Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News

Can Doug Oliver swing 70,000 voters riding SEPTA?


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8 a.m., Erie Station, Broad Street Line — Doug Oliver and his campaign spokesman Mustafa Rashed get mistaken for Jehovah’s Witnesses, well-dressed mixtape hustlers, maybe even the small-claims lawyers with the good smiles whose ads line the subway cars. At first sight of a pamphlet or promotional card, most folks shake their heads no and avoid eye contact.

But when he extends a hand and says “My name is Doug Oliver and I’m running for mayor,” even the most reclusive morning commuter will remove their earbuds for a minute.

In Philadelphia, it’s not every day that local politicians connect with voters on the streets. But for Doug Oliver, that’s been the case almost every day for the last two months.

They alternate between the Broad Street and Market Frankford lines. The Erie station is a hub for center city workers who live in Germantown and West Oak Lane. But other days they start off at 52nd and Market or at City Hall, hopping on and off of trains across town.

Daily meet-and-greeting is a shoestring technique borrowed from Ed Rendell’s playbook. (Rendell is one of Oliver’s fans, by the way). It’s simple arithmetic, really. Oliver started 90 days from the Democratic primary. They hand out 400 to 500 campaign cards per day, and talk with just as many people. Some days the reach as high as 1,200. So far, they estimate they’ve connected with 25,000 voters on the trains alone. And every day they gain at least four volunteer offers for their campaign, about half of which actually follow through.

Surely there are more effective ways to reach a mass voter base. Why do it? Oliver cites two reasons. The first one can be boiled down to the his campaign strategy’s informal mantra: Don’t take checkers to a chess game.

Chatting up two young woman on a bench at Erie station, Oliver drops a line about “the two other candidates you’ll probably see on TV.” Of course, he’s referring to his opponents, former City Councilman Jim Kenney and State Sen. Anthony Williams, both of whom currently have pricey television ads funded by third-party interest groups. A monthly transpass with unlimited SEPTA rides costs you $91. In short, they’ve got money; Oliver’s campaign doesn’t.

The second reason for his train-hopping ritual every morning is far more personal.

“If I had money to be on TV, I’d be on TV and doing this, because it’s the right thing to do.”

A former spokesman for Mayor Nutter, Oliver is as gregarious, well-spoken, and energetic as the next popular politician. And he believes in his philosophy about a handshake and a direct look in the eyes. That’s how people remember you, he says. A few seconds of personal interaction is more meaningful than seeing an ad on television supporting a person you might never see, let alone speak with one-to-one. In a few minutes time, Oliver moves between politely charming young women to talking with the formerly incarcerated about job opportunities. Sometimes, wizened older men look at him hard and say “your eyes is clear.” That doesn’t happen on TV.

He’s already recognizable, too. People he met on their morning commute last month come up and shake his hand or hug him whenever they catch him at their stop again.

“The best thing is when I go to hand I flyer to somebody and they say they got one at 52nd and Walnut,” Oliver said. “Our groundwork has made that connection across the city, and those people will  probably tell their friends and family.”

Some critics, however, have scoffed at the ineffectiveness of the tactic.

“I think people think it’s ineffective because they’ve never done it,” Oliver said. “They don’t want to do it.”

The last Democratic primary in 2011 had a dismally low turnout (about 22 percent of registered Dems) to reelect Mayor Michael Nutter. The 2007 primary election, which is more similar to this current one, drew just 39 percent of registered Democrats. If this race can draw 300,000 voters again, 70,000 votes might very well be the magic game-changing number.

But even with the 25,000 people Oliver has engaged so far on SEPTA — and that’s not counting people he has reached through other campaign activities — he can’t rely on all of them as loyal come May 21. The success of this, Oliver says, will be in part a political exercise.

There are also civic-minded voters who would cast their vote between two frontrunners rather than choose a second-tier candidate with no chance, even if the said candidate impressed them more.

“It’s a risk,” Oliver says. “It also goes against everything you learn in Civics 101. You create the formula, you don’t follow the formula.”

Moreover, the cold hard logic of local politics suggests that TV coverage not only equates to the highest name recognition, but also to voter turnout in general. But there's hope for the man with the clear eyes. 

At 40, Oliver is the closest to the median age of 33 years in Philadelphia. 

Millennial voters have been a big target demographic for his campaign from the get-go. Oliver and Rashed keep a small stack of voter registration forms in their pockets in case they meet young, unregistered Philadelphians. They are very aware of the fact that, as Chris Hepp pointed out in the Inquirer, “Philadelphia seems guaranteed this year to elect its oldest first-term mayor since the adoption of the 1951 Home Rule Charter.” That is, of course, unless Oliver pulls off “the greatest upset since the tortoise smoked the hare.”

Even though he has a winner’s attitude until the end, Oliver believes even a loss in May could accomplish something great if his campaign managed to galvanize millennial votership. He'd also like to get more people who aren't politicians running for mayor.

Local polling data shows that 70 percent of Philadelphia voters aged 18 to 24 have not voted in five years, which included both registered and unregistered, and also that 41 percent of voters aged 25 to 34 were inactive, according to the Next Mayor

“If — and I don’t concede that this is an option — I was to lose the race but got more voter participation in this election, then I wouldn’t count it as a loss.”

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