Alexandra Dufour is an OffTheBus grassroots correspondent. Each week she contributes a campaign journal documenting her life out on the trail.
John McCain and Barack Obama are like two desserts. Respectively, one is a spinach pie with an unlikely puff of whipped cream on top, the other a red velvet cake with butter cream frosting. For my friends and me, this comparison is easy to draw, because we have never seen such a difference in candidates, but most importantly, we've never seen a candidate with the potential to steer this country onto a righteous course. For us, watching undecided voters in focus groups in post-debate segments on CNN was maddening. I wanted to grab each one by their shoulders and bawl them out like an angry football coach trying to man up a fledgling player. Decide! And decide right! Read: vote for Obama!
I knew, however, that I couldn't will any of the undecided voters from my living room. So on Saturday, October 18th, my husband Mike and I drove two and a half hours from our home in Bronxville, New York to the Obama campaign office in Pottsdown, Pennsylvania. There, we were each given a clipboard and a roster of about fifty voters in a new housing development in Schwenksville. We were given baggies of campaign literature. We were handed Obama-Biden stickers to put on our jackets. I was pumped. I felt a little like a soldier about to begin a mission: to exhort undecided voters to support Obama.
But I felt like an invader once Mike and I arrived in the neighborhood we'd spend the next several hours in. Streets were named Ashley Drive, Jessica Circle, Bartlett Drive, Sunset Road. Nearly all the houses were two storeys, sided with stucco, brick, or aluminum. Large, plastic jungle gyms squatted in front lawns. Eight- or nine-year old boys with soccer balls congregated on the sidewalks. Mothers in jeans, sweaters, and running shoes pushed strollers or talked to one another at the ends of driveways. Men called to each other from across the street or blew leaves and dead grass from the edges of driveways. I told Mike to park at the end of a street and not in front of a house. I hoped my olive green jacket, vaguely military, wouldn't put anyone off, even though it was more form-fitting than an army field jacket. Nevertheless, I feared I'd appear like a martinet and sound like a strident, liberal New Yorker.
So I left my attitude in the car.
The shortest conversations I had were with Obama supporters. "Yes! Awesome!" I said to them. I noted their support on my roster and thanked them for their time before moving on. One supporter mentioned that she used to live in Hawaii and graduated from the same high school Obama attended. And while walking to the next house on my list, a woman called to me and said, "Hi! You're in friendly territory. Come on by!" I smiled and said, "You're not on my list, but it's great to have your support!"
Leaners for Obama were a little more talkative, but the most interesting conversations I had were with undecideds. Many were smart and thoughtful, but they just didn't have the time to scrutinize the issues, perhaps being more preoccupied with their jobs, continuing their education, or raising young families.
Julia was a nursing student at Montgomery County Community College. She was in her mid-forties, had strawberry blond hair, and spoke in a faint, lilting English accent. She believed McCain was a big booster for veterans, which was very impressive to her, as a relative of hers was a Vietnam veteran, but she didn't think McCain could fix the economy. (I thought of telling her that many veterans' groups give McCain poor marks, but I thought better of it, as veterans issues can be a touchy subject for families.) While she thought Obama would fare better in the economic realm, she didn't like Biden.
"Some time ago, I heard he was bouncing checks." I told her I'd never heard this before, and that I was interested in looking into this. Regardless, I told her: "Well, I really respect him, despite some of the goofy things he's said. He's a smart, smart guy. When I was writing my master's thesis on U.S. intervention debates at the height of the Bosnian Crisis, Biden was the only one on the Foreign Relations Committee who really knew his stuff--more than any other senator. It was so clear from reading those transcripts."
Julia seemed impressed, but then said that while working to earn her degree, she saw a lot of sick patients without health insurance. "And then I see Obama spending millions on campaign ads!" I said, "Well, that money came from donors, not taxpayers."
Julia conceded that point, but then expressed concern about education. "What does Obama plan to do?" I told her: "I know that he wants to make No Child Left Behind more viable--by pouring in more funding. He wants to make community college free--something I'm sure you'd be interested in. And college students who do volunteer work could get tuition credits."
Julia nodded her head, filled with (I hope) information that would help her make an informed decision. As we canvassers were not supposed to spend more than five minutes talking with a voter, I had to wrap up our chat, even though I didn't quite swing Julia over. "It was great talking with you," I said. "You too," she said. She smiled and wished me luck.
Chris and Sabina, a couple in their mid-thirties (like me), were outside. Sabina, tall, thin with wavy dark hair and an angular face, was pushing her young daughter in a stroller up her driveway. She smiled and greeted me. She told me she was leaning toward Obama, but she had some questions about Obama's policies on education. I repeated the same information I'd earlier given Julia. Sabina told me her husband was undecided. She led me toward him and called to him while he was working a leaf blower on the brick walkway. "I'm trying to get him to come to my side," she said, grinning. Gesturing to me, she said to her husband, "Chris? She's with the Obama campaign. You want to talk to her?"
