to campaign for their presidential candidates

by Eric Van Susteren

As the daughter of Ned Lamont, a candidate for U.S. Senate and later for governor of Connecticut, Lindsay Lamont grew up in a family "that lives and breathes politics."

"Every morning at breakfast there would be a summary of the news of the day followed by the question of what President Lamont would do," said the younger Lamont, a Stanford University senior.

The Connecticut native spent time working in her father's 2008 campaign against Joe Leiberman for U.S. Senate and unofficially for Barack Obama's campaign before she was old enough to vote. In 2010 she helped in her father's unsuccessful Connecticut gubernatorial race.

Naturally, Lamont, who is now the president of the Stanford College Democrats student organization, is campaigning for Obama again. On Oct. 26 she and 31 other Stanford student Democrats piled into buses to travel to Reno, Nev., to knock on doors, hand out pamphlets and do whatever else the local organization required of them.

"After working on a smaller campaign, I definitely understand the importance of having an on-the-ground campaign," she said. "It was a big benefit to the Obama campaign in 2008, and it really makes you remember you can make a difference."

As Nov. 6 nears, out-of-state volunteers such as Lamont and her classmates are flocking to "battleground states" — namely Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire and Virginia — where polls show the fiercest competition in the race for president.

Volunteers from Santa Clara County believe their efforts to elect the next president are better spent out of the area, given the area's partisan voting history. Nearly 70 percent of county voters chose Obama as president in 2008, while 61 percent of California voters, some 8.3 million people, cast ballots for Obama.

These out-of-state campaigners aren't restricted to one political party or generation. The last-minute push to help their preferred candidate win draws Democrats as well as Republicans, the old along with the young.

For Lamont, Nevada was the easiest choice for a campaign location because of its proximity.

"California has a lot of important initiatives, but when it comes to the president, Nevada has a lot more at stake," she said.

In 2008 Obama won six-electoral-vote Nevada with 533,736 votes or 55.15 percent, while challenger John McCain took 412,827 votes or 42.65 percent. But the race is much tighter between Obama and Mitt Romney.

The student group has other means of outreach; its phone bank calls a few thousand potential voters in swing states each week. But Lamont said nothing compares to the personal touch canvassing brings.

"Families are getting hammered with phone calls, so hopefully it's a little better to have someone at your door," she said. "It's definitely a bit more work, but it's a lot more fun to have face-to-face interactions and conversations with people in swing states.

"I'm a firm believer that everyone, in some point of time in their life, should work on a campaign."

That's a sentiment shared by Lamont's Republican counterpart at Stanford, Mary Ann Toman-Miller, the president of Stanford College Republicans.

She spent the summer in Washington, D.C., working in the U.S. Congress, and by the time the summer days cooled from a sweltering 105 degrees, she was spending her evenings in Virginia, assisting the Romney campaign. Much of her time there she made phone calls, distributed campaign materials and helped organize rallies and events for the Women for Romney campaign.

"It was exhilarating," she said. "There was palpable enthusiasm from the people making and receiving calls" at the phone banks.

Virginia is also a strongly contested state. According to the most recent poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College from Oct. 23 to 24, Obama is holding a three-point lead, with 50 percent compared to Romney's 47. Other polls put the two in a dead heat, and one shows Romney ahead.

Weather permitting, Toman-Miller and a group of Stanford Republicans are hoping to head to Reno this weekend. Like Lamont's group, they will be knocking on doors and talking policy with whomever they can.

"Commercials are generally too short to go into the important differences between the two candidates' policies, so we like to travel and have the opportunity to speak at greater length with undecided voters, face-to-face, one-on-one in the key swing states to explain our positions and our vision for America," she wrote in an email to the Weekly. "When we discuss Romney's policies in depth, they usually say they will vote with us."

Toman-Miller said she sees canvassing, and campaigning in general, as personally valuable. It's a chance to get out of "the Stanford bubble" and learn about the issues that affect people in other states.

"We talk to people of all ages, from all walks of life," she wrote. "For example, I talked to many veterans who appreciated that young people were willing to listen to their concerns, and I enjoyed it because we don't interact much with veterans at Stanford."

Though she said she had always been interested in democracy and its process, Toman-Miller said she was inspired by her mother, Mary Toman, who was the chair of the Los Angeles County Republican Party, the first woman to hold the position.

"Breaking that glass ceiling had a great impact on me," she said. "I looked up to her and wanted to emulate her."

The 20-year-old French and English literature double major said this is her fourth campaign. From Stanford to Virginia, there's been an encouraging surge in interest from Republicans in this year's election, she said, which is bolstered by what she sees as a decrease in interested Democrats. Even so, she works to keep out-of-state and on-campus campaign activities from being negative.

"For us, mud slung is ground lost," she said. "We've been trying to keep what we believe in a positive light."

She focuses on issues such as jobs and the economy and on how she thinks Romney and Ryan are the right candidates to improve them, she said.

Elizabeth DeVries' recent trip to campaign for Romney in Reno opened her eyes to the issue of unemployment. Washoe County, where the city is located, has an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

DeVries, a Palo Alto resident, said she thought people in the county were "really hurting." She recalled one woman she visited while canvassing door to door who drove home the point to her.

"I asked her who she was going to vote for and she said, 'Romney. Definitely Romney; we're hanging on by our fingernails here,'" DeVries said. "She had this desperate look on her face, and I felt very bad.

"Palo Alto is very upper middle class; Reno is a lot more middle class," she said. "We don't see it as much — the amount of pain and suffering because the economy is so bad."

