Canvassing for Obama

My brother-in-law, Jess, traveled to Michigan last week to go door-to-door talking to people about Obama. (Obama has Illinois sewn up, so volunteers are going to neighboring states to campaign.) He wrote this email to the family describing his impressions of the trip. Whether you’re a McCain fan or an Obama fan, it’s a moving story, and worth the read

Dear Family and Friends:
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> Last Saturday at about 3pm, as I trudged back to the car with the sound of a front door SLAM! still echoing in my ears, it occurred to me that you might like to hear about my day spent canvassing for Obama-Biden in the heart of America’s rust peeling paint belt. With this note I’ll try to give you some insight into the soul of a small town in Michigan and into the racial gulf which still divides this country.
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> The Obama campaign called Leslie a few weeks ago in search of a volunteer for their “border state” program – i.e. excursions into Illinois’ neighboring states to help out local Obama organizers. Leslie eagerly volunteered me (confession: I was eager to go) and so Saturday morning at 6:30am I strolled through the door of a small office in a South Side Chicago stripmall.
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> The Obama campaign headquarters is downtown on Michigan Ave, but they have several small offices scattered around the city. [Note to Tim – The address was 1500 E. 63rd. Hyde Park? Woodlawn?] This one was bustling with activity as a few harried campaign workers tried to sort out the 80+ volunteers who were milling around the office. The volunteers were diversity incarnate. Clusters of older black women laughing together, tired-looking college students, Hyde Park liberals sipping lattes, suburban moms and dads (some with teenage sons in tow) – in short, Americans.
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> By 7am we were straightened out and – clutching our traval packet (see the attached PDF) – we were heading for our cars. No bus, you ask? Correct. One of the trademarks of the Obama campaign is its thrift. One example – campaign operatives who shuttle frequently between HQ and O’Hare are reimbursed for their local travel if they take the “L”, but are not if they catch a cab. For our trip, the non-drivers were quickly paired up with drivers and we were sent off to our rallying point 150 miles to the east – Coldwater, Michigan.
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> Back at the office, I had been adopted by two delightful black ladies – Stephanie and Janet. Both were 50ish, well educated, small business owners. They were veteran campaign volunteers having participated in phone banks and other activities. This was their first door-to-door canvassing, though. I must have had “rookie” written all over me because they snatched me up with little discussion and we headed east in their white SUV.
> It was a picture-perfect Fall morning in the upper Midwest. We rolled across Indiana happily bashing Sarah Palin and dissecting every wink in her recent televised debate. Stephanie and Janet are not fans. Stephanie in particular – who runs a consulting business counseling schools on professional development programs for their staff – was deeply offended by Palin’s speech patterns and mannerisms. Her informality, her smirks, and her mangling of the english language were infuriating signs of unprofessionalism and lack of seriousness to Stephanie. She and Janet were both horrified, frankly, at the prospect of this woman reaching the pinnacle of American government.
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> One other thing became clear on our trip. To my travelling companions the 2008 presidential campaign is primarily a national referendum on race. By the time we hit the Michigan border Stephanie and Janet were confessing to me that they didn’t really expect Obama to win the election – despite the consensus in the polls. They found my confidence mystifying and they pressed me for an explanation of what white people were thinking. “What are they afraid of?” My answer – “black power” – almost sent the car off the road.
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> To get to Coldwater, MI from Chicago you take the Indiana Tollroad almost all the way to the IN-OH border, take a left, and go another 15 miles into Michigan. Coldwater is a typical small Midwestern town turned car-opolis. A couple of miles down the main drag from the highway is a storefront office housing one of Obama’s 60 regional offices in Michigan. The Chicago volunteers crowded into the office by mid-morning and received an orientation lecture from Beth, the 21-year-old regional field director. Beth explained that the goal for the day was not to unleash fiendishly clever verbal arguments on unsuspecting citizens that would transform them into Obama supporters. Instead, we were being asked to gather information from registered voters in the area. Are you planning to vote? For whom are you planning to vote? What issue is most important to you? Would you like to volunteer for the campaign? Etc. After we collected the data, the Obama folks would enter it into their massive voter database and plan targeted (e-)mailing campaigns very much in keeping with the mantra of direct marketers everywhere (“Deliver the right message to the right customer at the right time.”)
