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Campaign Journal: Canvassing A Detroit Ghost Town

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Danielle Aubert is an OffTheBus grassroots correspondent. Each week she contributes a campaign journal documenting her life out on the trail.

There are about 900,000 residents in Detroit, and support for Obama (based on my completely non-scientific research) is about 99.5%. Winning Michigan will require having as big a turnout as possible in Detroit. We have a very high poverty rate for such a big city, and according to the last census data, Detroit's Wayne county had the second highest population loss in the country (after New Orleans).

On Saturday morning I met two other Obama volunteers, Sandra and Brigitte, in front of a local grocery store. We're part of a neighborhood team that covers an area just east of downtown Detroit. Since the voter registration deadline was last Monday, the campaign asked us to focus on going door-to-door using walk lists with names and addresses for sporadic voters to remind them to vote on November 4th. There are all kinds of statistics about how much more likely people are to vote if they've had a conversation with a human about it, face-to-face, so we headed out to an area just a couple of miles from where we live. It would be the first time this particular area had been canvassed with a walk list because during voter registration we had focused on a busier street just north of it.

First, we had a bit of discussion about where to leave the cars, because the area appeared to be a bit down and out. I thought the cars would probably be fine, there didn't seem to be anybody around--the area was depressed in this specifically Detroit way, where it just appeared completely underpopulated. Then again, the first time I went canvassing over the summer my friend's car window was broken, which was a bit of a downer at the end of the day. Finally we decided to park in front of a church and we headed off with our walk lists.

Most people seemed to be either not home or not willing to come to the door on a Saturday morning. But then we kept checking our lists and finding that houses simply weren't there. At one point we were all three standing in front of a charred, burned out house trying to make out the number on a plaque that was totally black -- Brigitte was somehow able to read it, so we could mark on our list that the sporadic voter listed at that address was definitely no longer living there. After walking for about an hour without making a single contact with a person, much less a sporadic voter, we reached a house where an older woman answered the door and was able to tell us that the person we were looking for had moved. Then she told us that the person next door wasn't home (we had actually spent a fair amount of time in front of that house trying to determine whether it was vacant or not -- most of the windows were missing, so we had determined there's no way a person could live in a house in Detroit with no windows, but we were apparently wrong). Then she told us that she had already sent in her absentee ballot, because she'd had her knees replaced, and couldn't get out easily, and she voted for Obama, and she definitely didn't want McCain to win because she was on fixed income and he'd take it away. Then she told us about how much she disliked McCain and that lady he was running with and went on about how she could use some exercise, and she would get out more if it weren't for her bad knees, and she'd lost some weight last year, but gained it back, and something about a baseball bat and padded bras, and all kinds of things, and we kind of had to tear ourselves away one by one, yelling, 'oh yeah! ok! have a great day!' and I thought, jeez, this woman probably just needs some more neighbors, she doesn't have enough people to talk to.

As the day wore on we met a few more people, but overall it felt like a bit of a bust--like canvassing for voters in a ghost town. One of the most interesting conversations Sandra had was with a guy who didn't open his door but yelled, 'Aw honey, I'm still sleeping!" Brigitte kept issuing dire warnings about all the possible attack dogs and wild animals that might live in or around the vacant houses, and she also kept encouraging us to walk in the middle of the street because who knew what could be lurking in the overgrown weeds on the sidewalk.

I was perhaps a little too excited when I finally reached a house where the 'sporadic voter' I was looking for actually lived there. I had this feeling like, 'Ok, you may live in the only house left on your block, and I have to walk through a field of weeds to get there, and you are probably not home, and if you are, you are almost certainly planning to vote for Obama, but still, we are coming to your house to knock on the door because you shouldn't be left out, because you're already kind of left out as it is, all alone on this block, and we are all about inclusion, and making sure you know we came all the way to you to make sure you vote.' And then there she was! I had to wait at the door while her teenaged sister, sitting in a car in front of her house, called her on her cell phone, and her dad first came to the door, then went back to get her, then a little girl came out onto the front porch to look, then finally my sporadic voter appeared. It turns out she was a student at the local community college. She said that she was definitely voting, and definitely for Obama (as was her little girl), and in fact she would like to volunteer for the campaign.

