Down to the Wire

In Florida, Romney Acolytes Knock on Doors, Beg for Votes

On the eve of the election, Team Romney is knocking on doors and pleading with voters to get to the polls. Winston Ross reports from Ground Zero: Florida.

ORLANDO, Fla. — They have been laughed at, barked at, yelled at, and literally told to “go fly a kite” (because people here still say that.) They have notified surprised Americans that Election Day is on Tuesday and that George W. Bush is no longer their president. They have endured pundits’ daunting messages that the Electoral College math doesn’t add up for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, that he’s sunk, that their effort is futile.

And they push on.

Preston Saylor and Mike Bijani and Sean Ellison are foot soldiers in the battle to defeat President Barack Obama. For them, this is Zero Hour, and — to complete the war cliché circle — this is Ground Zero: the Democrat-leaning “I-4 corridor” in Florida, a state even a federal-constitutional-republic noob knows is critical to the Romney camp.

Experts tend to agree that if Romney can’t win the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes, he can’t govern the USA. Which is why this trio will drive Saylor’s Honda Accord around Orlando’s affluent suburbs until dusk on Monday, if they have to, reminding faithful Republicans that it’s not enough to stick a “Don’t Tread on Me” sign on their lawns. They also need to get out and vote. It’s Go Time.

“Our financial situation is too dire for Obama to be in office another four years,” Saylor says, ominously. “Florida is absolutely crucial for Romney.”

It’s a motley crew. Saylor, 21, is a shaggy, unshaven political science major at the University of Central Florida, dressed in cargo shorts and flip-flops, with the thick skin any College Republican needs to survive. Bijani, 26, is a rail-thin Pakistani paralegal who converted from Islam to Christianity several years ago and has been working on and off for Romney for months, despite getting his car keyed, he says. He wears contact lenses that turn his eyes an iridescent blue. Ellison, 19, his lower lip bulging with chewing tobacco, enlisted in the Marines six months ago, and he’s headed to boot camp on Friday. His grandmother convinced him to get off the couch and volunteer for Romney before he departs. He’s the quiet one. Speaks when spoken to. This is his second day on Team Romney.

The crew picks up their assignments on Monday at Orlando’s Romney Victory Center, in the Royal Oaks Village strip mall on the east side of town.

“Is this A.B. Chase?” Saylor asks Harold Hedrick, field director for the Orange County Republican Party, and the boss. That stands for “absentee ballot chase,” and refers to the hunting down of Republicans who intend to vote that way, and either collecting those ballots or telling them how and when and where to vote.

No, Hedrick informs Saylor, it’s GOTV — Get Out The Vote. On the list are the names and addresses of 41 registered republicans in the Orlando suburb of Alafaya Trail, with its spacious lots and close-cropped lawns. Everyone they will contact today is nearly certain to vote for Romney, and that’s by design. There’s no more time left for tilting wobbly undecideds or converting Democrats. As is almost always the case in a close election, this victory or defeat will hinge on turnout. Their job is to remind fellow Republicans of two things: that there’s an election on Tuesday, and that they need to actually go vote in it, if they want to send that Obama guy back to Illinois.

As the official intern for the Romney campaign (and the owner of the Honda), Saylor is in charge of the gang. He’s been canvassing since August, and knows this neighborhood—and his spiel—well.At the first house they try, success. A spry 77-year-old named Fran Gilligan throws open her screen door and before Saylor can even get out, “We’re with the Romney...,” she bursts out, “Good for you! How did you know you were at the right house? We had a sign, but it got so windy, we took it down.”

As expected, an ardent Romney supporter. But what makes this a valuable stop for Saylor’s posse is that Gilligan has yet to vote, and neither has her husband. She is certain to do so tomorrow, she promises, which prompts Saylor to ask, “What time?” Forcing people to think about that tends to increase the probability that they’ll actually follow through on it, he tells me. Plus, Saylor will record that in his paperwork, and someone from the Romney camp will call Gilligan tomorrow and ask if she actually voted. If she didn’t, they’ll ask her if she needs a ride to the polls.

That would be the end of the visit, a quick two-question survey; except Gilligan has a query of her own.

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“Can you tell me which amendments I’m supposed to vote for?” she asks? “I know, that is horrible.”

He’s not supposed to tell people how to vote, Saylor says quickly, but if Gilligan wants to go straight party ticket, it’s pretty easy to remember: Yes on 1 through 5 and 7 through 12. No on 6.

“That’s the one about federal funding for abortion,” he says.

“I appreciate you guys,” Gilligan replies, before heading back inside, and the trio is off to the next house.

From there, the effort is far less productive. It’s the middle of the day, so half the doors they knock on are answered only by barking dogs, and the other half by people who have already voted. The latter camp, presuming they actually stuck with the party, that’s good news, of course, especially because Democrats tend to vote early in bigger numbers than Republicans.

By Monday morning, 43 percent of Florida’s registered Democrats had cast ballots, versus 40 percent of Republicans, mirroring national numbers and a growing proclivity toward a method that should make it easier for all who arrive on Election Day to cast a ballot.

But that trend also makes this GOTV mission largely needle-in-haystack. In an hour of street-beating, the only conversations these three have with Floridians other than Gilligan are the guy who stopped to warn them to avoid that house — “dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporter there” — and another who pulled up in a Scion XB to ask if they could register him to vote, and what day the election was.

Yes, there are still people who don’t know that, Saylor said. And he really did have to tell one voter that a man named Barack Obama is now running the country. After asking the man which candidate he supported, he said, the registered Republican replied, “Bush.”

The pressure Saylor and his crew are feeling right now is intense, they say. They’re well aware of how important Florida is to Romney’s chances, and they all think it’s critical Obama not get to spend another four years in the White House. Saylor, because he blames the president for his dim prospects when he gradates; Bijani, because work at his law firm has gotten so scant that he has to go back to school to get a computer science degree; and Ellison, because he’s planning on making a career out of the military, toward which he views Republicans as far more friendly.

They are hoping the pundits are wrong, that this work will prove them so. They say they’ve talked to many Democrats who are switching parties this time, and they’re confident Romney can pull it off. If he doesn’t, they will all console themselves.

“I’ve lost sleep, probably several thousand dollars worth of paychecks,” Bijani says. “But no regrets. I know I’ve done all I can to make a difference.”