In his first taste of local politics, Alex Kohl has been struck by how disconnected voters are from city races.

“What I was really surprised by is the apathy,” said Kohl, a 26-year-old SDSU student who enrolled under the G.I. Bill after spending three years in Japan with the Navy. “I feel like with national politics, it’s all about entertainment, but nothing ever happens. Where with local politics, this is the stuff that actually matters to most people’s lives.”

He’s been volunteering for Deputy District Attorney Robert Hickey’s campaign for city attorney since January, walking precincts a few times a week. On Saturday, he hit two neighborhoods in Rancho Peñasquitos.

At more than 50 homes on Saturday afternoon, Kohl’s pitch is relentlessly on message: I’m a supporter of Bob Hickey for city attorney. He’s the only candidate with prosecutorial experience. The office prosecutes 30,000 criminal cases a year. As a prosecutor he convicted the gunman who killed two innocent women and injured a child in a gang shooting. Can we count on your vote?

More often than not, the response is even simpler: Is he a Republican? (Yes). Well, then he’s got my vote.

Kohl and other volunteers citywide are part of campaigns’ attempts to mobilize voters. Scholarly research says a ground campaign can be worth a few percentage points – plenty to win or lose a close race.

Campaigns and parties comb voter files and other available consumer data to identify potential supporters, and those they believe they’ve got a reasonable chance of persuading. Many volunteers – usually those representing the local party itself – are there to make sure reliable supporters don’t forget to vote.

Candidate campaigns are more likely to go after people they have reason to believe are undecided, but even then, they focus simply on relaying information on the candidate, not staging arguments in a doorway.

Kohl got one chance to shine on Saturday. One voter was just then researching the candidates, hoping to decide who was best for the job, he said. Changes to state law would mean more criminal cases for the city attorney’s office, so Hickey’s experience is only getting more important, Kohl said. Plus, Hickey is already managing lawyers, just like he’d have to do for 300 city attorneys if he wins. Hickey could count on his support, the voter said.

“This is my first run, so I don’t have any experience winning or losing a campaign,” Kohl said. “But if we win, things like that will make me feel like I contributed.”

Nonetheless, walking precincts for a weekend is a useful reminder: For all the policy-parsing, fact-checking and trend-watching that precedes an election, city races are usually afterthoughts to even the most active voters.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez laid it out for a team of volunteers walking for her and three fellow Democratic candidates on Sunday. Their job wasn’t to go win hearts and minds; it’s just to remind voters Tuesday is Election Day.

“What we’re going to try to do today is not worry about convincing people, beyond the fact that they have to get out on Tuesday,” she said. “Just remind the Democrats who haven’t voted who the Democrat is in each race because it gets harder as you go down the ticket.”

The group canvassed Golden Hill for Gonzalez, City Council candidate Chris Ward, city attorney candidate Gil Cabrera and mayoral candidate Ed Harris.

GOTV Cabrera

Local attorney Omar Passons, who works at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, brought the message to a few dozen homes: Your polling place is Golden Hill Elementary. If you haven’t voted by mail yet, it’s too late. Vote for Gonzalez for Assembly, Ward for Council, Cabrera for city attorney and Harris for mayor. Is there anything else I can help you with?

Again, the most common question got right to the point: Are they Democrats? (Yes). Well, they’ve got my vote.

Passons said he likes hearing what people who don’t work in politics care about. But since most people aren’t so eager to delve into their wishes for local government, walking tends to remind him of the basic principle that drives get-out-the-vote efforts: People who register with a party and have voted in the past are likely to vote again – if you keep reminding them.

“Also, my experience walking for one Republican before and several Democrats is that lots of people really do focus on the party of the person running, even in a non-partisan race,” he said.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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