After three hours, Sandra, Brigitte and I had made a total of four contacts with sporadic voters. It was a little demoralizing. I took on this role of "canvass coordinator" for my neighborhood team about a month ago, and this was the first time I had met Brigitte and Sandra, and I'd actually roped them into coming out, and I felt like I'd failed to provide an upbeat, hopeful, optimistic Obama morning for them. Instead we spent the morning marveling at the abject reality of a local economy in shambles. And I really wondered whether they'd ever want to volunteer again. I knew on some level that it's useful for the campaign to know that so many of these houses are vacant, and that the data entry people would dutifully enter in all the information we collected, and the get-out-the-vote effort would be more efficient and precise on election day as a result, yet it still felt like a lot of work for a very small result.

I called my field organizer afterward and described our morning to her. She was duly sympathetic, having had a similar experience herself that day. She recommended that I join a canvass coordinator from another neighborhood team, Troy, for the afternoon. He was out actually just a few blocks from where I had been. Troy was maybe in his mid-thirties and was wearing a tan t-shirt with one of those Shephard Fairey designed two-tone Obama portraits, and on the back the words "YES WE CAN!" in huge letters. He was canvassing with an older woman who was wearing an Obama-Biden cap over whitish-gray dreadlocks. I found them about half-way through their first street. They were very efficient. Troy gave me a page of even-numbered houses on the next street over. As I went through the list, I found that just about every person I tried to reach was either home or not home, but I didn't come across any vacant houses (although they were there on the street - they just weren't on my list). We went through three more streets, and it was all the same.

At the end of the day Troy had made 100 contacts with sporadic voters. 100! He explained to me that he was walking a lot of these streets for the third time. He lived nearby, and had started doing this canvassing very methodically over the summer, just going door to door, block by block on the weekends, either on his bike or with his toddler in a stroller. He told me that the first time he pulled a walk list it had tons of bad information. He had names for eight voters listed at a senior citizen home that had closed in 2002. Each time he went out he marked the bad information, and the data entry people at the headquarters have been updating it regularly. So now when he goes out with a walk list the information is far more accurate, and he reaches a lot more people.

Because we didn't have a real primary here the Obama organizers had a bit of catch up to do in Michigan, so my neighborhood team is just now getting up and running. We're doing footwork that it sounds like has already been done in a lot of other states like Ohio or Iowa or Virginia, where the campaign's been going for a while. Talking to Troy made me realize I should think of these trips more as reconnaissance missions before "get out the vote" weekend. The blocks we visited Saturday were especially empty, even by Detroit standards. But every once in a while you fall upon a clump of houses, and often the people living in those houses all know each other, and even set a few chairs and tables out in a grassy vacant lot as a kind of improvised green space/park. You just have to reach one of them in order for word to get around that the Obama people stopped by. We have another couple of weeks to do these 'reconnaissance' missions before it's time to really get out the vote, and according to my map of the area we've only got a few of these emptied out areas left. It will be close, but I'm pretty sure at the rate we're going that there will be time to get through the whole neighborhood at least once before November 4.

My neighborhood team leader, who's been volunteering for Obama since 2007, keeps talking about how all this organizing is not just to get Obama elected but it's for after the election too. It's about meeting and recognizing and remembering the people who live around us. All the people on my neighborhood team live literally like two doors down or 400 yards away from me, but I've been here three years and probably would never have met them if I hadn't volunteered with the Obama campaign. After canvassing these neighborhoods, and recruiting other volunteers to canvass with us, I'm meeting more and more people in the area and it's been totally affirming. I've started recognizing people at the grocery store, and people in cars, and on the street. It turns out people are essentially kind, open, and supportive, and we all want basically the same things, we just want things to be ok. And also to make sure Obama gets elected.

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