LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Dozens of GW students piled into an old coach bus Friday at 8 a.m., armed with pillows and coffees to sustain them through a 10-hour drive to Kentucky.
Several episodes of the West Wing later, the GW College Democrats arrived at a labor hall in Louisville where they would be sleeping for the next two nights in between canvassing for Senate-hopeful Alison Grimes.
By Sunday, they knocked on a total of 5,000 doors. For the 750 residents who didn’t shut the door in their faces, the students focused on talking points like affordable education and the minimum wage to try to turn potential voters into Democratic check marks. They’ll have a hand in the tight race, which has become one of the most closely watched this election cycle as the political outsider looks to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“People understand that as a kid you’re still kind of starry eyed and believe in what you’re doing,” College Democrats President Connor Schmidt said. “They’re interested in why you’re out there.”
Some headed out to local fast food restaurants like Waffle House for dinner, while others stayed in to relax, finish homework, watch movies on their computers and eat pizza.
Get Out the Vote directors offered advice for how to connect with voters, suggesting that students discuss what aspects of Grimes’ platform meant to them or ask about an individual voter’s interests. Students used suggested scripts to role play knocking on doors and debated whether to address residents as “sir” or “ma’am” or by name. They also taught students how to respond to potential dangers, like threatening signs or residents who cursed at them.
On Friday at 7:30 a.m. the students were bussed to the Louisville suburbs, packets and pens in hand. They joined groups from universities in Indiana, like Purdue, Ball State and Wabash, helping persuade undecided voters to make it to their polling places next month.
In their first time canvassing, freshmen Michelle Berger and Logan Malick visited nearly 100 homes and spoke to about 20 residents within three hours Saturday. At first, the only responses they received were from dogs barking at them from inside the houses.
But soon they met dozens of residents interested in hearing them make pitches. When speaking to a middle-aged woman with a toddler, Berger mentioned Grimes’ stances on early childhood education and eventually affordable higher education, which she thought would interest the her.
For one woman in her 20s, Berger discussed Grimes’ stance on equal pay, which resonated as the woman spoke about how men at her Dairy Queen job were hired more often than women.
“I actually feel like there’s a few people that I legitimately educated. I wasn’t expecting that,” Berger said.
Membership Director Christine Farzan, a sophomore who has canvassed since high school, reminded members not to be discouraged when many residents don’t come to the door on a Saturday morning. Others, she said, won’t want to listen to what the students have to say.
College Democrats Vice President Amelia Williams was rejected by one resident in a more surprising way. When she knocked on one man’s door, a goat bolted through his legs and onto the yard.
After chasing the goat for about five minutes, Williams was able to help catch and return it to the man’s house. When she could finally introduce herself and talk about the campaign, he told her he was not interested and shut the door.
“You can never really prepare for what you’re going to see or hear when you’re going to canvass,” Williams said.
In part of the Central Park neighborhood where Assistant Membership Director Lauren Hoffman campaigned, garbage littered the sidewalks and stray cats roamed the streets. Many of the houses were boarded up.
A handful of residents in this area had little knowledge about Grimes and the campaign. When Farzan and Hoffman mentioned her political party, several residents showed more interest and asked for campaign literature or how to access her website.
“The key word in Louisville today is Democrat,” Farzan said.
The other voters in the area had already decided to support Grimes, some saying how excited they were to “ditch Mitch.” Hoffman said she still felt it was important to educate these voters about Grimes’ platform.
“I want to make sure their views align with her views and not just align with not Mitch McConnell’s views,” Hoffman said.
“You do get those people who really don’t want you there,” Farzan said. “You don’t know what happened before you got there and it’s not your fault.”
Door-to-door action this close to voting day is particularly important for a battleground state like Kentucky, where voters can lean either way at the ballot box. Real Clear Politics polling data shows McConnell leading with 47.2 percent compared to Grimes’ 41.8 percent.
Brexton Isaacs, the head of communication at College Democrats of America, called GW’s branch one of the largest and most active in the nation. He said campaigning among college students is important for “holding the GOP accountable for actions that are not favorable toward students.”
He said Grimes, who is 35 years old, is an especially popular candidate because she can better represent students or individuals working for minimum wage.
“She’s a fresh-faced person with brand new ideas running against old insider Washington,” Isaacs said.
Isaacs added that speaking to voters in person would allow them to meet individuals who had been affected by McConnell’s policies on issues, such as education, and explain why they support Grimes.
“It’s important for College Democrats at the door to talk about why they’re personally there,” he said. “It’s going to make a difference to see there’s faces behind the TV ads.”
Students were rewarded with a phone call from Grimes on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, her father, former Kentucky politician Jerry Lundergan, visited to thank them for their work.
Schmidt said Grimes’ and other Democrats’ efforts to make education affordable is a relevant issue for many college students on the trip. While Democrats have proposed student finance reforms like the Bank on Students Act, Schmidt said Republicans led by McConnell have “pretty much said ‘no’ to everything across the board, specifically in the area of student loans or affordability.”
“We didn’t just come here because we don’t like Mitch McConnell or because he’s a Republican,” Schmidt said. “We’re here because of what Mitch McConnell hasn’t done.”