THE BLOG
11/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My Obama Weekend in Vegas: A California Canvasser Works Neighborhoods in Battleground Nevada

After a sluggish crawl through LA traffic, we broke into the open on I-15 and fast-forward through the desert to arrive in a Las Vegas subdivision six hours later, after midnight. I was accompanied by two ladies, a middle aged driver, who worked in marketing for Toyota, and a 30ish lady, who worked in radio advertising. The latter was our newly trained Obama "field coordinator." I learned a lot about the modern world of marketing on the way there.

My volunteer hosts left a note on the door, "Welcome Brian, room upstairs, don't knock." An unemployed casino worker and his wife, a math teacher fighting cancer, lived in one of the many tracks that encircle the strip that leapfrog outward, one after the other, seemingly without end. Like their desert backdrop, the subdivisions have a defining characteristic, a monotonous repetition of style. Spanish tiled roofs with sandy brown stucco sides, a patch of grass, a tree or gravel, each neighborhood a template for the next, all peacefully sequestered behind tall sandstone walls that lined the main arteries.

My hosts provided open door quarters where I could come and go at whim, a small clean bed in a home that would be considered by most standards, untidy. They were also wonderfully conversant and aware and eager to share their thoughts on the community, its environment, schools, politics, resources, and soil. I left them feeling well versed in the world of Las Vegas.

Saturday morning we drove to headquarters, a nondescript space in a downtown mall for a sign-in and brief motivational speech, and then we moved across town to a staging area in a similarly nondescript office space for more welcomes, sign-ins, and motivational speeches, this time culminating in small breakout sessions for training in voter registration and door to door canvassing.

The headquarters were staffed by young college graduates, law students from Princeton, Yale, USC, some locals, clearly ardent supporters, proud of their roll and eager to succeed. I sensed many were following Obama's own career path, young lawyers seeking distinction through community service, and possibly a career in politics. They also seemed a bit unsure of themselves, eager for feedback, as they darted between problems, in and out of solutions like rafts on the a swollen river, a river swollen by a steady flow of volunteers from Los Angeles, part of the Obama campaign, "Drive for Change to Nevada." This ragtag group of migrant workers from the west arrived by car pool, chartered bus, plane, even Greyhound, a heterogeneous group, both young and old, men and women, black and white, rich and poor, every demographic seemed to be represented. Middle aged ladies with silk blouses and white coiffured hair working side-by-side young black teens with baggy pants.

Outside we headed into the dry baked air towards our assigned "hotspots," mostly at the front of stores in mega malls. With a bit of awkward practice I soon transformed my retiring demeanor into a pitchman, a hawker trumpeting my new purpose in life before all who passed. And the response was surprising. I had expected a considerable amount of indifference, apathy, even contempt, but gratitude, appreciation, and thanks--that amazed me with pleasant wonder. Certainly not the majority, but many folks simply appreciated that someone would stand long hours in the sun to register voters.

There were of course other responses: a slow, lonesome, indifference, an angry get-out-of-my-face scowl, an absent-minded smile of distraction, and, yes, a dozen people wanting to register to vote. I was surprised by a number of men who declared, in a rather public and off-handily manner, they were felons and couldn't register.

As folks trundled passed, some stopped to listen and ask questions. Many were aware that Nevada, like 24 other states, has early in-person voting, an opportunity which allows voters to begin casting their ballots one month prior to the election. I showed them a list of stores--almost every mall has at least one store--where they could vote in person. Surprisingly, many said they'd like to wait until Election Day, perhaps for the sake of participating in a national ritual.

After working for a few hours in front of Wal-Mart, the inevitable occurred: two company representatives approached me and told me to leave. They were gracious, apologetic, but clear. The company has a policy, they explained, which denies permission to all solicitors, activists, recruiters, etc. I considered debating the issue but realized it would be futile and moved down to other outlets. The prime location and level of traffic at Wal-Mart was too good to resist and lured me back the next day; I survived even less time.

Sunday afternoon we switched from manning "hot spots" to canvassing neighborhoods in North Las Vegas, a critical demographic area that may decide the fate of the entire state, we were told. This time, because my original team had opted to work in the office, fraternizing with the hierarchy, I partnered with a tall fair doctor from UCLA, a rather wacky eccentric lady with a heart of gold, who worked ministering to aides victims in LA, and a tall handsome black man with dreadlocks who worked at the UCLA library. Both assumed the role of teachers and guided me through the process of knocking on doors, reciting our spiel, and responding to whatever comes up.

What came up was both anticipated (rebuffs, closing doors, respectful silences, and encouraging supporters) and unanticipated (angry inflamed Republicans, many people not at home, neglected yards, a visceral sense of poverty, and the unrelenting heat). I was encouraged however by the number of independents who seemed genuinely undecided, and perhaps more importantly that we survived the heat and sometimes hostile environment without incident.

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