With the presidential election likely to be decided in a handful of closely contested states, thousands of Americans are now practicing democracy-to-go, leaving home for days, weeks and even months to try to sway votes in the few battlegrounds where they feel they still can make a difference.
There is Bernard von Bothmer, 38, a doctoral history student in Indiana, a state solidly in President Bush's corner, who drives several hours most weekends into up-for-grabs Ohio, where he passes out John F. Kerry bumper stickers on the theory that "a Kerry sticker would have more effect on a car in Ohio than in a state that is voting for Bush."
There is Derek Combs, 36, a Federal Bureau of Prisons employee in Kentucky (Bush country), who has volunteered to fly to New Hampshire (leaning weakly to Kerry) to try to grab that state's four electoral votes for the president.
There are Sam and Gretchen Feldman, retirees in their seventies in Massachusetts (Kerry country), who are flying to hotly contested Florida to work through Election Day for Kerry because, said Sam, "I don't want to wake up on November 3 and feel I haven't done everything I possibly could to make a change in the government."
And there is John Burton, 24, a Harvard-educated Washington economist, who is going to Akron for Election Protection, a civil rights coalition expected to deploy 25,000 volunteer watchdogs against fraud in heavily minority voting districts in 17 states. A Florida native, Burton said the lesson he learned in 2000 is that "there's nothing more important than the integrity of the ballot."
They are among tens of thousands of men and women driving, flying, carpooling and riding buses across state lines -- even across the country -- in an explosion of strategically targeted activism that has stunned operatives in both major parties. Many of those involved said they have never before worked for a political campaign.
"I call it 'Lawyers Without Borders,' " cracked Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker, referring to the organization Doctors Without Borders and quickly adding that lawyers are hardly the only ones hitting the road. "It's a measure of the incredible intensity of this election. People believe there's a great deal riding on it, and they understand, remarkably, that merely casting a vote in a safe state is a limited asset to the side they want to support."
Outpouring of Voters
Dozens of traveling volunteers said in interviews that their intensity comes equally from their perception of stark differences between Bush and Kerry and from the long shadow of the contested 2000 election. Republicans and Democrats said they learned from the Florida recount that every last vote and any irregularities in a close race can change the national outcome. "We don't want another Florida, not in Florida, Ohio or any state," said Ralph Neas, head of the Election Protection coalition.
So, just as the campaigns have all but ignored solidly "red" (pro-Bush) states such as Virginia and Texas and solidly "blue" (pro-Kerry) states such as Maryland and California, tens of thousands of voters in those states have left in search of the real struggle.
Some are working through the campaigns, national parties and interest groups on canvassing, phone banking, poll-watching or driving voters to the polls. But the outpouring, particularly among anti-Bush forces, has in many cases overwhelmed the infrastructure set up to capitalize on it.
While pro-Kerry volunteers were eager to talk about their travels and efforts, Republican volunteers even in small towns referred a reporter to the Republican National Committee, saying they have been instructed not to talk about their activities.
EMILY's List, a Democratic abortion-rights fundraising coalition supporting Kerry, recently e-mailed members seeking volunteers to fly to Florida at the organization's expense to get out the vote on Election Day. "Within 36 hours, we had filled four planes with 650 people, and we had such a large waiting list we had to shut it down," said Karen White, the national political director.
Undeterred, anti-Bush volunteers are finding each other on the Internet, through such Web sites as drivingvotes.org, a sort of virtual carpool where people have posted dozens of planned trips to swing states, inviting like-minded travelers to join them and share expenses. A San Francisco posting reads: "This is the end game. Join us and hundreds of other activists massing in Las Vegas for the final push. Door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, rallies -- we'll do everything it takes to turn Nevada blue and send Bush packing!"
The site advertises that it is "not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee."
The movement is being financed by every imaginable political funding source. On the Democratic side, many volunteers interviewed said they are paying their own expenses. The Kerry campaign Web site specifies that it will not pay transportation to swing states. Meanwhile, a coalition of 33 liberal organizations known as America Votes, whose members support Kerry but are barred by law from coordinating with his campaign, is expected to deploy 30,000 volunteers to the same swing states -- 15,000 from outside those states -- and paying some or all expenses for many of them. The coalition includes labor, civil rights, environmentalist, abortion rights and gun control groups as well as so-called 527s such as America Coming Together and MoveOn.
