Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Door-to-door canvassing: Where foot traffic can pay off | Local News

Madison Kajder said she had never seen anything like it — a political candidate in a statewide race coming to the front door of her Albuquerque home to introduce himself and ask for her vote.

“It put the election on my radar,” said the registered Democrat, who had not yet voted when Joseph Maestas came knocking Wednesday night.

After chatting with her for a few minutes, Maestas asked the money question.

“Can I count on your support?”

“Sure, yeah,” Kajder responded.

After she closed the door, Maestas said, “That’s a vote.”

It was old-school, retail politics at its finest, and for all the nouveau methods would-be officeholders have to communicate with voters, walking a neighborhood remains a staple — particularly in down-ballot primary races where a limited advertising budget forces alternative methods of getting the word out.

In Maestas’ case, he’s pitted against Zack Quintero in an intriguing Democratic primary battle for state auditor. Maestas, a seasoned political pro from Santa Fe and a member of the lame-duck Public Regulation Commission, is 61. Quintero, a legal analyst and former state ombudsman who lives in Albuquerque and grew up in Southern New Mexico, is 31.

If their demographics are different, their methods are similar.

Both know every vote — every knocked-on door — is going to count as Tuesday’s primary approaches.

For his part, Quintero smelled of green chile as he visited houses in a south-side Santa Fe neighborhood Friday morning.

It wasn’t an accident: A green chile air freshener hung from his rear-view mirror in his 2008 Toyota Prius.

That scent is one of several keys to unlocking a voter’s trust, Quintero said with a smile.

“I smell like New Mexico,” he said.

Seconds later, he was running — fast and in cowboy boots — to secure a vote. He rushed toward Yvette Kay, who had just gotten into her car and was pulling out of her driveway, when Quintero caught up.

He introduced himself, and she said, “I know who you are.” She said she had already voted for Quintero.

Like Kajdar, Kay said having a political candidate knock on the door — or in this case, car window — can make a difference when it comes to Election Day.

“Seeing you in person makes me bond as well,” she said.

The face-to-face interplay, something largely absent in the 2020 election due to the coronavirus pandemic, has made a difference, Quintero and Maestas both said. And in their particular race, it’s been an important dynamic as they highlight their differences (experienced elected official vs. hard-charging newcomer) against the backdrop of the State Auditor’s Office.

It’s a post that once was an afterthought on the state political scene but has become a political launching pad in recent years.

“People talk, and when they say Joe Maestas came over, people appreciate the personal touch to canvassing door to door,” said Maestas, who called the hour between 6 and 7 pm the perfect time to catch voters at home after work.

“If we make that connection, they’re going to talk to 10 people, to 15 people, about me, and that’s New Mexico politics right there,” said Quintero, who then joked: “Let’s see who is home at 10 o’ clock in the morning.”

At first blush, the candidates’ dedication to walking neighborhoods might seem old fashioned or outdated in a world of fast-paced technology, social media messaging and high-profile ads featuring catchy campaign slogans and flashy visual images. But, like vinyl albums, which are making a comeback, some observers say it’s a wise move.

“It works! Foot leather, retail politics, connects candidates with voters and, in some cases, produces earned media,” long-time political analyst Lonna Atkeson wrote in an email. “One door knocked on influences not only that voter but other voters in that voter’s network.”

Respected Albuquerque-based pollster Brian Sanderoff said he has mixed views on the effectiveness of such campaigning. He said those kinds of approaches can pay off in state legislative races, where candidates have a limited number of constituents to represent and thus connect to. But in statewide Democratic primary races, where nearly 600,000 votes are conceivably in play, he said “it’s inefficient because you can only reach so many voters in a few-hour period.”

On the other hand, he added that in a race like the Democratic Party primary for auditor, which may not be at the top of many voters’ minds, personal “contact may well make a difference.”

It’s not as if the candidates haven’t raised money.

Maestas, who has done some TV advertising, maintains the upper hand in campaign contributions, with about $171,550 as of Friday.

According to financial disclosure reports compiled by the Secretary of State website, he spent more than $157,480. Almost $49,000 went to campaign consultants. Another $6,600 or so has gone toward campaign literature, mailers and paraphernalia.

Quintero, meanwhile, has raised about $139,886 and spent some $124,180. Like Maestas, his main expenditure has been on campaign consultants to the tune of about $31,326. He has spent not quite $3,000 on campaign literature, mailers and paraphernalia

Despite the differences in age and experience, Maestas’ and Quintero’s street styles are very similar when it comes to canvassing. They were salesmen who knew what they were selling but who also knew they had to switch the pitch if voters took the conversation elsewhere.

Both wore casual clothes, sported name badges identifying themselves and instinctively stepped back a good six feet after knocking on the door so as not to seem imposing.

Both found an immediate way to relate to the strangers. Maestas kneeled to talk with an energetic 4-year-old who is too young to vote but whose father was engaging Maestas in talk about the auditor’s role. When the father segued into a discussion of the state’s solar tax credit program, Maestas adjusted on the spot, though the issue has little to do with the auditor’s job.

Quintero reached out to pet a dog named Murray, who was cradled in his owner’s arms as they talked about the auditor’s job. When a woman asked Quintero what the state auditor does, Quintero spoke of protecting citizens from fraud and related a personal tale of how his grandfather, a World War II veteran, fell prey to a guardianship scheme that stripped him of some health benefits.

Both men were armed with apps that told them the names, ages and political bent of the people they were visiting. Both aimed for neighborhoods full of registered Democrats with a history of voting.

They avoided houses sporting signs that read “No soliciting.” It would be disrespectful to violate that directive, they both said. And both showed a knack for realizing they were pitching to someone who was going to give them limited time.

“I don’t want to get between you and dinner,” Maestas said to one man who was clearly eager to get eating.

“He doesn’t want to stay in the sun too long,” Quintero said of an elderly gentleman walking his aged dog up his driveway in the late-morning heat.

There are a few minor differences between the two men in terms of their campaign style.

“You can’t knock on random doors; you need to plan,” said Maestas, who had three volunteers helping him canvass the neighborhood.

He used the app on his phone like a war map, directing his volunteers to target specific homes and people.

Quintero, who campaigned alone Friday morning, was more apt to break away from the app and approach random houses. He would also suddenly break into a run to get the attention of people he saw coming in and out of homes just to pass out a flier or campaign card.

After Tuesday, the winner runs in the general election and will face Libertarian Robert Jason Vaillancourt of Albuquerque. Vaillancourt, 53, is unopposed in the primary.

Asked what he will do if he loses the election, Maestas said, “I don’t really know. But I want to continue making a difference in my community. I’ve been a public servant my entire life.”

Asked the same question, Quintero said he would first turn his attention to ensuring the Democratic ticket wins in November. After that, he said he’s not sure but believes he would be involved in “some form of public service. There’s a lot more ways to help out.”

But for now, there are a lot more doors to knock on between now and Tuesday.

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