Candidates for Modesto District 3 walk precincts, introducing themselves to the voters

One question stands out for many people running for office: Can they walk the walk?

Can they walk the miles upon miles it can take for an on-the-ground campaign to succeed?

Can they endure the surly dogs, the occasional surly voter and the other hazards of precinct walking?

In this era of expensive, sophisticated campaigns, the well-worn practice of ringing doorbells and greeting voters still matters.

"It is something that has not died out, and if anything, it has increased," said Bob Benedetti, a political science professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

Experts say precinct walking can boost a campaign if it is targeted to frequent voters and does not involve too large an area. It helps as well to have a concise message and a cadre of supporters to cover the territory.

Last Thursday, The Bee walked with Bill Lyons and Terry Withrow, the two candidates for the District 3 seat on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors in the June 8 election.

Lyons worked Precinct 32, near the corner of Kansas and Rosemore avenues, on an overcast afternoon. Light rain was falling by the time Withrow made his evening trek through Precinct 86, just north of Vintage Faire Mall.

District 3 includes several other areas along Modesto's west side, as well as Salida and farmland north of the Tuolumne River.

Both candidates have raised substantial amounts of money for other types of campaigning, including mailers, signs and advertising. Lyons reported $266,319 and Withrow $89,105 from Jan. 1 to May 22. Both far exceeded other candidates for county offices.

But Lyons and Withrow said precinct walking, an all-volunteer effort, is a vital and enjoyable part of the process.

"As we go door to door, we just get a great response from people as we talk to them about why we're out here and what we're trying to do," said Withrow, a certified public accountant and grower of almonds and grapes.

Lyons has the edge in name recognition, having served as secretary of food and agriculture for the state, but he still is willing to walk. "Anyone who signs up for one of these campaigns has to devote the time to get out and meet the people," he said.

Both candidates are focusing on the 12,000 or so residents who voted in at least three of the past five elections, according to a list they bought from the county election office.

Walking works best when the voter pool is relatively small, such as with district elections for city councils or school boards, said Larry Giventer, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus.

State and federal legislative districts are too big for walking to make much of a difference, but Benedetti cited an exception: U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, won his seat in 2006 with the help of walkers from interest groups opposed to incumbent Richard Pombo, R-Tracy.

No negativity, please

Giventer said candidates in general should keep negative campaigning out of the message they deliver on the doorstep.

"It has to be affirmative -- 'This is who I am, these are my principles, these are my policy positions,' " he said.

Benedetti said positive campaigning is vital if a candidate wants to woo independent or moderate voters, but some of them go negative if they are mainly trying to motivate their own base.

Walking can help ensure that people who are registered to vote do vote, Benedetti said. "I don't know that precinct walking so much changes people's minds as it makes them attentive to the race," he said.

Candidates should try to move down the block quickly, he said, and if residents want to keep chatting, they should be given the campaign's phone number and e-mail address.

Giventer has other advice: Quit before nightfall, when people are leery of opening their doors.

Giventer said precinct walking, for all its limitations, provides a one-on-one connection that no advertising can match.

"You can be sure you are getting into the heart of the district when you are walking through it and engaging with people," he said. "The only problem is that it's time- consuming."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.

Bill Lyons

A cloudy Thursday afternoon was a poor time for the ice cream vendor driving through a neighborhood along Kansas Avenue, but it was just fine for Bill Lyons.

He pressed on with his campaign for Stanislaus County supervisor by walking up to front doors and greeting the people who were home.

He stated his name and the office he sought, then talked further with voters who wanted to chat. Every home got a leaflet.

"It really is amazing how many people are friendly, because you are invading their time and space," he said.

Lyons might not need to do this, given the substantial campaign money he has raised and the name recognition that comes from having been secretary of food and agriculture for the state.

But he said he enjoys the walking, which he did Thursday with the help of nephew James Bogetti and supporter Megan Randell.

"It's really enlightening to knock on doors and get to meet individuals and really engage in some conversation about some of the issues that are in Stanislaus County," Lyons said.

If a house has a "no solicitors" sign, he does not ring the bell. The same goes for unfriendly dogs.

Then there are the nice surprises, he said, such as meeting Modesto High School classmates he had not seen in decades.

Lyons, who has been walking since February, said he is concentrating mostly on the city portions of the district because he already is known to many fellow farmers.

Thursday's walk included a visit to the home of Ouida Andreetta, whose decidedly friendly dog, Annie, bounded out to greet the candidate.

"I think it helps to get out and meet the people and get to know who they are," she said, adding that she prefers such contact to mailers and other campaign appeals.

"I hate them," she said. "They go in the garbage can. And I hang up on the recorded calls, especially when they come at dinner time."

-- John Holland

Terry Withrow

Terry Withrow had daughter Emma, 12, at his side as he walked a precinct just north of Vintage Faire Mall amid the Thursday evening sprinkles.

"Out of this whole campaign, there's nothing better than the reaction that we get from people as we go door to door," said Withrow, who is running for Stanislaus County supervisor.

He said the reception has been warm from low-income west Modesto to the more affluent parts of the district.

Withrow has been walking for six months, even before candidate filing began, to make himself known in a district where opponent Bill Lyons is well-known.

Withrow, an accountant and farmer, also has been driving precincts, going from farm to farm in the large rural portion of the district.

In town Thursday, he told each resident what he does for a living and why he thinks Lyons and other longtime leaders should make way for fresh ideas on jobs and other issues.

Withrow said he has encountered few hostile voters. He did note that most front doors have a screen that keeps him from making eye contact with the resident, but once he introduces himself, the door opens and the visit goes smoothly.

"And it's amazing how many times, as we walk away from the door, people thank you or they say, 'I want to pray for you,' " he said.

Helen Johne, one of the people who got a visit Thursday, said she appreciated it.

"It's beautiful," she said. "It's encouraging people to vote and to know what's going on."

She had answered the door with son Rameel, who was still munching on pizza from his fourth birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.

Withrow leaves a flier and refrigerator magnet with each voter he meets.

"There's plenty of signs out there for them to see our name," he said. "We really want them to see us and see what we're all about."

-- John Holland