LANSING, Michigan – Gary Cates wasn’t afraid to politely ask anyone – from dog walkers to neighbors chatting on their lawns – if they planned to vote for a presidential nominee in Tuesday’s Michigan primary.
He trudged through slush-covered sidewalks Monday, clutching dozens of John Kasich campaign fliers and door hangers. Every time a Lansing resident agreed to accept one of those campaign fliers, Cates left the conversation with a big grin. He just might have won that voter over, he thought.
“When they take the campaign literature, that’s a good sign,” Cates said as he walked away from a Lansing doorstep. The man had just agreed to read the Kasich pamphlet.
Cates, a West Chester Township resident and former Ohio representative, is among hundreds of Ohioans who embarked on an hours-long drive north to volunteer for Kasich’s Michigan campaign.
Kasich’s campaign estimates 1,000 volunteers are fanned out in Michigan to knock on doors and make phone calls on behalf of the Ohio governor. They’re making one final plea for Michigan voters to pull the lever for Kasich in Tuesday’s presidential primary.
Those volunteers walked dozens of miles in temperatures that dipped below freezing this weekend, and each one interviewed for this story said their carful of volunteers knocked on hundreds of doors.
The campaign hopes a strong network of people on the ground will help Kasich perform well in Michigan, ahead of the Ohio primary on March 15. A standout job in the Michigan primary might also prove that Kasich will do well in Midwestern states.
A strong ground game strategy paid off in New Hampshire, where Kasich pulled off an unexpected second place finish.
Now, the campaign hopes to repeat that success up north.
Volunteers believe Kasich’s team might have more troops deployed in neighborhoods throughout Michigan than any of the other Republican candidates. They haven't seen other Republican campaigns around town.
“I think people are surprised to see us,” said Jim Benedict, a consultant for Cincinnati-based Government Strategies Group. Benedict also traveled to Lansing. “I had an undecided voter today that said, ‘I’m still undecided but it means a lot that you traveled all the way from Ohio.’”
The in-person gesture was impressive to John Diehl, a 71-year-old Republican and Lansing resident. Diehl said he’s never seen a campaign come through the city. He already voted with an absentee ballot for Marco Rubio, but after Kasich’s strong performance in Thursday’s debate and seeing a team of campaign volunteers walk through the neighborhood, he was giving Kasich a second thought.
“I think I would have voted for him,” Diehl said of Kasich.
That kind of response is why volunteers say they want to get Kasich’s message out to potential voters, even if it means knocking on hundreds of doors, said Doug Moormann, a Cincinnati resident and political strategist for Government Strategies Group.
Moormann said many Kasich supporters are frustrated that Donald Trump has eaten up much of the attention in this political race. He believes if more people heard about Kasich, they would be more inclined to vote for him.
As proof, he points to Kasich’s strong performance in New Hampshire, a state where the Ohio governor held more than 100 town halls for residents.
“He worked really hard on those town halls,” Moormann said. “You wish you could bottle that up and take it to other states.”
The volunteers are trying.
More than 50 volunteers packed into the campaign’s Lansing headquarters shortly after 9 a.m. Monday morning.
The office, decorated with Kasich campaign signs, sits just off the highway in a nearly vacant strip mall. The smell of last night’s pizza and coffee fill the room. With just 24 hours left to go before the Michigan polls open, people hurriedly dial digits.
There, among the rows of people talking on their phones, was 53-year-old Vinnie Cooper, who left his home in southern California to work on the campaign this weekend. He booked a flight on his own dime and took off from his job to work 12-hour days for the campaign in Michigan this weekend.
Most of the 1,000 volunteers working in the Wolverine State are from Ohio, but a spokeswoman with the campaign said volunteers came from more than 20 states.
Cooper said he’s liked Kasich since he first announced his candidacy last summer. A win in Michigan could be a game-changer for the Ohio governor.
“Michigan is critical,” Cooper said. “Michigan, I feel, will put him in the national limelight where he belongs.”
Polls from a week or two ago indicated Kasich didn’t have a chance to stand out in Michigan on Tuesday. That’s changed since Thursday’s debate. One poll out Saturday shows Kasich beating front-runner Donald Trump in the Michigan primary. Another poll from Monmouth University out Monday showed him tied for second.
Several campaign volunteers said voters tell them they’re giving the Ohio governor a second look after Thursday’s debate.
Cates talked with more than a dozen people Monday morning in one Lansing neighborhood that looked like it could have been plucked out of an Ohio suburb. A few neighbors took his campaign literature or told him they liked the Ohio governor. Some even told him they plan to vote for Kasich.
One woman told Cates she was a Bernie Sanders supporter and closed the door on him.
But there was one response that probably stung the most: a woman who told Cates she liked Kasich but she wouldn’t vote for him.
“He’s a very nice man,” the woman said several times of Kasich.
Instead, she said her vote will go to Texas Senator Ted Cruz because she think he’s the only Republican candidate who can beat Trump.
Cates walked away hoping maybe she would reconsider. Still, volunteers said several Lansing Republicans told them they won’t vote for Kasich because they were doubtful he could beat Trump for the Republican nomination.
“That’s the most frustrating thing you can hear,” Moormann said.
But a win in Michigan and again in Ohio could change all of that, Moormann added.
“A couple of big state wins and he’s still in it,” Moormann said of Kasich. “People like to vote for a winner.”