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Three Days in Ohio
Our columnist, tired of sitting out the election in solidly blue New York, goes to the swinging Buckeye State to make a stand. Can one man make a difference? Not really.
By Gersh Kuntzman
Updated: 4:23 p.m. ET Nov. 1, 2004

CINCINNATI -- Nov. 1 - From the airport to downtown Cincinnati is just a 10-minute drive. And in that time, you'll hear anywhere from four to six political ads, each bristling with oversimplified attacks and outlandish countercharges. Yes, Ohio is superheated with the 2004 election—but even a reporter of my limited skills could sense fairly quickly that this state just wants to be left alone. The first Ohioan I met took one look at my East Coast good looks, earnest mien and LICK BUSH button, and told me that he had put up a sign on his front lawn: NO POLITICKING/NO PROSELYTIZING.

I wanted to tell him that they weren't always the same thing, but in this election, in this state, they actually are. And I'm here to be a part of it, to see if one man—namely, me—could make a difference and get John Kerry elected. To do so, I hooked up with America Coming Together, a group that supports Kerry (but can't really say it!). I had a vision of walking the streets and gently persuading undecided voters to choose Kerry—but that vision went unrealized in favor of three days of grunt work of dubious value. Here is my campaign diary:

Thursday, Oct. 28, 1 PM ET
I arrive at the ACT office and am introduced to my fellow volunteers, most of whom are from places where the Electoral College outcome is a foregone conclusion: New York, California, Indiana, Alabama. The only way I learn everyone's names is by listening to them read the phone-banking script ("Hi, my name is Caitlyn and I'm calling from America Coming Together ...").

My first assignment is to call newly registered voters to tell them what to expect on Tuesday. This is no small matter. The Ohio Republican Party has challenged 35,000 new registrations and plans to put poll-watchers at hundreds of voting precincts. The goal is legitimate—the GOP is merely trying to ensure that all votes are valid. But the party's tactics are loathsome: their challengers are being stationed almost entirely in African-American polling places. The strategy could lead to such long lines that some black voters won't bother to vote—or that their votes are cast on provisional ballots that would be counted, or not counted, afterwards. Sound familiar? No wonder there's a Miami in Ohio, too.

This kind of phone banking is dull work of limited utility. But every once in a while, I encountered an undecided voter. One woman listened to my spiel about the Bush administration's incompetence—"We've lost 231,000 jobs in Ohio alone! We have record deficits!"—but wanted to know Kerry's position on abortion. I explained that he supports a woman's right to choose, something George Bush does not. When we hung up, something told me I had lost a precious voter. Damn me! I knew I should have called the fetus an "unborn child." Why don't they train me for these things?

LIVE TALK | Election Day 2004
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Friday, Oct. 29, noon ET
I spent the morning sight-seeing and eating chili in downtown Cincinnati, but when I got to the ACT offices, I was told to immediately head back downtown, where ACT was giving a press conference about the registration battle. They needed bodies to stand behind the podium and smile as speakers condemned the GOP tactics. Despite the importance of the issue, this was a low-wattage event. Two councilmen—Christopher Smitherman ("Why are they challenging in 250 of 251 African-American precincts? It's about suppression!") and David Crowley ("This is a systematic effort by the national Republican party to hold down the vote!")—made speeches, yet none of the three reporters had any questions. I drove back to ACT headquarters convinced of my own irrelevance.

Back at ACT, I'm finally handed a list of undecided voters and told to work my magic (not that anyone has bothered to check on whether I have any magic). Nonetheless, I feel empowered, like when Jack Lemmon finally gets the good leads in "Glengarry Glen Ross." Mostly, of course, I leave easily delete-able messages on people's answering machines: "Hi, I'm from America Coming Together and if you're still undecided, I wonder if I could just leave a few words about the man I support ..."

When I do get someone on the phone, it's usually someone who has, yes, decided, but, no, does not want to talk about it. In four hours of calls, I speak to only a handful of undecideds. A woman named Elaine tells me she agrees with Kerry on all of the substantive issues, but dislikes Teresa Heinz Kerry. I keep her on the phone for at least 15 minutes reminding her of the importance of the issues and what's at stake in this election. She says her head understands that, but her heart is having trouble with it. Result? She would probably vote for Kerry, but more likely will not vote at all.

And a woman named Sherri told me that Kerry is a "lying dog." I suggested that it was the president who lied about weapons of mass destruction, but she fired back. "How could it be a lie if Kerry is now on TV saying we didn't secure the weapons after we invaded?" I told her he was talking about conventional explosives, not nukes or chemical weapons, but she didn't care. "Now you're the lying dog," she said. "I study Christian prophecy. I know." I let her hang up on me.

While making my calls, I can't help but overhear my fellow phone bankers—and can't help noticing how many votes they're losing. "A vote for Bush is a vote for war without end!" one of them said. "What about all the Mexican companies that are getting our jobs?" another asked. And even worse, some were berating potential voters. I kept looking for an organizer to come over and say to these vote-losers, "Um, I really need you and you and you to help me stuff envelopes for an hour," but the place is too disorganized for genuine supervision.