The pro-Bush effort is far more centralized, run out of the Republican National Committee, which refuses to release details and has instructed volunteers through a Web site to "have NO contact with the media." The Bush campaign Web site recruits volunteers, and the RNC is deploying them through its 72 Hour Task Force, assigning each person a state and district and paying plane fare, hotels and $25 a day in expenses. This is how Combs, the federal prisons employee in Kentucky, came to be traveling to faraway New Hampshire later this week.
RNC spokeswoman Christine Iverson said information is being closely held to keep the GOP strategy from reaching Democrats. The policy is so strictly enforced that GOP volunteers contacted in Ohio, Kentucky, Florida and Washington, D.C., refused to talk to a reporter even about nonstrategic matters such as the feelings behind their activism. Combs agreed only after Iverson called him at a reporter's request and gave him permission. Asked for access to other volunteers, Iverson supplied only one: a Republican House staffer who said he often travels to volunteer in close races.
College Republicans, also coordinated by the RNC, are more talkative. Lee Roupas, a George Washington senior who is the president of the D.C. Federation of College Republicans, said that 35 students from George Washington, American and Georgetown universities have piled every Saturday for the last month into RNC-supplied vans and traveled to Pennsylvania suburbs, including Radnor, Lansdale and Blue Bell, where Bush needs huge turnouts to blunt the Democratic advantage in Philadelphia.
He said the RNC has paid for their hotels, food and transportation and assigned them to districts where they have knocked on doors, handed out leaflets and worked phones to help compile get-out-the-vote lists of Bush supporters. Other college groups have gone from California to Oregon and from Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi to Florida.
"When you have such a battleground state 21/2 hours away, it just makes much more sense to go try to win that," Roupas said. "It's such an uphill battle in D.C., and there's just three electoral votes."
The pro-Kerry organization appears somewhat more haphazard. Marvin Gettleman, a retired history professor in New York, said he started calling the Pennsylvania Democratic Party over the summer to try to volunteer there for Kerry, but no one called back. Frustrated, he tried Ohio, where the Democratic Party immediately deployed him to economically hard-hit southeastern Ohio, a GOP stronghold. He left New York on Sept. 13 and has been in Kerry's Marietta, Ohio, headquarters since.
"Unless we get a good turnout, it'll drag Kerry's state total down," Gettleman said, during a break from his 12-hour day. "We might swing it here."
In the last week, he said, volunteers have begun streaming in from other states. Last Sunday brought Dick Silverman and John Klein from blue America (Providence, R.I., and Chicago, respectively). Both 65 and close friends since meeting as undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, they said they felt "doomed by the electoral system," in Silverman's words, as they watched the election on the sidelines from blue states.
"I called John and told him I was going to do this, and in a nanosecond, he said, 'I'm doing it, too,' " Silverman said. Now they are canvassing or manning phone banks by day and catching up on each other's lives at night. Klein, an independent, said he never had worked in a campaign.
"People are very nice to us," Klein said. "We're a couple of old geezers who aren't threatening, and we're speaking from our hearts."
Many traveling volunteers fit the profile of those who flocked to the upstart Democratic primary campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean -- twentysomethings or retirees who are relatively free of work and family obligations. The New York Observer wrote archly of rich, retired Manhattanites stumping in swing states under the headline, "Dowagers, Celebs Schlep to Sticks to Register Rubes."
But perhaps most unusual is an outpouring of parents with school-age children who have volunteered as monitors or lawyers for Election Protection, which plans to patrol for fraud in 3,500 precincts in 17 states.
Molly Teas, a specialist in international education who lives in Cleveland Park, held a house party to urge friends and acquaintances to create a "meaningful vacation" by visiting friends in battleground states, sharing babysitters and volunteering together. She, her husband and two young children are going to Cincinnati, where they will go trick-or-treating with friends on Halloween and the adults will monitor the election the following Tuesday.
Indeed, many of the traveling troops seem to enjoy themselves immensely. Some have combined canvassing with socializing, while others have combined it with sporting events. The College Republicans are busing students from Georgia to Jacksonville, Fla., for the Georgia-Florida football game Oct. 30, then putting the Georgians to work to get out the Florida vote for Bush.
"To be involved in any political campaign is to be involved in something larger than yourself," said Baker, the Rutgers political scientist. "People in the military have that feeling all the time. But we live in such private worlds that working together for a higher common purpose is both a novelty and a source of great exhilaration."
Staff writer Chris Davenport and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.