Chris, built like he used to play football in high school, smiled and turned off the leaf blower. I asked him what his concerns were as an undecided voter, but he said simply that he needed to go online and look over the issues. "But what really bothers me," he added, "is all the smears. I don't like McCain's ads," he said. "Right," I said. "While I'd rather Obama stay one hundred percent positive in his ads, he had to fight back. But McCain's negative ads were, far and away, a whole lot worse."
He agreed, but said, "Maybe it's a little hard for me to vote Democratic. My parents are Republican." I said, "Ah, my condolences. Mine are too. I have not been successful in changing their minds." We laughed. I wrapped up our conversation, wishing them both a lovely day, and to enjoy the beautiful fall day. Knowing how hard it is to shake the parental influence, I hoped Chris would make the leap to vote for a Democrat as I'd done since 2000.
I had a short, but pleasant conversation with Michael, a broad-shouldered, mustachioed man in his forties. "I really don't like McCain, but Obama just doesn't have enough experience," he said. I said, "Ah, but Obama's a smart, smart guy. It would be nice if he had ten more years of experience, but we can't wait that long. But he's really proven himself to be a strong leader in the last twenty or so months since he's been running for president." Michael conceded that point, but he didn't come out with full-fledged support for Obama. "I'll make up my mind before election day." He smiled, and I wished him a great day.
Near the end of my canvassing, I spoke to David, a barrel-chested man in his late thirties, wearing a navy sweatshirt with a gym's logo on the front. He began to chat with me, talking through his screen door, but upon hearing his two-year-old daughter cry for him, he retrieved her and stepped onto his porch. While holding his daughter, he said his wife Heather (not at home) was for Obama, but he was on the fence. "I've always voted Democrat since I've been able to vote, but I just, you know, haven't been too happy with the Democratic Party. I think that it would be great to see a viable third party in this country. Does that make any sense?" I said, "Yes," to assure him that his response wasn't syntactically confusing.
He continued, "It's weird, but I'm between voting for Obama and Bob Barr, even though they're so different. If I knew that one candidate was going to win Pennsylvania, I'd vote for a third party." I said, "Yeah, but Pennsylvania's a swing state. And Montgomery County's a swing county. And while the Democratic Party has lagged in the last several years, I think Obama has breathed new life into the party with his fresh vision for the country."
We then talked about the pockets of McCain and Obama support seen through lawn signs dotting Montgomery County. "It's McCain country in a lot of places, but did you know that the McCain office--not too far from here--is closed? I couldn't see any lights on in there. Nobody seemed to be working in there. Not like the Obama office." I said, "I haven't seen the McCain office, but yeah, the Obama people are definitely up and working."
Near the end of the conversation, he said, "I guess I am a classic swing voter." We laughed. I said, "Yeah, you are our target!" I mentioned that I was from out of state, that I really wanted to be part of the grassroots movement. David's face brightened, seeming impressed that I gave up my Saturday to talk with people like him. I continued, "McCain's only using robocalls, but the Obama campaign has us pounding the pavement, which I think makes all the difference." David nodded. With that, I said, "Anyhow, I don't want to take up too much of your time. It was great talking with you." He said, "Likewise."
Of the fifty voters I had to speak with, twenty or so were not home. Seven leaned Obama and seven were undecided. And, much to my delight, eleven supported Obama. Only one person, a woman in her fifties, refused to talk with me. No one explicitly supported McCain. While I think my sample size is minute, I was heartened by the results, and so was one of the coordinators at the Pottstown office. My husband had similar results, though more than half of the voters he had to speak with were not home and a handful of voters stated they were supporting McCain.
It was an education for me to put human faces on indecision. And canvassing was an exercise in empathy. I felt like a social worker of sorts, finding and pressing my empathic buttons, though to say a social worker's job is astronomically harder wouldn't do the social worker justice, as it is much more difficult to make contact and talk with people in troubled neighborhoods. By contrast, the undecided voters were friendly, thoughtful, and eager to unload their thoughts and sort them out. While I cannot predict how Julia, Chris, Michael, or David will vote, I hope I left them with a powerful impression: that the Obama campaign sends out volunteers to talk with them personally, rather than calling them with recorded, fear-mongering messages. Perhaps they now see a human face on the Obama campaign.
Post-script: While phone banking that evening, I talked for fifteen minutes with a man who was undecided but slightly leaning Obama, though he said that McCain scared him. Towards the end of our conversation, he said, "You know what? I'm going to do it. It just makes sense." I said, "You mean we have your support on the 4th?" He said, "Yes, you do."
Post-post-script: Looking at the Pennsylvania polls for the week of October 20th, I wonder if all the canvassing has made a difference for the Obama campaign. While I never had a chance to see the McCain campaign office that David was referring to, I wonder if the volunteers in that office had given up.
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