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Knock, Knock… No, Seriously

In an age of campaign Web sites featuring YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and JoggleBug, the most old-fashioned campaign tactic known is still playing a traditional role this year.

It even has an old-fashioned name — shoe leather.

Door-to-door campaigning is still in style, and while robocalls and selective direct mail long ago replaced campaign buttons and bumper stickers as more effective ways to target likely voters, nothing seems to beat eye contact and one-on-one electioneering. The trick is you have to do an enormous amount of it if you hope to make an impact.

In modern times, as in traditional ways of reaching voters, door-to-door campaigning ranges from the most basic state legislative races to the highest level in the state, a gubernatorial campaign. It’s an engaging approach in a time when more and more people are suspicious of others who come knocking door to door.

“You’d think you’d get more people who are rude and mean than you do,” said Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, a Republican candidate for governor, who has made door knocking a staple in his campaigns. “I have had a few people say, ‘Get off my front porch,’ but they are few and far between.”

Haslam is getting attention for his door-to-door tactic — the campaign counts an entire neighborhood as one “knock” — and it’s fair to call it a gimmick, the perfect photo-op for a local newspaper to show the candidate connecting with the people. But Haslam seems intent on pursuing the strategy whether there are any media around or not. On one recent “knock” in Wilson County, the selected neighborhood was changed at the last minute in order to hit more houses that were closer together. If any media showed up late at the original site, they were out of luck. So it does make people wonder why he does it.

It is a stretch to think a door-to-door approach is going to make a difference in a statewide election. But the strategy looks as sound today for a local legislative race as ever. Take it from a couple of fresh faces in Nashville.

Jeff Yarbro, 32, is running in the Democratic primary against one of the most revered figures in the Legislature, Sen. Doug Henry of Nashville, 83, who has served for decades. Steven Turner is taking on another legislative veteran, Rep. Mary Pruitt, another Democrat from Nashville.

“This is a race where you’ve got to go door to door, living room to living room,” said Yarbro, a Nashville attorney.

Yarbro has proved to be a serious player based on an ability to raise funds, collecting more than $140,000 already, but he’s not basing his chances of winning on fund-raising.

“I don’t think these races come down to who spends the most money,” Yarbro said. “They will be won by the person who goes out and talks to the people in the community.”

Turner, 26, said recently he has knocked on 150-200 doors and that work ethic is the most effective way he can contend with Pruitt’s experience.

“The only way to combat that is door knocking,” Turner said. “Money does help, but no money can replace the volunteer who will work for you all day and people who are going to come out and take other people to the polls. That’s what ultimately is going to win.”

Haslam can tell some stories.

“I’ve had a lot of good adventures,” he said.

Haslam recalls a fenced yard, where he decided to open the fence, walked in and realized the fence was’t intended to keep people out but to keep a dog in. The dog had Haslam trapped and nipped at him. Haslam did his best to jump over the fence.

“No more working inside a fence,” Haslam said. “It’s just not worth it.”

He remembers the time he thought he was in a carport and pushed a button thinking it was the doorbell but the button was actually for a garage door. So when a woman came to the door he was standing in her garage with the door down. Then there was the time a woman came to the door with a full mudpack beauty treatment on her face and her hair in rollers. She forgot about it until well into the conversation, then reacted in horror.

“One of my favorite stories is of a friend of mine who was running for state representative,” Haslam said. “He walked up on somebody’s porch and didn’t notice they had just painted it. They came out screaming, ‘You dumb blank-blank.” When they asked, ‘What do you want anyway?’ he said I’m so-and-so, and I want your vote for state representative.”

Haslam’s approach is always the same.

“I’m Bill Haslam. I’m the mayor over in Knoxville. I’m running for governor, and I’d appreciate your vote,” he says when someone answers.

People frequently recognize him from campaign commercials, but they will ask questions. The most common seems to be, “Are you a conservative?” When he says yes, he seems to have a willing audience, but people don’t always commit their votes.

On the flip side, if there is a prize for the most imaginative, interactive high-tech approach in the race to be governor, it might go to Bill Gibbons, the Shelby County district attorney general.

In addition to the brief JoggleBug audio messages on his campaign website, Gibbons has launched a contest to beat his bracket in the NCAA basketball tournament.

He also has a feature on the site called myTN.org, where Gibbons asks voters the question, “What’s the first thing you would do as governor of Tennessee?” One response was to quadruple the size of the budget for the Vanderbilt football team, which is funny for a lot of reasons, but also proves that campaign adventures are not limited to knocking on doors.