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> It was at the Coldwater office that I made a horrifying discovery. I had given quite a bit of thought about what to wear for this trip. I wanted to be somewhat informal, but not sloppy. Serious, but not stiff. I finally settled on khakis and a blue sweat shirt. That seemed vaguely Democratic without being too overt. However, when Beth handed out some Obama stickers in Coldwater I looked down and realized that the name “Eddie Bauer” was printed in block letters across the front of my sweatshirt. I might as well have had the word “arugula” on my chest! There was nothing for it but to go forward and make the best of it. I wonder, though, if my choice of attire was my undoing.
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> Beth handed out lists of registered voters, a map with a bunch of black dots showing their location, and sent us all on our way. S&J and I were directed to an even smaller town called Hillsdale about 12 miles to the east. Hillsdale, MI is a ruin. 40 years ago it was probably a very nice midwestern factory town – full of middle class families and general prosperity. The factory is still there, abandoned and rusting away. The prosperity is long gone. The Hillsdale unemployment rate is higher than the Michigan average (which is the highest of any state in the US). Foreclosures are common. Rolling through town, I felt vaguely depressed, but still appreciative of the vestiges of what had once been a nice place. S&J, on the other hand, showed the same level of anxiety that you and I might feel driving through Bed-Stuy at night. I was proud of them, though. They parked and we set out on foot in search of our first house. Ten minutes later we were back in the car after a face-to-face encounter with our second mean dog of the day. S&J spent the rest of the afternoon in the car with the windows rolled up, driving me from house to house. Janet drove and Stephanie filled out the data sheets while I traipsed up to the door alone.
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> Over the next four hours or so I knocked on 62 doors. About 30 houses were empty – some looked abandoned. Of the rest, I found two Obama supporters and one undecided. The rest responded to my “Hi. I’m a volunteer with the Obama campaign.” in various ways:
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> Several of them laughed and shut the door.
> A few of them grit their teeth and muttered “No.” and slammed the door.
> Once, a teenage girl answered the door and – while her dad shouted at her from inside the house – whispered “I’ll take a brochure. I’m doing a report for school.” I wonder what would happen to her if her mom found an Obama ’08 pamphlet wedged under her mattress.
> One bathrobe-wearing woman answered the door at 2pm and literally hissed at me. “I was asssssleep!”
> One woman came to the door at about 3pm eating what I swear was a bowl of Cap’n Crunch cereal. Her response to my now-mechanical greeting was “[crunch] [crunch] I know all about him [crunch] [crunch]” followed up with a sneer.
> No one was polite.
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> To summarize, I didn’t have much luck.
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> By 4pm, we were on our way back to Coldwater, much to S&J’s relief. We dropped off our data with one of Beth’s cohorts and chatted with some of the returning Chicago folks. Many of them did much better than we did. Coldwater was split about 60-40 in favor of Obama.
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> On the way home, S&J were still pretty jumpy until the smoke stacks of Gary and Hammond came into view. Their sighs of relief were audible. It must be terrible to feel like a stranger in one’s own country, but that is clearly their experience. We said our fond goodbyes back at Obama’s office. They told me they would call me for their next volunteer weekend – perhaps a phone bank next time.
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> So, what to make of all this? Thomas Frank wrote a book a few years ago called What’s the Matter with Kansas? It explores the question of why poor and middle-class Americans frequently vote against their own social and economic interests in local and national elections. Hillsdale is that book come to life. Those people are suffering. Their homes are dilapidated – not to the level of the Lower 9th Ward, but terrible nonetheless. Still, most of them fail to connect their lives with the supply siders’ macroeconomic policies of the past 25 years. S&J would explain it in one word – racism – but if that’s all it is then we are truly lost as a people. Weep for your country, my friends.
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> Time passes and nothing stands still. Hillsdale will change, for better or worse. Let’s hope for the better, but more importantly, let’s work to make it better. It starts on Nov. 4th. Vote!
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> Love to you all,
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> \\ Jess

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