A cold autumn rain was falling on thirty people standing in the parking lot of The Coffee Loft in Marlborough, a swing town in Republican-leaning central Massachusetts, as they prepared to knock on doors for Elizabeth Warren. The state Democratic Party chair, John Walsh, gave an upbeat pep talk about grassroots organizing. “You are the antidote to all the things people hate about politics,” Walsh said, in a simultaneously calm and inspiring voice. “They hate top-down politics, people yelling at each other on television and attack ads that have nothing to do with anything that matters. They can’t believe that show hasn’t been canceled already. They want to have a civil conversation about issues they care about. That’s you.”
These thirty volunteers—and thousands of others who are doing the same thing across Massachusetts every weekend—are one of three reasons Elizabeth Warren might eke out a victory against Scott Brown. Warren herself brought in a flood of volunteers. The Democratic convention activated still more. And in the last five months, the campaign, the state party and the DNC have coordinated effectively to put each one of those people quickly to work getting votes. That’s exactly what did not happen in the January 2010 special election to replace Senator Ted Kennedy, when Brown surprised everyone and won.
Warren has been ahead, albeit within the margin of error, in four out of the last five polls, with roughly 5 percent of likely voters undecided. Some of those in the middle are genuinely undecided, torn between his likability and her fiery passion to help the middle class. Others haven’t paid attention yet; they’re putting off doing their “homework” on that awful show that John Walsh says they wish were canceled. Those Marlborough volunteers trying to keep the rain off their brochures were aiming to inform the uninformed, persuade the undecideds and identify anyone who should be reminded on November 6 to vote.
The Warren campaign—in tight cooperation with the highly energized state Democratic Party—has been relentless, organized and enthusiastic. The candidate herself made more than 150 officially scheduled public appearances between June 1 and October 15, 2012—from the Revere sand sculpting festival (on a beach where, not so long ago, you had to avoid the discarded needles) to the Massachusetts Building Trades clambake in suburban Hopkinton. That doesn’t count informal drop-ins, in-house fundraisers and behind-the-scenes meetings with political figures around the state.
Her tens of thousands of volunteers are hard at work meeting everyone she can’t get to. If it’s Wednesday night, local offices have “women for Warren” phone banking; Monday nights are “men for Warren”; Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday evenings are for door-to-door canvassing. Walsh told me that volunteers have knocked on more than 850,000 doors—an astonishing proportion in a state of just under 6.6 million, especially if, as Walsh claims, people who’ve talked to canvassers will mention those conversations to five other people. The unions are working hard to get their members to vote against Brown’s record, despite the fact that the union guys feel more comfortable with him than with “the professor.” Her television commercials are hitting the right points and feature the right local surrogates. Endorsers like the independent mayor of Lowell, site of dangerous postindustrial urban decay, and five-term Boston mayor Tom Menino—both of whom could easily have sat out the race—are putting their neighborhood operations to work for Warren.
Leafy Marlborough is a former mill town that has become a pretty suburb. Some of its residents live in its split-levels and saltbox Capes and work in nearby office parks, reaping mid-Massachusetts’ high tech and new-business prosperity. Ohers are struggling, keeping their yards neat around very modest houses with deteriorating shutters and trim. Here—as across the state—the Warren campaign has coordinated its efforts with the state party and local officeholders so that doorknockers are talking not just about Warren but also about everyone else down-ticket. This integrates the newly recruited Warren volunteers with longtime salt-of-the-earth Democratic committee townsfolk. Their iPhone apps or printouts direct them to the homes of swing and sometime voters, telling them who lives there and how regularly each resident votes. Knocking on the door reveals more: whether a resident is lukewarm or enthusiastic, on which issues he or she needs more compare-and-contrast info about the candidates and whether the household would like a yard sign or a ride to the polls.