5-16 OCTOBER 2008

By Edward Vainker (Sauvé Scholar 2008-2009)

Two memorable moments of my time canvassing came on the first morning and the last day of two weeks in New Mexico. ‘In person absentee voting’ – an expression causing inevitable confusion amongst voters – began on the 5th October. Driving in convoy to the ‘Voting Machine Warehouse’, Mary, an elderly African-American lady, told us that she had given up hope of ever voting for a black candidate for President. Ten minutes after disappearing into the warehouse, we were kept at a suitable distance, she emerged in floods of tears. Leaving us, she extracted a promise that I would learn about Sojourner Truth, who had been Mary’s role model for as long as she could remember. It brought home how significant the final weeks of this marathon campaign were for so many.

On my last evening, canvassing, I knocked on the door of a tiny pre-fab house on a very small road. The door opened and I explained that ‘my name is Edward, I am a volunteer with the Campaign for Change, how are you today?’ I was sporting a T-shirt, sticker and badge and asked, ‘Do you know who you might be supporting in the election?’ The Hispanic woman looked at me with a bemused expression and turned to her partner who had come to the door, ‘Who are we voting for?’ ‘The black one, what’s his name?’ Blank looks all round. I seized my opportunity, ‘Barack Obama’, helpfully pointing at the face on my button, at which they nodded slowly, still uncertain. I left stickers and leaflets and told them they had to remember the name of the candidate they were supporting when they went to vote. Despite thousands of campaign adverts, millions watching the debate and hundreds of volunteers trying to speak to everyone in the town about the election, there remain millions of low information voters.

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In the office, the issue of yard signs was never far from the surface. People were desperate for signs and bumper stickers, with several Obama supporters anxious that we investigate stolen yard signs and one member of the local Republican committee came in posing as an Obama supporters reporting damage to his sign, in an effort to get our field organiser to reassure him that it was okay, we were getting plenty of McCain ones.

In addition to the volunteers, each day several people came in wanting to discuss the latest twist in the campaign, not realising that no one in the office had the time or inclination to read the papers, follow the Huffington Post hourly, or watch the Situation Room on CNN. One man came in and announced that he had to speak to Senator Obama urgently. I suggested that might be difficult but he replied that it was essential, he had the solution to the economic crisis and had to get it to the candidate, ‘this policy will win the election’. He emailed me and I passed it on…

The volunteers, however, were the highlight. Judging from their diversity, this is, as it has been described, a truly grass-roots campaign that has brought people together. Most worked phenomenally hard canvassing and phone banking, while others brought delicious meals or quietly got on with entering the results of each canvass. There is no question of turning down offers of help, however, and so the office frequently resembled a community centre, with people chatting away while engaged in the less essential tasks of shredding paper, sweeping the office or making posters to go on the wall.

Having read about how young a campaign it was, I found the majority of volunteers disappointingly grown up. Our field organiser was in her late 20s but, gratifyingly, our regional lead, Tom, was 21 and had just graduated from Harvard. Like most of the paid staff, he started as a volunteer in the primary two years ago. Attending a training event I met a youthful state leadership and was left imagining a progressively younger staff back at HQ, with David Axelrod a baby with an adult voice.

This campaign has managed to engage a huge number of people and is connected to the community but it remains a totally professional, ruthless political machine. The role of the regional staff is to hit targets for phone contacts and door knocks, and though there is flexibility in volunteer recruitment tactics, there is no strategic role. Sam sat for hours, calling existing volunteers and asking them to redouble their efforts, phoning anyone who had once watched the ‘Yes We Can’ video and asking them to come and join the campaign, pausing only to check the latest figures for successful contacts that day and occasionally to go out canvassing, a rare treat that three weeks before the election was denied to her so that she could concentrate on recruitment.

In this quest to fill 500 canvass shifts and nearly as many phone shifts in the last three weeks of the campaign our efforts were supplemented by a newly trim Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. As well as pushing volunteers to keep working, Richardson introduced other democratic candidates and gave an insight into American politics. Martin Heinrich looks like an All-American quarter-back but has also apparently fought for poor communities in Albuquerque and worked hard on behalf of the environment. Richardson didn’t mention this, introducing him as the second best looking politician in New Mexico with ‘a beautiful wife and beautiful children’ and telling us that he thought Heinrich was ready for office when he found out that Heinrich had called one of his donors and persuaded him to give him $1000 for his campaign. Sixteen year old Shane came straight over to me and put it perfectly: ‘seems like looks and money are all you need’.

