When I first began phone canvassing Staunton city (populations about 26,000) and then more rural Virginia Augusta County undecided and independent voters earlier in the fall most were still uncommitted. They had yet to make up their mind and were still "thinking" about it, as they told me over and over. As the season heated up, more and more residents declined to even give me that much of an answer and I received the first of many more hostile answers. If I got a husband and wife, the husband would answer for both, or the wife would; each would tell me that they would "not say at this time" who they were voting for.
But then things began to slowly change. People seemed to want to talk. To keep me on the phone. An older veteran was having trouble with his insurance and was in grave danger of losing his house; his local congressman had promised to help but hadn't done much. What could I do? An eighty year old woman, lively and energetic and sounding much younger than her years, admitted that she had been raised in West Virginia and that voting for a black man was giving her pause, even though Obama was "intelligent, articulate and clearly the best man for the job." For more than fifteen minutes she told me about her life, clearly wanting me to know that despite her misgivings, she was a good person and would, most likely, end up voting for Obama. "I simply can't go for that awful John McCain."
Another sincere and earnest woman wanted to ask me a question that no on else had been able to answer. "Wouldn't it be easier," she wanted to know, "if we just had one man in Washington we made all the decisions instead of all those congressman and everything?" I then had to gently explain our constitution and its three branches of government to her, our checks and balances system and how it really was the way to go, even if did get bogged down sometimes. She was quiet for a moment and then said that she thought she understood.
Canvassing on foot I ventured into neighborhood I had never seen, and I was particularly struck by my afternoon in a low income housing project where black and white citizens lived together in a harmony belied by polls that pit some Virginia voters against each other. One man slipped out of the dark living room where he was watching television to smoke a cigarette and talk to me in his front yard. He was an ex-cop and looked the part: fit in his blue sweat suit. But he is permanently disabled and worried about cuts in benefits that will hurt his ability to educate his children. He told he had lost his house and had to move into government housing and he was embarrassed. And very worried about the future. He asked intelligent questions. I promised to send him more information on Obama's positions. I told him to keep an open mind and keep listening and watching.
The row houses were cramped but well kept, at least from the outside, although there was nowhere for the children to play save for the parking lot and small sloped front yards that were littered with toys. Residents were friendly and eager to spend time answering our questions, and there were a lot of "undecideds" who had already made up their minds to go for Obama. A few Obama/Biden yard signs dotted the landscape and one woman asked about where she would go to vote. One young man whose mother volunteered at the small headquarters in Staunton had yet to register, but he was signed up on the spot; whether he will actually vote is a question.
The two young men who run the small and rather ramshackle Staunton office are just out of college and enthusiastic and energetic. The office is often staffed by other young people mixed in with the "greyhairs" and middle-aged volunteers like me--who have seen it all. I like the energy the young people bring and I am thrilled by the fact they are getting involved in politics again. I love it when my own 21-year-old son wants to talk politics.
Recently when he came for his birthday dinner from nearby Charlottesville where he attends the University of Virginia, he immediately turned on the television to see how the Congress was voting during the bailout plan. But another college student of the same age I met at Yom Kippur services disturbed me. While spouting anarchy and telling me he would not vote, he also assured me all his friends of the same age felt the same way. Virginia has registered over 300,000 new voters, many of them young. Will they vote? Or will they be like those in 1968? Enthusiastic to a point, but lackadaisical when it comes to actually going to the polls?
And will race play a factor when Virginians actually get in the voting booth or will the polls that show Obama pulling ahead ring true and will the state finally go blue for the first time since 1964? Mark Warner, the Democrat candidate for governor, is so far ahead it isn't even a horse race, but we canvassers find many voters splitting their votes: they'll vote for Warner but not for Obama; or at least they won't commit. Anecdotal evidence shows far more yard signs for Obama than for McCain, even in the traditionally red Shenandoah Valley, but what does that mean, really? And the cities, even the small ones, like Lexington and Staunton, have often gone for the Democrats, while the counties that surround them have gone Republican. Will the counties shift this time, too?
Canvassing, like polling, is an inexact science. It gives you a taste of the area, but just a taste. People tell you their truth, but that truth can change in an instant. The way I see it, an independent or undecided voter this late in the race is someone who either hasn't been paying attention or just doesn't want anyone to know what he's thinking. Virginia looks good for Obama, but I have lived here nearly twenty five years and I continue to be superstitious enough to keep my fingers crossed.