Knock on Doors, Avoid Dogs, Repeat. Always Repeat

Campaigning the old-fashioned way can be the most effective. And frightening.

“Doorbelling works,” says Bob Ferguson, the King County Council member who first won office in 2003, beating 20-year incumbent Cynthia Sullivan in part by ringing the doorbells of all 22,000 likely voters in his district.

45th District representative Roger Goodman agrees. He has knocked on 21,000 doors in the past two years. “Running for office is not rocket science,” he says. “You just have to meet the voters, one by one.”

Of course, meeting voters individually takes a lot of time, and not enough candidates do it to measure its effectiveness, says Matt A. Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington. Barreto does, however, note that “we know that door-to-door campaigning [by surrogates] is effective. It would make sense that there would be a stronger appeal if it was done by the candidates themselves.”

Ferguson and Goodman credit doorbelling not only for helping their campaigns, but also for reaffirming their faith in democracy. Nevertheless, they note its perils. “I saw on my list that this was an 89-year-old woman,” says Goodman of his approach to a house in Ames Lake, an unincorporated area in east King County. “So I expected to find a sweet old lady. She opened the door with a big smile. I looked her in the eyes and went to shake her hand, but instead I felt something strange. She was holding this old-fashioned six-shooter revolver, pointed right at me.”

“It turns out she’d flown B-26 bombers to transport them in World War II. She had this fascinating life story.”

More threatening, though, was a woman he encountered on a 98-degree day. “She smelled of alcohol and was batting her eyes at me and tilting her head,” says Goodman. “She had this creepy smile. When I went to shake her hand, she grabbed my hand with both of hers and tried to drag me lustfully across the threshold. I withdrew my hand, said ‘Thank you very much,’ and was on my way. It was my scariest moment on the campaign trail.”

For his part, Ferguson recalls being “rattled” by a conversation with a “young, very attractive, partially clothed woman” one Saturday afternoon, and notes the awkwardness of unintentionally interrupting teenage make-out sessions. But he maintains that “the dogs are the thing you’ve got to look out for.”

Goodman’s leg bears a scar from a German shepherd, but he says the worst “was this little rat dog that got my ankle. I was so mad; I was literally trying to kick it across the street. The dog was dodging my kicks, so there I was in someone’s front yard, holding a clipboard, angrily kicking the air.”

Then there are the wackos. Says Goodman: “This woman said to me, ‘You know, there’s this organization called the United Nations.’ She looked side to side in this paranoid way, and lowered her voice. ‘They’re buying up national parks. They’re gonna take over.’ It’s at doors like these that I like to linger for a while, just to figure out what their worldview is. I’m not even looking for votes at that point.”

Perhaps most surprising for these candidates, who travel with brochures bearing their name and likeness, are the cases of mistaken identity. After visiting one house in Woodinville, Goodman was immediately pulled over by two sheriff’s deputies, who mistook him for a sex offender subject to a restraining order.

Likewise, Ferguson recalls an elderly woman who could not be convinced that he was in fact himself. “She just kept saying, ‘It’s so great that you’re out doing this for Mr. Ferguson. Maybe someday if you work hard and keep at it, you can be a county council member too.'”