Jennifer Johnson and Sarah Johnson, friends since college rather than relatives, meet me at one of three Obama offices in Charlottesville. A reliably liberal university town in central Virginia, Charlottesville peers on all sides into rural, Republican counties. Those hinterlands have been traversed by this duo since Friday evening, after Sarah arrived from Vermont and Jennifer got off work. Both Johnsons are in their late twenties and covered three counties in as many days plus a Quaker meeting by the time I catch them Sunday afternoon. Now we strike a different point on the compass--northeast to Mineral, Virginia, population 500.
Mineral is the second largest town in Louisa County, which in 2006 had 31,000 residents sprinkled over 497 mostly-forested square miles, although one of the state's two nuclear power plants operates here. The only other incorporated town is the nearby county seat, Louisa, with 1,500 residents.
Louisa County's 12,035 votes in 2004 went 59% to Bush and 40% to Kerry. The State Board of Elections puts the registered voters this year at over 18,000, a sign that this election has already generated more activity. The other sign of something big, of course, is that as the NASCAR broadcast from Martinsville Speedway intensifies over the spluttering city stations, Jennifer and Sarah drive past horse farms to fight for less than 0.4 percent of Virginia's voters.
Those Louisa voters are about four-fifths white and one-fifth black, and the rate of people with bachelor's degrees is less than half Virginia's average of 30 percent. That makes Louisa unpromising Obama country. Nonetheless, Obama beat Clinton in the primary here 5:3. And on the roads we take, small Obama signs preponderate. In fact, two billboard-sized McCain posters outside Charlottesville are all we see of McCain until entering Mineral, where Sarah and Jennifer meet their local contact in a parking lot for a rundown of the Congressional candidates and their "turf packets," manila envelopes stuffed with lists of registered Democrats, Google maps, and leaflets.
Sarah spreads peanut butter on bread from the back of Jennifer's car while reviewing the plan. We next visit Hardees. "The lack of bathrooms has been a big problem," Jennifer explains. "We've learned when you see one, use it." That stop and a spate of U-turns later, we hit the first street. "In these final weeks, the strategy in rural areas seems to be to get unlikely voters to the polls," Jennifer says. "We were given lists of registered voters who haven't voted in the past few elections." The team then has to ascertain how those people plan to vote, persuade them to support Obama if they don't already, remind them to go to the firehouse November 4, and see if they have a ride.
The first house, however, looks problematic. Yellow ribbons stick to the back of a black SUV. The woman who opens the door won't disclose her voting preference as she hustles to church. They mark her undecided.
From the passenger seat, Sarah reads the next number and description: another black woman, registered but never voted. That woman steps onto the porch of her trailer. Who does she plan to support?
"That business ain't got nothing to do with me. They both say they're going to help us, but once they get in, are they going to do it? We poor. I mean, we're working, but we poor. And ain't nobody else but me and Momma to care for my daddy. He had an aneurysm eight years ago, and a tracheotomy. I went to school to learn how to take care of him. I ain't got time for that." Sarah persuades her to apply begrudgingly for an absentee ballot while Jennifer calls for the address.
They leave the address and the form--their last. Back in the car, Jennifer's annoyed. "The last place had lots of forms with the address stapled to them." Sarah guesses there's a fifty-fifty chance the woman sends the application. They decide to buy stamps and envelopes and visit the woman later.
Next door, nobody answers. A man strides in camouflage across the lawn. "Ain't nobody home but me."
"Jerry Singleton?" Sarah asks.
Sarah begins the spiel: we're from the Obama campaign, answering questions, etc.
"Please, have a seat." Jerry gestures at chairs on his porch. "I like that Barack Obama a whole lot. He who you all voting for, too?"
Yes. Sarah and Jennifer, though, avoid chit-chat to ensure instead Jerry knows where to vote, when, and how to get there. He seems set, so they leave him with a flyer to put on his refrigerator.
Next up, Lindsey--69, white man, intermittent voter--tells us beneath white lamb chops, "The only thing I like about McCain-Palin is that they want to drill in Alaska."
Jennifer recovers to mention Obama also supports using domestic energy sources, including oil and renewables.
"I've never voted Republican. I said the only thing I like about that Palin is that she wants to drill. But I got guests coming in a few minutes. I can't talk right now." He wishes us well.
Jennifer hands the next woman a brochure chronicling Obama's life.
"Nothing's ever 100 percent true that you hear," the woman says.
Jennifer agrees: some people think Obama's a Muslim or friends with terrorists. "There's a lot of misinformation out there," Jennifer concludes, "but this brochure will help you answer any questions you have about Obama." The woman seems skeptical.
Jennifer doesn't push further; we go. "The worst was when I went to a door in Verona, Virginia," Jennifer says, "looking for a 19-year-old girl and ran into her mother. When I said I was from the Obama campaign, she told me I could turn right around because her family 'didn't want an Ay-rab in the White House.'"
Afterward, Jennifer summarizes their weekend spree. "We were only making contact with about 25 percent of the people on our lists, so that was a little frustrating, but probably unavoidable. The campaign was incredibly organized--we were never standing around waiting for anything. We realized that it would've been more helpful to have canvassed before the registration deadline because we could've knocked on a lot more doors and added some more names to Barack's column."
Yet "as usual," Jennifer "was humbled by talking to people outside my normal realm of experience. I realize how hard life is for regular people in this country. Everything we said about Barack's policies rang true with the people in rural Virginia. I think it reaffirmed everything I think about the changes that an Obama presidency will bring--and the people it's going to help the most."
At the very least, as Sarah observes, "These people haven't had campaigns come to their home, and they think it's not for them. But if someone shows up at their door, that makes a difference."