CINCINNATI -- Although it happened nearly 20 years ago, John T. Spence remembers the tension as if it surfaced yesterday.
He was campaigning door-to-door for Covington city commissioner in a high-turnout precinct at the southern end of the city. It was a '70s-era subdivision where most of the houses are brick and most of the garages have a two-car capacity.
On this particular street, near this particular cul-de-sac, on this particular day, the battle lines had been drawn clearly by neighbors who weren’t feeling particularly neighborly.
Homeowners either favored occasional parking on the street in the cul-de-sac or the basketball goal that one family had moved in place along the curb. Parked cars, of course, became obstacles on the makeshift court, so parking and basketball were, for the most part, incompatible.
“You haven’t been elected to office, but the people who wanted the cul-de-sac for parking wanted me to choose parking over basketball, and the people who have the basketball net in the neighborhood wanted me to choose the basketball net," Spence recalled. "In that cul-de-sac, I walked into a beehive and I was going to get stung no matter what decision I made."
Today Spence, an associate professor of political science at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills and a former two-term Covington commissioner, looks at door-to-door campaigning from a much broader perspective as an academic whose teaching responsibilities this year include a course on campaigns and elections.
Spence and others -- Democrats, Republicans, paid professionals and nonpartisan observers -- all seemed to agree on one thing: Door-to-door campaigning is the most effective way to meet voters and -- hopefully -- make a positive impression that will last at least until Election Day.
"It's an important element in creating a connection between the candidate and the voter. It’s also an important way that the voter determines whether the candidate is someone they feel comfortable with or that they might be able to trust," said Spence, who does some volunteer consulting for candidates he supports in nonpartisan races. "So going door to door is like a reaffirmation of some of the basic elements of democratic theory -- the interaction between the candidate and the voter.
"In local elections, in particular, the candidate going door to door seems to be highly correlated with success in the election," he said.
The political insiders who were interviewed for this story agreed on one other thing: Door-knocking is so time-consuming and labor-intensive that its value plummets as the number of voters who are eligible to cast ballots in a race increases.
State Rep. Tom Brinkman said, for example, that U.S. Senator and fellow Republican Rob Portman would be wasting his time if he went door to door in a re-election campaign that will be decided by some 7 million registered voters in Ohio on Nov. 8.
Brinkman pointed out that the importance of knocking on doors would be just the opposite and vitally important for anyone running for office in Portman’s hometown of Terrace Park, a tiny upscale village that has a population of about 2,500.
"It’s just the most effective way to meet people, and the only problem is how many people can you meet (during a campaign)?" said Brinkman, who lives in Mt. Lookout and is running for his sixth term (second consecutive) in District 27, where about 60 percent of the voters favor Republicans.
Brinkman said the value of door-to-door campaigning became crystal clear to him when he knocked on doors in four precincts east of Eight Mile Road in Anderson Township but didn’t devote the same energy to four precincts west of Eight Mile that had similar demographics. “I won all eight of the precincts, but the ones where I walked I won by 15 percent more," Brinkman said.
Brinkman said he may do some door knocking in the current campaign, although he’s found that another good way to meet voters face-to-face involvez small meet-and-greet "coffees" at the homes of supporters. In addition to providing an opportunity to meet voters, the invitation for the event has an impact even if voters don’t attend. “They see that you’re out there. They see you’re in the neighborhood," Brinkman said.
Brigid Kelly, who’s running to succeed term-limited Denise Driehaus for the 31st District seat in the Ohio House, said she went door to door when she ran successfully for Norwood City Council and is knocking on doors again in her first race for state representative.
“It’s all part of the bigger recipe for us to meet as many voters as we can," said Kelly, who said she plans to rev up her campaign now that Labor Day has passed.
"I personally love knocking on doors and talking to people and becoming more familiar with the different parts of the district," Kelly said.
Kelly also pointed out that, like other candidates, she and the volunteers who are knocking on doors for her have to be selective, focusing on people who routinely vote and especially on Democrats who would be inclined to support her because they share a party affiliation.
When she won the six-way primary election in March, Kelly said she and volunteers knocked on about 7,000 doors in a district where there are probably 100,000 residential addresses.
In addition to learning about issues that were important to voters, door-knocking gave her an opportunity to familiarize herself firsthand with the geography of the district and practical information about “where the big hills are and where the houses are far apart.”
Marisa McNee, president of Middle Coast, a Covington firm that focuses on political communications, said no other tactic works as well as door-to-door campaigning in an effort to “reach, persuade and turn voters.”
Even though much of the work that Middle Coast does is digital, McNee said there’s no data that shows that working online is more effective than an old-fashioned, door-to-door campaign.
Phil Van Treuren is a former political consultant who runs a campaign tips website, wrote a book about campaigning called “How to Launch a Kick-Ass Campaign … and WIN!", and serves as a member of the city council in Amherst, Ohio, which is about 30 miles west of Cleveland.
“In a smaller campaign … it’s one of the most powerful things that you can do," said Van Treuren, who added that he’s knocked on every door in his small town of about 12,000 a number of times during each of his races for council. “The first race I ran in I knew I would win when one voter said, ‘I am so tired of seeing your face,'” he said.
In a campaign tips column on his website, Van Treuren also emphasized that the tactic works best when geography is in the candidate’s favor.
"The smaller your race, the more effective D2D (door-to-door) will be for you. Serious candidates running for governor or U.S. Senate don’t do much neighborhood walking (except for photo ops), because it’s not an effective use of their time," he said in the column. "When your voter universe is in the hundreds of thousands, it’s not possible for a candidate to make an impact from personally campaigning door-to-door."
Kelly, the 31st District Democrat, said she typically goes door to door with another volunteer and that she doesn’t recall any situation where she felt threatened by anyone she encountered. She did say, however, that she’s cautious about dogs that might be hanging out near the front door.
Run into anything else that was unexpected?
"One thing that surprised me was some people’s attire (when they answered the door) and how some people were in various stages of undress," Kelly said.