Samuel Wright, a retired steel worker who has been a loyal Democrat ever since his father pounded the dinner table for Franklin D. Roosevelt, set out one recent afternoon to find the people who, like himself, could help win a close election for President Carter in Maryland.
They weren't hard to find. Dozens of them were sitting on the stoops or clustered around the televisions in the pocked-brick row houses that fill Wright's predominantly black neighborhood in East Baltimore, where voter registration is low and unemployment is so real that many people don't think of blaming it on a president 30 miles away.
"What party?" his neighbors would ask Wright while he watched them fill out the registration applications he carried door-to-door.
"Put Democrat," Wright would say. "Republicans are for big business. Democrats are for the poor people.
That simply, Wright registered 26 Democratic voters in an hour and a half of late afternoon sunshine, earning $13 -- at 50 cents a head -- from the Democratic Committee's targeted voter registration campaign. On election day, the East Baltimore Democratic Organization, which will get at least part of Wright's check, will see to it that most of the 26 make it to the polls, and thank to tradition and volunteers like Wright, Carter will most likely will get all of the votes.
The DNC had budgeted $20,000 in Maryland this fall to encourage this sort of trench-line work in selected precinticts in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and the Washington suburbs. And the success of this low-profile, door-to-door campaign, the president's coordinators say, could have more to do with the fate of the state's 10 electoral votes than any amount of media-celebrated campaigning.
"It's crucial in a campaign like this," says David Doak, Carter's coordinator for Maryland. Baltimore and Washington's suburbs, the theory goes, are teeming with people who would be likely to vote Democratic, but who have never bothered to register. If thousands of these natural or traditional Democrats can be found, registered, and brought to the polls on election day, their votes could blot our anti-Carter sentiment everywhere else.
The strategy is as simple as a mathematic equation. No flyers, speeches, or television spots are necessary. Instead, a computer at the DNC's headquarters in Washington has been fed the results of six recent elections in Maryland, precinct by precinct. Out of the computer has come a list of precincts where the Democratic vote has been 70 percent or higher, and where the turnout tends to be relatively strong.
The list of 345 precincts in Baltimore has been handed over to the city's traditional Democratic ward organizations, who, with the help of the 50-cent-a-head bounty, have recruited workers like Wright do work the neighborhoods, door-to-door. Lists of the voters they register are being kept, and all will be called and encouraged to vote when November arrives.
There have been mechanical problems with this mechanical campaign. The computer did not deliver its list of Prince George's and Montgomery County precincts until late last week, leaving only one good weekend for the campaign before the Oct. 6 registration deadline.
Even in Balitmore, the key to any statewide Democratic victory, work did not begin until two weeks ago, although some organizations in the city conducted their own registration drives in August.
Before work started Saturday, party-workers estimated they had registered as many as 2,000 voters here, which is nearly 1 percent of all those who voted in the city in 1976.
In contrast, Ronald Reagan's Maryland organization is largely ignoring voter registration in a state where the trend is two-to-one Democratic, and has put together a well-financed phone bank network in August that may outdo the Carter campaign with a different mechanical techinique: finding Reagan's sympathizers by dialing through voting lists, keeping records of them, and calling them repeatedly to make sure they turn out.
"Our registration effort is over -- we didn't care to count the results," said Don Devine, Reagan's Maryland coordinator. "For us, the name of the game is getting people out to vote."
The Democratic organizations of Baltimore plan their own telephone canvasses, too, but for now, registration is crucial. In East Baltimore, for example, nearly 5,000 voters -- most of them Democrats -- were removed from their voting lists last summer because their addresses were incorrect or they had not voted in five years. That means 5,000 must be found and registered again this fall just to maintain the status quo.
"These are good voting districts," said Carolyn Stith, who is managing the registration drive for the East Baltimore organization. "But you have to go and find the people -- they won't come to you."
Some of the new voters Wright found last week were not immediately willing to bend to the predictions of the computers. "Which party is Carter?" asked one young woman Wright registered. "Democrat? Then I won't be Democrat." o
But in the end, the party knows, these will be Carter's votes."What party was John F. Kennedy?" the woman finally asked Wright. "OK, if he's a Democrat, then I'll be a Democrat I guess."