11/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Canvassers Use Palin as "Magic Bullet" in Swaying N.J. and Pa. Undecideds

"Hi, my name is James and I'm a volunteer for Barack Obama's Campaign for Change, how are you doing?" A pause, and hopefully an answer such as "fine, thank you." I ask "Have you made a decision as to whom you're supporting on November 4?"

At this point the script diverges wildly; often, the answer will be a mumbled, "I'm sorry" and a click on the other end of the line, or perhaps "I don't want to say" and I note "refused" in the vote template, or perhaps the answer is "Obama" or "Don't worry, this is an Obama house." Or perhaps, and this is surprisingly infrequent, I get a definitive "McCain" and so I say "Thanks for your time - have a nice day." Always polite, and never ever argumentative or pushy.

That's the short version, but it doesn't usually go that way. First we ask any Obama supporters if they're aware of early voting (beginning October 20 in Florida) and if they need a ride to the polls. After providing the pertinent information, we duly note the answers for follow-up action. Then we ask if they want to volunteer. These are the calls that gladden our hearts, and we get quite a good number of them.

So far, so good, but it's the "undecided" response that gets challenging. I've heard some strange things at this point. There was the lady in Plantation, Florida, who assured me that "Obama plans to tax every person $10,000 and to give them three years to pay it or else!" When I tell her confidently that this is not the case, and in fact Obama proposes the opposite, the voice on the other end says she's still "not sure" since she had heard it from a "good source." During the primary, I had a conversation with a lady in Indiana who declared that "Obama is a Muslim" and she had received several e-mails to prove it. At that point, a reference to his membership in a Christian Church should have sufficed, but as with my Florida discussion, the lady said "I know what I know..." I often have to field questions about Obama's policies; one of the most unusual was the man who asked me about Obama's position on treating autistic children, something he cared deeply about since he had an autistic granddaughter. Thankfully, I was able to give him an answer since it turns out that Barack Obama has a detailed position on autism posted on his fabulous website.

But the most effective response to an undecided voter, the one that always gets an "I think I'm leaning to Obama," is to mention Governor Sarah Palin. She's the magic bullet. I have not talked to a single person who has a favorable opinion of her, not even among McCain supporters. In going door-to-door in Pennsylvania (my weekend activity), bringing up Palin is always met with a furrowed brow and a troubled look. The typical comment I hear is, "How could he have picked her? She really worries me!"

Nor have I ever come across either a caller or a voter door to door who is happy with how things are going in our country. No one is happy, whether Democrat, Republican or Independent. But while McCain supporters I've spoken to express equal unhappiness with the status-quo, sometimes they can be fiercely partisan and downright nasty. For instance, one McCain supporter in Pembroke Pines named Diana told me with a sneer, "He [Obama] doesn't salute the flag." Even though Diana told me she was unhappy with Bush, I realized there wasn't any point in arguing, so I rang off with the standard "have a nice day," and clicked "McCain supporter." Probably the most unpleasant conversation I've had to date was with Jessie, also of Pembroke Pines: "I think he's a socialist and I don't like his friends. Show me someone's friends and I'll tell you how they think," she said with sour satisfaction. Now, there are some phone bankers who would try to convince her otherwise, especially on the absurd "socialist" charge, but I knew Jessie was a "no sale" and answered, "thank you for talking to me and have a nice day." But Jessie had the last word, with "I hope YOU don't!"

It's rare to get abuse on the phone beyond a quick hang up, so after Jessie's call I had to stand up and tell the story to our phone bank chief, the very smart Roy Winnick, who is a paragon of energy and organization. Roy, who in real life is a well-respected biographer and historian, is the brains behind the daytime phone banking at Princeton Democratic Headquarters. As I mentioned in my last post, Princeton's dynamic campaign operation is always jammed with people making buttons, calling local volunteers, doing data entry and phone banking. They include people from all walks of life and positions, including high school students (we get lots of those), Princeton University students, and even a few of the many famous authors residing in the area. Everyone wants to help it seems.

But Jessie's bad wishes didn't compare to my adventures in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, where a group of us from Princeton joined others canvassing door to door this Sunday. As I approached one door, a large black dog bounded out and jumped up on me, proceeding to literally "bump" me off the property while barking wildly. Thankfully the dog turned away when I hit the street. But that's an unusual occurrence, as most people are friendly out on the trail. There are just a few curt "no, thank you's", and enough polite challenges to keep us on our toes. Our lists are targeted, so we don't generally knock on Republican doors, but we've encountered several voters who say something to the effect that "I've been a Republican all my life, but I'm voting for Obama." My friend Philip, a Princeton Professor, had an interesting conversation with a man whose son is on his third tour in Iraq. The entire family, including his soldier son, is emphatically supporting Obama.

Today, we wearily finished our route of 50+ houses by trudging up the weedy driveway to a shabby porch of a house along a busy highway. I was prepared for a suspicious door-slam, but not for the clean-cut young man who welcomed me heartily and enthusiastically signed up as an Obama volunteer. It was a great finale to a satisfying day of hard campaigning.

There is no better way to directly help influence a campaign than canvassing door to door or phone banking. These activities allow even the lowest ranking member of a campaign to have a profound effect on the outcome - to make a difference. It's even possible to make calls directly from home as a member of Obama's National Phone Team. It's not easy work; it takes persistence and an ability to never take things personally. The truth is, despite Jessie's wish to the contrary, I find that every day I'm able to campaign is a very nice day indeed.