Saturday, Oct. 30, 10 AM ET
I'm one of a few hundred people in the basement of the IBEW Local 212, all of us fired up for a day of meeting and greeting voters. Instead, the ACT organizers decide to inspire us by making us first sit through a bunch of political speeches, the last thing people who have flown in from all over the country at great expense need.

"We're on the verge of change, thanks to you!" said the first organizer. (OK, so let's go out and make some!). Then he introduced Councilman Crowley, who ran through all the liberal jeremiads and told us we were part of history. (OK, let's go out and make some!) Then another organizer tried to whip us into a frenzy with a classic call-and-answer approach: "Who is going to be president?" "John Kerry!" (Not if we don't get out on the street already!). This wasn't merely preaching to the chorus. This was preaching to the Pope!

Finally, we were told to visit strong Kerry neighborhoods and put flyers in mailboxes. Not "Kerry for President" fliers, mind you, but fliers reminding people to vote. (Reminding Ohioans that there's a vote on Tuesday—isn't that like telling a Frenchman where he can pick up cigarettes?)

Kuntzman: The Bush Cousins Who Back Kerry
What do you do if you’re the president’s cousins—and you don’t like the way he’s running the country? Answer: You set up a Web site in support of John Kerry
Kuntzman: Who's Behind the 9/11 Report?
National Book Award finalist, "The 9/11 Commission Report," was produced by a bipartisan panel with an 80-person research staff—but who actually wrote the 500-plus-page book?

My friend Kurt was philosophical. Ours is not to reason why. The professional campaign people obviously believe that putting a flier in every Democrat's mailbox will drive our voters to the polls, so that's what we'll do. I did my duty and went back to ACT for a new assignment. This time, they told me to affix poll-location stickers on signs that will be hung on Democratic doorknobs on Election Day. That was the last straw.

I was fed up with feeling like a silent cog in a machine that needs to make some noise, so I defected from ACT to the Democratic National Committee. A volunteer sent me down the "Hallway of Opportunity" to speak with another volunteer who trained me to interact with actual voters, face to face. Now, this woman knew what she was doing! After a political speech of only three minutes—"Your work is vital to making a huge difference on Election Day!"—she told us our mission was to beg voters to visit the polls on Tuesday. "Eyeball to eyeball is still the most effective way to influence someone to vote," Eleanor Self told us. "It's awkward to beg someone to vote, but I'd rather feel awkward for a few minutes than to have Bush for four more years. Toughen up!"

I was assigned a 10-block area in a lower-middle class town called Reading and given the names and addresses of roughly 50 people to contact. On any given block, I would knock on half the doors (the people identified by the DNC as Kerry supporters) while ignoring the other half (known Bush supporters, independents or apathetics). It's a complete mystery how the DNC knows that the house with the broken kids' toys and missing front porch step was one of "our" voters, while the house with the broken pickup truck and dead shrubbery was one of "theirs".

For some reason, I had suddenly acquired a Southern accent. Whenever I encountered live voters, I took on a drawl that sounded, at least to me, comforting and inviting. Most of the households needed no encouragement to vote. Doug Muddiman told me that "Bush is a lying dog!" and that Republicans are just Democrats who've "had their brains removed medically.” But every once in a while, I had to put on the charm for an undecided voter who somehow ended up on my list.

Hair! Mankind's Historic Quest to End Baldness
by Gersh Kuntzman

Brittney Stidham told me that "Fahrenheit 9/11" had really opened her eyes. As a journalist, I have some problems with the way Michael Moore made his case in that movie, but the last thing I wanted to do was share my qualms with a potential Kerry voter. Still, Stidham wanted to know what the Democratic candidate would do for "poor people like me."

"Ma'am," I said, suddenly becoming the candidate, "John Kerry has a very strong plan for helping working people. He's made it very clear that he would roll back the Bush tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000 a year—now, ma'am, that's not you and it's not me—and use that money for a variety of programs, such as catastrophic health care coverage ..." After running through the basics of Kerry's vision, I sensed that Brittney was on my side, so I begged her to vote on Tuesday. I reminded her that Ohio could be decided by a few hundred votes, so she had a lot of power. Will she vote? Who knows. Did I do my part? Yes.

And then I was done. I'd finally met voters face-to-face for two hours and gotten solemn commitments that they would vote. But what did I learn about the political process? First, that both candidates are "lying dogs." Second, that most Americans are disconnected from politics because being “connected” to politics means giving up time with their families or friends to sit in a union hall basement to listen to speeches before getting a chance to knock on the doors of people who are even more disconnected from politics than you are. Third, that being part of something bigger than yourself ultimately makes you feel even smaller than yourself and angry at yourself that you allowed yourself to think, even for a brief minute, that you really mattered.

Then again, if Kerry wins Ohio, I'm taking all the credit.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a reporter at the New York Post. His Web site is at

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.



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