Aside from her weekend in Reno, DeVries volunteers at Romney events, gives money to the campaign and makes an estimated 25 calls to voters in swing states every day, when her schedule allows. She plans to go back to Reno to campaign this weekend.

She has volunteered in several previous campaigns: John McCain's 2008 presidential bid, Meg Whitman's California gubernatorial run, and Scott Brown's succession of Ted Kennedy for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. But for her, this campaign is different.

"This really will be the election for the future of our country," she said. "I'm willing to give up my weekends. I'm not willing to give up without a fight."

As a canvasser in Reno, DeVries said she was well-received, particularly since the majority of people she visited — three to one, by her count — were supporters of Romney.

She said she felt she could be more effective going to door to door in a place where Romney/Ryan campaign signs were at least as numerous as those for the Obama/Biden ticket.

"In Palo Alto, a Romney yard sign would get stolen; a car sticker would get your car keyed," she said. "This area is predominantly Democratic, and I walk around with all my Romney buttons and that sometimes starts conversations, and I've changed a few peoples' votes but not enough to make a difference."

Though the library specialist said she's always been interested in politics, listening to talk radio while working motivated her to be more active in politics and campaigning.

DeVries' parents were European immigrants who lived through World War II and who had grown up with starvation and death as facts of life. They came to the U.S. for its opportunities, and their gratitude to the U.S. and the freedoms it afforded them had a lasting effect on her.

"We're lucky enough to live in a democracy in which you can make a difference as a voter or as a volunteer," she said. "You can't complain that the situation is bad if you don't take the time to make it better and make an effort to do so.

"I have to do something. I have to make a difference."

Volunteering in her third consecutive presidential campaign, Palo Alto resident Lisa Van Dusen's hopes to make a difference as she travels to Ohio to campaign for Obama's re-election.

"The pieces I look for are that it's got to be a place where it's highly likely your efforts will matter, and pretty much everyone is saying you're going to need Ohio to win this race," she said. "It's best to have a place where I can stay, and my mom and sister live in Michigan not too far away."

"(Canvassing) is 1,000 times more effective going door to door and talking to people than an ad," she said. "It's the most effective."

She has volunteered in the past two presidential elections: in Nevada for John Kerry in 2004 and in Colorado for Obama in 2008. She said choosing the correct location for campaigning is critical.

"It's hard to decide in advance because things can change so fast," she said. "Some people are saying Ohio is safe, but it's my firm belief that some things can change on a dime."

Obama took Ohio in 2008 with 51.48 percent of the vote, or nearly three million people.

Ironically, Van Dusen's father worked as an adviser for George Romney, Mitt's father, during his 1968 presidential campaign. He also worked for George Romney in a variety of capacities, including when he was governor of Michigan.

In the 2008 campaign, her 80-year-old mother, a registered Republican, canvassed alongside Van Dusen for Obama in Colorado.

"She felt that strongly about Obama," she said. "The conditions were pretty pleasant, and she's in pretty good shape. It's a lot of walking, but she has a lot of stamina."

Van Dusen said one of the most common mistaken impressions about presidential campaigning is that canvassing is the only job a volunteer can do.

"You don't have to be the one to go knock on doors," she said. "There are a lot of different jobs that are critical — data entry, logistics, operational support. You don't have to be that person at the door."

There's also an impression that canvassers talk policy and sometimes get into arguments with people they visit, Van Dusen said. Although she did get into political discussions in 2008, almost none of them arguments, she said much of the work she did was to provide basic, nonpartisan information to potential voters.

"A lot of times there's a lot of confusion about where people can go to vote and about little technicalities, like a ride or if you just need someone to say, 'You know, it really matters that you get out there and vote,'" she said. "I went back to multiple houses again and again to make sure they voted, checking people off the list and leaving no stone unturned."

By this time of year Bob Simmons would usually be someplace like Egypt or South America or Central America for his biannual international trip. But the self-described "tea-party person" and fiscal conservative has been too occupied with politics and campaigning to go anywhere this fall.

Simmons, a retired businessman and software engineer, belongs to four different tea-party groups and is a board member of the South Peninsula Area Republican Coalition.

The Los Altos resident first became involved with the political movement several years ago when he grew concerned about the president's focus on the Affordable Care Act. Since then he said he's seen the country get on the wrong track financially and worries that it's heading toward socialism while leaving capitalism by the wayside.

He and more than 100 other Bay Area residents recently drove to Reno to campaign for Romney, using their own vehicles and funds for room and board.

In Reno, he was assigned to walk precincts in a more affluent part of the city, and similarly to DeVries, he found that nearly all the houses he went to were Romney supporters and even more of them were supporting the candidacy of U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).

Unlike DeVries, Simmons sees worthwhile work to be done on the home front.

"There's really two Californias," he said. "There's the West Coast California and there's the California over the mountain that's depressed and has high unemployment. You don't see it here, but that motivates me to want to change things."

He volunteers at a monthly informational dinner meeting for the South Peninsula Area Republican Coalition, sits in booths for the Republican party at the farmers markets in Los Altos and Palo Alto, and supports and represents the Republican party and tea party at festivals and events. Recently, he's been canvassing in San Jose to support Johnny Khamis' run for the District 10 seat of the city council.

Despite his fervent support for Republican and tea-party candidates and causes, he said he'll be relieved once the elections are over.

"I'm definitely ready for that," he said.

He's already scheduled his next trip in January to Tanzania and South Africa.

Editorial Assistant Eric Van Susteren can be emailed at evansusteren@paweekly.com.

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