Killing With Kindness: House Parties Hope To Pluck Voters One At A Time

Killing With Kindness: House Parties Hope To Pluck Voters One At A Time
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I'd been trying to find Republicans in San Francisco for weeks. Finally, someone named Stephen signed up online to host a house party for Rudy Giuliani. When I arrived, a twentysomething-year-old guy in skinny jeans and a shaggy haircut opened the door. I thought I was in the wrong place until I noticed his top: a slim, red t-shirt with a picture of Ronald Reagan.

"Love him or hate him, he's an icon," shrugged Stephen. As it turned out, he was the only Reagan-lover at his party.

"I'm only here because I'm friends with Stephen," said Jeff, a self-described centrist and history student at San Francisco State University.

"Stephen promised he'd have vegan food," said Kendra, a libertarian-leaning librarian at the University of California at Berkeley.

Land arrived a few minutes late. "Are you a Republican?" I asked.

Land, who later declared himself unqualified to speak on political matters at all, looked wildly around the room. "Am I at the wrong party?"

Stephen sighed. "Land smokes a lot of pot."

According to David Salie, who created the house party model for the Dean campaign and is now co-founder of Party2Win, "From a campaign's perspective, house parties are an amazing way to recruit your greatest supporters to be ambassadors to your cause." And although the donation amount is small, a large of number of parties can bring in a significant return. "Some people scoff at a fundraising goal of $100 per party, but when you have 1000 parties, no can shake a stick at that!"

House parties also aim to demonstrate momentum for a candidate by increasing the campaign's mailing list and showing that others support the cause. Yet attendance at a house party, like attendance at any other campaign event, doesn't necessarily translate into votes. What is distinct about house parties and other grassroots activism the Internet allows may only be more opportunities to blend the personal and political.

Stephen acknowledged that most of his five guests (a sixth, Dirty Nick, never showed) aren't fans of The Mayor, as he calls Giuliani. Nevertheless, he laid out a generous spread: breaded mushrooms, baked cauliflower, cheese and crackers, (vegan) cookies, half a dozen Rudy bumper stickers, and pamphlets outlining Giuliani's twelve-step plan for America.

"What does 'restore fiscal discipline and cut wasteful Washington spending' mean?" asked Jeff, reading from the back of a pamphlet.

"Well, 'fiscal' means relating to money," said Stephen.

Being a conservative in San Francisco has apparently equipped Stephen with a sharp wit. He also has an armory of information. For most of the evening he leaned against the dining room wall with a glass of wine, speaking at length on Giuliani's record in New York, nuclear capabilities in the Middle East, Bush's Medicaid legislation, the Marine Corps' maneuvers in Iraq, and of course candidates' tax and spending history.

"Giuliani ran a tight budget in New York, and I trust him to do the same with the national economy," Stephen explained. "Of course, he has to fund the war. But he can take out a lot of pork barrel spending, Senate earmarks, social service goodies like museums and libraries."

"Not libraries!" said Kendra, the librarian.

"Bad example," said Stephen. He offered her a breaded mushroom.

Despite significant political differences, Stephen and his guests didn't seem to harbor ill feelings--nor did they refrain from offering their opinions. Tim, a surfer from New Jersey, challenged Stephen on Giuliani's record in New York, and Mimi, an executive at a national retail store, took a few shots at corporate power. The only time things turned sour was when Stephen asked after Kendra's boyfriend.
"He was going to come, but he doesn't like your politics," she said.

"That makes me so mad," Stephen said, bending to fuss over a wedge of walnut-and-cranberry stuffed brie no one had touched.

Kendra tried to explain: her boyfriend just thinks Stephen's loyalty to the GOP is misplaced. But the moment had passed. Stephen circulated around the room, refilling everyone's glass.

By the end of the evening the party had not raised any money for the Giuliani campaign, although Land slipped Stephen a twenty-dollar-bill. "Land's the only one who made a contribution," Stephen announced.

Land looked startled. "That's not a contribution," he said. "I just owed you some money."

Nor did Stephen show the webcast of Giuliani, intended by the campaign to be the main event of the evening. Instead, Stephen entertained his guests with three hours of his own political banter. It was a soft sell, if a sell at all, but at least a few more people were exposed to Giuliani's platform.

A few minutes before the party broke up, Stephen implored his guests to try the brie, which had turned soft and slightly pink. "I slaved over that for hours," he said.

Jeff broke off the tip and smeared it onto a cracker. A few minutes later he took a second helping. "You know," he said, looking thoughtful. "I've been staring at this all evening, thinking how terrible it looked. But now that I've tried it, I think it tastes pretty good."

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