fb-pixel Skip to main content

In Elizabeth Warren camp, a door-to-door formula

Brookline resident Tom Kennedy was quizzed by Julie Rafferty, a volunteer for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

BROOKLINE — Beneath a steady Sunday afternoon drizzle, Julie and Michael Rafferty pile into their blue Honda Civic, she at the wheel, he riding shotgun, a clipboard between them.

The target set by Elizabeth Warren’s campaign: Make 60 get-out-the-vote visits in a single afternoon. Ambitious, but doable. Less a sales pitch than a pop quiz, each visit is intended to assess support for Warren, or her opponent, Scott Brown.

A man answers the door on Jamaica Road. Barely a few words into Julie Rafferty’s patter, he smiles and cuts her off.

“I hope she wins,” he says.

But does he know where to find his polling place? Will he need a ride to the polls on Nov. 6? Good thing, too. His polling place had changed and he had no idea.


The Democratic get-out-the-vote machine in Massachusetts — a concept developed in large part by former governor Michael Dukakis over his career — has long been on the cutting edge of grass-roots campaign organizing nationwide. With Warren locked in a tight battle to unseat Brown, Democrats in this state hope an updated version of those ground efforts will again help give them an edge.

Brown’s campaign has its own get-out-the-vote effort, coordinated through the state Republican Party. But by all appearances, it does not have the sophistication or the manpower that the Democrats have amassed, despite the millions that Brown has raised.

“We just lack the number of bodies that the Democrats have because of the registration disadvantage,’’ said Rob Gray, a veteran Republican strategist. “We don’t have the major assets the Democrats have, such as unions and an elected infrastructure that includes the aides and interns who work in the political offices and are willing to make phone calls and knock on doors because their bosses want them to and they want to advance their careers.’’


Every weekend for months, armies of Democratic volunteers have hit neighborhoods in search of likely Warren voters. Like the Raffertys, they carry clipboards with asterisks under each resident’s name, indicating voter frequency: Four stars for consistent voters, one for a spotty or infrequent record.

From home to home, the interactions at the door are unexpectedly fast. Their focus is identification, with every piece of information about the voter tabulated, a check mark noting a voter’s predilections: Strong Warren, Lean Warren, Undecided. Lean Brown, Strong Brown.

Once they’ve found potential Warren supporters, they’ll follow up on Election Day, by phone, or at the door if no one answers. It’s like that all day, until the resident casts a ballot, or the polls close.

The state Democratic Party says its volunteers have knocked on 300,000 doors in the last month alone. Since the campaign began, they have made more than 5 million attempts to contact voters, either in person or by phone. They also have 74 paid field organizers, with 48 field offices.

The state GOP says it has 12 field organizers, staffing about a dozen offices statewide. That’s in addition to 23 offices run by local GOP groups, in coordination with the party, that work on behalf of legislative candidates as well as Brown. In all, they say, they have made more than 2 million “voter contacts,” many of them by phone. The party declined to be more specific.

A political neophyte named Deval Patrick learned about the power of the Democratic machine in 2005, soon after he had launched his long-shot bid for governor and was in Los Angeles on business. While there, he popped into the office of a college professor with deep roots in the Massachusetts political world. “What are you doing here? Get back to Boston,’’ Dukakis, the state’s Democratic statesman, exhorted Patrick. “There are over 2,100 precincts in the state and you have less than a year to organize everyone of them before the party caucuses.’’


Dukakis, whose three terms as governor is a record in the modern era, has for years preached that grass-roots, get-out-the-vote organizing is the most critical component of a campaign. He refined that strategy over his three decades of campaigns, from his first state representative race in 1962 to his victory in the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses in 1988.

“It’s traditional politics but it is still the most effective way to campaign,’’ he said.

Dukakis didn’t invent the idea, but he refined the concept and used it to great effect. By 1982, in his famous comeback, he had made something of science out of it, creating the template for a statewide field organization that political insiders now reference.

Patrick took Dukakis’s advice to heart. He flew back to Boston, hired a campaign manager, John Walsh, a veteran field organizer from the South Shore, and set about building a hugely impressive statewide political organization, harnessing the latest Internet technology to help.

It played a major factor when Patrick, with Walsh’s talents for field operations, turned the gubernatorial race on its head. He won a party convention endorsement against all odds and then scored landslide primary and general election victories in 2006. Four years later, it was critical to his extraordinary political comeback to win a second term.


Now, the Dukakis/Patrick get-out-the-vote model — with significant updates to reflect the arrival of social media — is what Walsh and Democrats in Massachusetts hope will help Warren edge Brown on Tuesday. A Globe poll this week indicated 7the race is a dead heat.

The approach is also expected to play a critical role in the presidential race. That’s because President Obama’s chief consultants, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, served as chief consultants to the 2006 Patrick campaign, watching Walsh and his crew at work.

Plouffe wrote in his recent book, “The Audacity to Win,” that when they planned Obama’s 2008 campaign, it was Patrick’s machine that served as the paradigm that led the Chicago-based consultants to construct what has been described as the largest grass-roots operation in the nation’s political history. As Obama’s team began to consider a presidential race, Plouffe wrote, they looked at some of the new “techniques and political currents that would emerge so forcefully in 2008.’’

He then pointed to the Patrick campaign: “Axelrod and I had worked on the tremendously long-shot gubernatorial campaign of Deval Patrick of Massachusetts in 2006 where we worked with a campaign that was doing some fascinating and new stuff using the Internet to organize and communicate message — from scratch, like we would have to do.”


This year, in a presidential race that could be decided by razor-thin margins in key states, the organizational skills that have roots in Dukakis’s Massachusetts political machine could make the difference. Experts feel that a get-out-the-vote operation on Election Day can add as much as two to three percentage points.

“In a close election, a ground game is of paramount importance,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at the Martin Institute at Stonehill College.

Dukakis, the grandfather of the field operation, called it critical. “There is no substitute for that precinct worker walking up to someone’s door,” he said. The politician who wrote the book on Massachusetts grass-roots campaigning five decades ago, is still going strong, this time around for Warren. On a recent Saturday, Dukakis, 78, stormed the sidewalks to knock on doors in Milton. When no one answered one door, he charged toward a side entrance, ignoring the barking dogs. “Republican dogs,” he grimaced.

The homeowner turned out to be nearly as unwelcoming as her pets. Soon, he was charging toward a house decked out for fall festivities, surprising voter Mary Foley, a pediatric nurse and an independent.

“You look great!” Foley said.

“78!” he said.

But as much as she enjoyed the visit, Foley said she wasn’t sold on the candidate. She remained undecided.

Globe correspondent Matt Byrne and Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.