I didn't do much during the last election. I was twenty-five and still finding my feet politically. Coming from a staunchly Republican household and an oppressively conservative father, it took me a while to recognize and embrace my true liberal values. The last election was actually the first I ever voted in. But leading up to that day at the polls, I got my feet wet, trying to make sure that Bush didn't take on another four years in the White House. It was a painful process in the beginning. More than once I cried, thinking about how uninformed I'd been for so long. I helped cater a Howard Dean fundraiser at David O. Russell's house in Hollywood and I donated to the Kerry campaign. But besides buying a "Kerry Me" T-shirt and voting on election day, I didn't do much more than that.
And on November 3, 2004, I'll never forget the feeling of despair that washed over me upon waking to learn that Bush had been re-elected. I went to breakfast that morning with friends and as we sat around the table in a cloud of depression, we each vowed not to let this happen again. We vowed to do more, to try harder, to not just talk about everything. But until yesterday, when I spent the better part of the day walking door-to-door in a low-income neighborhood in Indiana, it seemed that's all we'd been up to.
Every conversation I have these days consists solely of the latest anecdotes or statistics, the newest polls or stump speeches. It's all any of us seem capable of talking about, each of us trying to one up the other in our knowledge of the latest little tidbit. All day long my cell phone pings--alerting me to a new email--usually a link from a friend to an op-ed in the NY Times or a new blog on Huffpost. Sometimes it's something more obscure from Truthout.org and sometimes it's a video depicting racial slurs at a Palin rally. Conversation ensues back and forth between the recipients, my phone pinging on relentlessly.
But I can't help feeling that none of it really means anything. All that matters is what's going on in the heads of the people who are going to vote in two weeks. What good are all those video clips and emails if they're not being seen by the people whose minds they might actually change? And what good are we if all we do is talk? It was time, I finally decided, to do more than talk.
Yesterday in Indiana, my husband and I were assigned to a low-income neighborhood in LaPorte County--a state and a district that has almost always swung to the right. But, as we learned in our morning training session at the campaign headquarters in the small town of Michigan City, McCain doesn't have any ground troops in Indiana; instead he's relying solely on his gruesome robocall telephone campaign. Our presence at people's doors, we were told, would hopefully do more than a recorded phone message.
The campaign headquarters in Michigan City is housed in a kind of sad looking strip mall called Evergreen Park Business Center. During the 10 A.M. training session, we were joined by about 20 other volunteers (mostly from Chicago) and were given clipboards, Obama literature, neighborhood maps and a list of registered voters on whose doors we were instructed to knock. We were also given instructions to get as much information as possible from each house we visited; which way the residents were leaning, if they had already early-voted, and a simple NH if they were not home (or didn't answer the door).
My husband and I set out, driving through the small town of Michigan City, past the tiny Main Street and the fast food restaurants and into the neighborhood in which we'd been assigned. It turned out to be a poor, working class subdivision full of crumbling one-story houses, chained dogs, loose cats, trash in the yards and the occasional boarded up residence. We parked and I flipped nervously through the information in my packet, searching for the correct street page and stalling for just a moment before we got out of the car to knock on our first door. Neither myself nor my husband had ever done anything like this.
We approached the first door a little hesitantly. My husband knocked firmly on the screen frame since the doorbell was broken and we each took a step back. After a minute a woman came to the door. "Hi," Greg said to her, "we're with the Barack Obama campaign." She smiled. "I just voted at the courthouse this morning," she said. We smiled back, relieved, and thanked her before moving on. At the next house no one answered so we stuck some fliers on Obama's economic policy in the door and kept going. At the following house a guy greeted us in his yard and told us he was planning to vote for Barack. We told him about early voting at the courthouse and gave him an Obama/Biden sign for his yard.
And it went on like this for the next couple of hours. We knocked on 65 doors. We talked to people washing their cars and women who were on their cell phones, holding children. We told everyone about early voting and about the Barack-tober Fest across from the courthouse that day. We were surprised over and over again: by the scary-looking white guy covered in tattoos who after a moment gave us a big smile and asked if he could get an Obama yard sign and by the young, open-faced black guy who told us he was leaning McCain. "I'm in the military," he said when I probed. I gave him a leaflet on Barack's health care plan. We only came across two serious McCain supporters, both who were friendly and simply stated that their candidate was not Obama. We thanked them for their time and moved on.
At the end of the day, as we parted ways with yet another Obama supporter at the last house we'd approached, we walked back to our car feeling a quiet sense of fulfillment. I felt worn out and proud, that warm flush of something accomplished running through me as I sank into the passenger seat next to Greg. It was a feeling quite different than the one I usually have, leaving a dinner party where the majority of the evening was spent discussing the appalling tactics of the McCain campaign. It was a feeling of hope.
If you'd like to volunteer in LaPorte County (a little over an hour east of Chicago) please call the headquarters in Michigan City at (219) 809-0008. They are looking for more volunteers than ever in days leading up to the election.
Follow Claire Bidwell Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/clairebidwell