Canvassing the 5th District

Justin Hodge’s circular dining room table is cluttered. A printer hums as it spits out precinct addresses. Two laptops sit next to each other, with a microphone standing in the middle of the table. Later that afternoon Hodge will be recording a two-minute promo for WEMU’s Soapbox Summer, free air time to all candidates running for office in Washtenaw County.

Hodge is typing away at one of these laptops, figuring out the script he wants volunteers to read as they go door-to-door. The language will be important. Hodge calculates he needs 2600 votes to win the Democratic primary. At the conclusion of the script he asks people if he can count on their support. The more people who say yes, the closer he gets to 2600.

This magic number holds even though there has been a late entrant into the race. A third candidate has opted to wage a write-in campaign. Sharing similar demographic characteristics as Hodge, this late-entrant could take just enough votes away from Hodge to allow the incumbent to win the primary. This development has made securing as many votes as possible a priority.

Campaign volunteer Kevin returns to Hodge’s apartment with a bag of ice. Hodge’s wife, Tajalli, places the ice in a cooler, along with several bottles of water, and everyone departs for Lakeview Park, only two blocks down the road. There a group of eight assembles to knock on doors throughout the district.

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Justin Hodge (center) and campaign volunteers in Lakeview Park prior to canvassing

Hodge ensures the efforts of the volunteers are well-organized. In pairs, each group carries 1 bag of campaign literature, 1 clip board, a packet of voter registration forms, a packet of absentee ballot request forms, a list of addresses to reach, the script to read, and a stack of post-it notes to leave behind in case no one is home. Hodge has written his name, phone number, and a brief message on to each of these post-its.

But this is twentieth-century canvassing. In 2018, Hodge employs an additional tool to canvas the 5thdistrict of Washtenaw County. The proliferation of smart phones has allowed apps to aid campaigns in gathering information about potential voters. Each volunteer has downloaded Minivan, not an app to look at the latest model from Chrysler, but an app Hodge has pre-loaded with lists of voters to target. The app allows volunteers to find the nearest address, and to record information about the encounter. They can indicate whether the voter was not home, refused to receive information, whether they support Hodge, are undecided, and more. This information gets recorded and synced so that future canvassing drives will know which voters are already Hodge supporters, which haven’t been targeted yet, and so forth.

Hodge is leaving nothing to chance in the race. He knows the new write-in candidate will not be knocking on doors in the district, nor will the incumbent, who is significantly older and may be running her last campaign. The more he can do to win votes, the more likely he will be to win.

The volunteers fan out to different parts of the district. There are 14 voting precincts in the 5thdistrict. Hodge intends to canvass all of them before the August 7 primary. Kevin pairs with Hodge, equipped with a large digital camera. They use the opportunity to shoot B-role for a video promo Hodge will post to Youtube.

The video serves to not only get Hodge’s name out there, but also to raise money for the campaign. Footage interacting with voters is standard in most campaigns.

On this day, the weather does not cooperate for long. Hodge is satisfied with the footage he and Kevin shoot, but before long rain forces volunteers to suspend activities for the day.

After volunteers disperse, Hodge returns to his apartment to record the promo with

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Hodge rehearsing the radio spot for WEMU’s Soapbox Summer

Kevin. The rain has not dampened his enthusiasm for the campaign, but he allows a moment of circumspection. On top of the campaign, Hodge is closing on a new house, and preparing to move a few weeks before the election. He’s also starting a new position at the University of Michigan. The work-life balance weighs on him momentarily.

“If I’m unsuccessful,” Hodge says, “it’ll be because I’ve got too many things going on.”

As he rehearses his script for the radio spot, it’s clear Hodge has no intention of being unsuccessful, despite all that’s going on in his life. And it may be that outside forces work to his benefit. The County Commission race appears down ballot from higher profile campaigns for Governor, State Representative, and so forth. There is literature for a State Representative candidate in Hodge’s mailbox. Acknowledging the mailer, Hodge notes that a competitive primary in that race, as well as the Governor’s race, could boost Democratic turnout overall, and give Hodge the votes he needs to win.

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