Governor Richardson had come to our office because of the 35,000 new voters registered in New Mexico, 2,500 of whom were registered from there. Much of this success was due to the contribution of Martha, a retired census bureau employee who single-handedly registered 1,200 voters by organising drives at Walmart, local restaurants and the casinos on the pueblos. Teresa took three days off after registration closed and then returned to start canvassing. I was paired with her and despite driving rain she insisted on going out. Having split up for the first part we met up at her car drenched clutching illegible canvass lists and we drove the rest. I tried to write ‘inaccessible’ when met with high fences and huge growling dogs but Teresa was having none of it, belying her 80 years by jumping out of her car and shouting. ‘You need to go and vote early – it’ll help the campaign… Why are you supporting McCain… What do you mean, you’re not registered…’ As we drove around she was able to remember who lived in every house from her canvassing for John Kerry, the only person I met who had worked for the democrats four years earlier. Though not at all wealthy she has donated the full $2,300 to Obama’s campaign and expressed satisfaction with the way her money had been spent – an impressive ground operation with energetic, committed field organisers.

When knocking on the door we were encouraged to explain why we were supporting Obama, I started by telling bemused occupants confused by my accent that Obama would make America and the world safer and restore the nation as a beacon of hope and opportunity in the world. After two days of blank looks I reverted to: will bring change, improve the economy and reduce your taxes. Many Hispanic voters asked about his attitudes to immigration and I was not getting very far with supports immigrant applications for citizenship and will improve services such as health and education. At the third grunt of disapproval I checked with Sam and was informed that what was needed was a pulling the draw-bridge up position; ‘strengthening the border’ was much better received.

Our office served three towns, one a poor place where many lived in pre-fab housing that was little more than trailers and many others actually lived in trailers. Many had dogs, some enormous and aggressive, but the cliché did not hold in this case, their owners were mostly polite and friendly. Here most people were supporting Obama but up the road in a typical suburban sleeper town serving Albuquerque was much more mixed: yard signs suggesting a 50:50 split and several houses supporting both candidates. The third a sprawling village first inhabited by hippies in the ‘60s, many of our volunteers lived there and the tight roads and erratic numbering are, I can tell from bitter experience, difficult to canvass with a 75 year old driver who has lost her glasses and was unable to reverse her car!

McCain supporters could be divided into three groups, the most sympathetic of whom were the embarrassed, head-hanging mutterers, ‘I’m a Republican, I’ll vote for McCain’. The second group were the shouters: ‘I’m not a socialist, I don’t like socialists and I don’t want to be a socialist’ or ‘I ain’t voting for that terrorist’, none of whom were prepared to articulate which of Obama’s stunningly centrist positions made him a socialist. They seemed to grow in number and confidence as the GOP attacks about Ayers and Acorn and the hostility at McCain-Palin rallies received increasingly publicity. Finally there were many pro-life Catholics, some in turmoil, ‘I want to vote for Obama but at our Church we were told to focus on this issue’ , many proud and anxious to talk about their views. Having sought a reason why American politics is so polarised and adversarial I felt that here I found it, people glorying in difference, refusing to look for common ground and managing to disagree even with Obama’s suggestion that we seek to reduce abortions by educating young people, improving healthcare for new-born babies and supporting young mothers.

As well as my teenage bosses, I met several young people on the campaign, including a mother who brought her two year old into the office very excited: ‘Who’s that?’, ‘Obama’, ‘What’s he going to bring?’, ‘Change’. One six year old emerged next to her older brother, who was undecided, ‘My Mom is voting for John McCain because Obama wants to suck babies out of their mothers’ stomach and kill them’. Having established that her mother wasn’t home I asked Cindy, 15, which issues she was interested in. Neither the environment, ending the war in Iraq, the state of her school nor her ability to pay for College was mentioned; ‘Is Obama going to interfere with our 2nd Amendment Rights?’ It stuck in my throat but I reassured her that Obama completely supported a citizen’s right to carry a gun.

The beauty of canvassing is that you have no idea who is going to open the door. How was I to know that Doyenna and Donald Smith were the same person, that she (?) was registered as Doyenna and that Donald had ‘gone’? What is the polite response to ‘No, he’s gone, and anyway he’s voting McCain, would you like to come in for a drink?’ Can you just say no when someone asks, ‘Do I look like I’d vote for him?’ and do I have to answer questions about the state of campaign when an 18-stone man comes to the door wearing only pants and a cap – and I don’t mean pants in the American sense.

My last night coincided with the final debate and I was left feeling delighted that I’d given up my time for this candidate, he seemed grown up, substantive and intelligent. I announced at the end that it was fine, we were going to win, Grampy would not have persuaded any undecided voters. The people around me responded differently: ‘We have to work harder, what if he won?’ Convinced of this, I’ll be returning for the last weekend of the campaign and Election Day itself.