Much ink has been spilled the positive impact of democracy on growth, peace and wellbeing. Less has been written about the perverse incentives created by universal suffrage such as the desire of political activists to traipse wind-swept streets, knock on doors (only to have them slammed back in their faces) and open themselves up to various grades of verbal abuse. Collecting information on voters is the meat and potatoes of political campaigning, since it ensures that you can direct your propaganda at the undecideds as well as returning to those who have said they plan to back you on election day to make sure they turn their promise into a vote. The problem, however, is gathering the information.
Phone calls can help with pensioners and housewives (or househusbands) but many people are only at home in the evening—when telephone canvassers like to be at home too. Saturday afternoon door-knocking is therefore a tried and tested technique in both Britain and US. I was hoping that South Carolina’s combination of partisan registration process (so you know you’re only knocking on the doors of Democrats) and warmer temperatures would make the experience all the more pleasurable. Charlestonians, however, pride themselves on making you feel at home, and this weekend, a week before the Democratic primary, it absolutely poured.
No one can explain what makes some members of society actually enjoy knocking on strangers’ doors in the rain. But somehow if the company is good and you get a handful of voters who seriously engage, the experience is worthwhile. The real jackpot for me this weekend was in the Charleston suburb of Ladson. One woman came to the door with the slightly cynical expression that canvassers come to know so well. She revealed that she had switched from Clinton to Obama, and back to Clinton, and was now intrigued by Edwards’s message on poverty. We spoke, and she heard, our views on Clinton’s experience, and we said a traditional farewell through the passing of campaign literature. Out of the blue she called after us and asked how her daughter could become a Clinton volunteer. It turned out that she was the grand-niece of President Taft (1909-13) and had thoroughly enjoyed her own political education working on Nixon’s ’68 campaign. Despite her rich Republican heritage, she wanted her daughter to get the same experience with the Democrats. Americans really are crying out for a change.