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Fear and loafing on the campaign trail, Part I 

In the digital world, are canvassers still relevant?

Editor's note: In this two-part series, political reporter Michael Cooper follows campaign volunteers in the last crucial weeks of the election. Look for the second part online on Monday.

Donning a tan flap cap and a "Jennifer Roberts for Congress" shirt, field organizer Seth Koch stood atop a wooden table, underneath the shelter of Charlotte's Midwood Park, on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Standing around him, like a flock of disciples, are a couple dozen volunteers and low-level campaign staffers preparing for a Get Out the Vote canvass. Early voting had yet to start, but with less than a month to go before Election Day, each hour was crucial.

The latest polling had the Roberts campaign within the margin of error. Despite what the pundits had been saying in the papers, the race was conceivably winnable. So canvassers took it to the streets, walking up to doorsteps of voters who would decide the biggest election in a generation.

We were smack dab in the heart of Plaza Midwood. Children biked on the sidewalks and fake cobwebs and makeshift graveyards covered yards for the coming holiday. Leaves fell in the crisp air, and the eerily calm atmosphere felt like the early minutes of a slasher film.

The scene wasn't set for a horror flick, but rather the ultimate battleground of 2012, where equal numbers of Romney/Ryan and Obama/Biden yard signs marked territory.

Republican and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory is popular in these parts, and if Mecklenburg County Commissioner and Democrat Jennifer Roberts has any chance of winning a seat in Congress, she has to carry these blocks over her opponent Robert Pittenger. Fortunately for her, she lives around here.

The youthful-looking Koch reminded his canvassers to encourage those who opened their doors to vote early or to leave a piece of Roberts literature hanging on the doorknobs of those who weren't home.

I had expected the canvassers to be a contingent of freaks and geeks with forearm tattoos and nose rings, who read Howard Zinn in between classes at Queens College and were convinced this election was between equality and oligarchy.

And a few of the attendees, perhaps hipsters by night, almost fit that description. But most were harmless-looking grown-ups. In fact, this rally could have passed for a Rotary Club outing.

As a couple of volunteers dissected a yellow sample ballot strewn across one of the tables, Koch finished his marching orders. "If you see a Roberts sign in the yard, skip the house," he said. "But if you see a Romney sign, don't skip the house."

There were two target audiences for the canvass: registered Democrats who voted in only one of the last three elections, and women who had voted in the 2012 Republican primary. The campaign was clearly seeking to push those apathetic Dems to the polls and to sway women to back one of their own.

The rally dispersed, with most of the crowd breaking up into groups of two. I tagged along with Richard Markel, who at 74 was one of the older volunteers. An Ohio native who moved to Charlotte to work for the city, he had been here for decades. This was his first time canvassing. He also wasn't overtly partisan, supporting both McCrory and Roberts this cycle, but he felt compelled to offer his free time to support her.

The first selected house had children's toys mounted on the stairs and seasonal decorations hanging from the porch. Markel rung the bell, the door opened, and he started to read from the provided script.

"We're here to let you know [Roberts is] running for Congress," Markel said. As soon as the voter heard the name, he stopped Markel from continuing. "We're aware. She's a friend, and we'll be supporting her," the man said.

We bid him farewell and went on our way, only to find that fewer and fewer doors would open for us.

Markel's parents had been Republicans, but not especially conservative. He didn't have a long history in politics, passing out Obama flyers in 2008 when he could find the time. He was still working part time, but not because the recession forced him back into the workforce. He had still been on the grind when it struck.

After going up one side and down the other of a block on Ashland with a low contact rate, we jumped back into Markel's pickup and went across the intersection to find new houses. The street was packed with cars, so he opted to park in a lot next to a church.

"They'll think we're at church," Markel said, satisfied that nobody would tow the vehicle. And in a way, we were, if you consider local democracy a suitable religion and getting out the vote the Lord's work.

Modern campaigns are waged by robocalls, paid advertisements, misleading mailers sent by special-interest PACs and low-budget forums broadcast on public television that nobody watches. Corrupt politicians and phony leaders have poisoned a process that was bought and paid for by the rich and powerful. Markel and I were strolling on the sidewalks in dogmatic hopes of restoring faith, if people would just open their doors.

If a campaign worker has illusions of grandeur, that they'll engage in a debate with undecided voters or give a stump speech that rivals Lincoln's second inaugural, those dreams are quickly dashed by the awkward nature of canvassing. If you did catch a voter at home, you only had a small amount of time to slip into their attention span and explain why, as a stranger, you were at the door. No, you weren't a Jehovah's Witness or there to sell Amway, but rather working on this fine fall day to quickly vouch for a particular political candidate. Sometimes you'd stumble upon the Ayn Rand-obsessed weirdo who trolls every political post on Facebook and is waiting to suck up your canvassing time and send you down a black hole of paranoid non-sequiturs and borderline racist generalizations.

Basically, anyone willing to chat had likely already made up their mind.

Markel was new to this process, enough not to be cynical about it like I was. We stopped at another house, and he opened the dialogue. This voter said he'd seen Roberts' campaign signs around but was currently in the middle of painting.

"That's alright, we apologize for bothering you. She's a pretty independent woman on the county commission running for Congress, and we hope you check her out," I say, trying to close, as Markel hands him a flyer. (I'd cut my teeth on a congressional campaign four years ago and couldn't help but take part in this effort, for old time's sake.) The voter knew that Roberts had a golden retriever and seemed to like that.

These voters had good jobs, probably in banking, and were independent minded. The type voting for McCrory probably voted against Amendment One and liked President Obama as a person but were disappointed by gridlock on Capitol Hill. These were the types open to going with Romney if it meant things improved faster.

Roberts was a perfect fit for this neighborhood: she's moderate and has a golden retriever. And if she somehow pulled the upset over Pittenger on election night, it would be because of individuals like Richard Markel, who sacrifice their time on a Saturdays in the fall.

In an age where technology has shattered our sense of community and grassroots politics is beaten down by super PAC advertising, simple door knocking can be spiritual. Volunteers call on the apathetic and disengaged to renew their faith at the polls, our chapels of democracy.

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