Call for Coakley: How Three Votes Can Tip an Election

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Paul Loeb Author, 'Soul of a Citizen' and 'The Impossible Will Take a Little While'

On election day 2004, I was canvassing in my home state of Washington, alternating between knocking on doors for gubernatorial candidate Christine Gregoire and breaking to call Ohio and Florida. After three recounts, Gregoire won by 129 votes. I had no idea my state election was so close, but I did get three people who wouldn't have otherwise voted: One forgot it was election day. One needed a ride to the polls. A third didn't know how to turn in her absentee ballot. If you multiply my efforts by those of thousands of other volunteers, we clearly helped make the difference. Had more volunteered on the other side, the results would be reversed.

I'm thinking about this in terms of the election to fill Ted Kennedy's seat. The Democrats have disappointed many of us. But Kennedy fought for progressive change the bulk of his life. Martha Coakley may not be a great campaigner, but she's worked and voted for the same causes, while her opponent, Scott Brown, is a right wing Republican who's opposed everything Kennedy ever stood for. If people are pissed at Obama and the Democratic Senate for not doing all they promised, electing Brown adds yet another right wing Senator for three years or longer. With turnout likely to be low, Republicans motivated, and polls showing a toss-up or even a slight Brown lead, it would be a tragedy if he slipped in on resentment backlash, and the demoralization of progressive voters and volunteers.

Many of us know that, and we're hoping Coakley will pull it out, but that's not enough. We can donate, and should. But we can also call, as so many of us did, in 2006 and 2008. And those calls do make a difference, and even more in an off-year election where turnout is likely to be low, where the positions of the candidates can be blurred, and where there's a third party, unrelated conservative Kennedy on the ballot. Imagine if we each convinced three additional voters, or one or two, and 20,000 other volunteers did the same, and the margin ended up a thousand votes, five hundred votes, or the 312 votes that elected Al Franken over the execrable Norm Coleman in 2008.

I remember calling in 2006 through MoveOn's Call for Change program, contacting voters in Virginia, Missouri, Montana, and other states with key Senate and Congressional races. Grabbing spare moments where I could, I dialed my way across the country, convincing maybe 20 people who wouldn't have otherwise to back the Democratic challengers. Some initially resisted saying, "They're all the same. They're all corrupts." Or "My vote won't matter so why bother." But I convinced them to vote, and added a few with election-day reminders. Later I read that MoveOn had 120,000 volunteers. If each had half the impact of my efforts, that meant over a million votes, in a season when US Senate seats swung on margins as close as Montana's 3,500 votes, Virginia's 9,000, Rhode Island's 29,000, or Missouri's 48,000, our common efforts tipped the balance. Many of us made a key difference calling states like Minnesota, Ohio, North Carolina and Indiana in 2008. And the Senators we elected in 2006 and in 2008 have been good ones, and by and large supported decent agendas, in contrast with ones like Lieberman, Nelson, and Baucus. They haven't been the problem.

It's easy to think of our individual election volunteering as insignificant. But when enough of us act even in small ways, we can have a powerful impact. Studies have found that if you talk to a dozen people by going door-to-door, you'll likely add at least one new voter for your candidate, a ratio that tends to hold true from local to federal elections, so long as you're working in reasonably receptive neighborhoods. Phone outreach can have a similar impact, though you need to talk with more people for a comparable result.

We all have more than enough demands on our time, but even if we just each spend a hour, it could tip the difference. I had no idea my efforts would be so critical in 2004. They may well be again.

Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times, which St Martin's will publish April 5 in a wholly revised edition, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. See To receive Paul's articles directly email with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles