Ellen Leary is a Grassroots Correspondent for HuffPost's OffTheBus.
Saturday, November 1st, was one fine day. My friend Adrian (see last week's post) and I met up to canvass in Virginia, but anticipating that we would be sent far into the state from our staging point in Bethesda, MD, we both opted not to drive, but rather pick up a third GOTV volunteer at the staging point. That's how we got to spend part of the day with William, who was willing to drive. We picked up our destination address, which ended up being a home in Chantilly, VA which has been taken over by Obama campaign volunteers, and set out.
Adrian had canvassed in Chantilly previously. I had not, but I had canvassed earlier in the week in Warrenton, VA, in a very Republican neighborhood. We both have experienced a number of refusals, howling dogs, peeping-through-windows-and-not-answering-the-door, and mind-game-playing encounters in the past, and we shared these with William on the drive, as we got to know each other. William, a tall, lanky African-American, is a recently retired banker who is now a financial consultant, married to a doctor, with two young children. He had been to Chantilly in the past, golfing with friends who lived near there (It turns out our turf was just adjacent to a course familiar to him). Adrian, as I mentioned last week, is an attorney. We decided in the current economy, with Loudon County, VA, one of the epicenters of foreclosures, to keep our occupations to ourselves.
William and Adrian in Chantilly VA
Understand, canvassing is a strange thing to do. Phone-bank calling also is something not everyone can be comfortable with. You need a certain type of "skin" that's thick enough to survive pointed, sometimes unpleasant, encounters, while remaining personable. But phone calls have a degree of anonymity to them. When you canvass, you are right in the other person's "space," at their home. However, like Nancy Drew at her best, you also have the benefit of all the other "clues" around you. How they garden and take care of their lawn and yard. What type of vehicles are in the driveway. What is in the garage. Front door decorations. Every little bit helps, and it keeps it fun.
We met up with our coordinators in Chantilly and got our packet and that day's orientation. Since we wanted to travel together, we asked for a big list, and got it: 65 doors, even more contacts, since it was often more than one in the household being targeted. Yikes. But it was all walkable.
The neighborhood was stylistically diverse: large mansions, medium homes, smaller homes, townhouses with separate garages, townhouses with garages under and lots of stairs. The unifying factors: first, they were all some shade of beige (brick sections must have been optional, some had a lot, some none.) Second, the land had been clearcut of the spindly second- and third-growth forest, and the re-planted landscaping trees were very small. And third, the entire huge development must have been built within an 18-month period. No history here but personal history.
The demographic was clearly defined as well: a street of homes with Vietnamese families. Another street mostly Indian. Around the corner, a predominantly Hispanic street. The Soccer Mom/SUV cancellation-vote area. An oriental enclave. America in a shiny new dream setting. Of course, in the history of this country ethnic groups generally have kept together for a few generations. But this was so obvious, almost Disneyesque. A big elementary school and even bigger athletic fields, where it seems half the community spent part of the day. (At the end of the day William joked we should go over to the fields and borrow a bullhorn to page the people we didn't find home.) But not a store in sight, everything was a drive away.
And this close to the election, we had very clear responses from people we caught at home. The Obama people gushed their support, even when letting us know just how many calls and visits they were getting from us. Republicans sent us on our way. The undecideds took some work, and were still undecideds. Maybe.
A few fun scenes:
Walking past a townhouse where a man is tinkering with his car in his garage while talking on his cell phone. He wasn't on our list, but we overhear him on his phone:
"He's a Socialist. A d*mn Socialist. I know a Socialist is not a Democrat, but he's a Socialist!" (Spots us walking by.)
"You! Are you from Obama? Keep on walking!"
A typical Soccer Mom home: Soccer Mom herself is in the driveway with her SUV and three children in soccer uniforms. Very friendly and outgoing.
"Hi, we're volunteers with the Obama campaign, and we'd like to know if you've decided on the Presidential election yet?"
"Oh yes, I'm voting for Obama, absolutely."
"And I voted for him already!" "And me too!" "And me!" "We voted in school!" (The kids were all under 10.)
"Well, who won the election at school?"
"OBAMA! By 55%."
The husband is puttering around with yard equipment, overhearing all this.
"Do you know who your husband is voting for?"
"He knows, but he's not telling."
"Thanks for your help, be sure to vote!"
As the day went on, we turned this "I know but I'm not telling" and "I haven't decided yet" into a guessing game. We kept the answers on the paperwork true to what was said, of course, but it was hard not to pick up the patterns. One thing that was useful was Halloween decorations.
Having canvassed in VA both days the previous weekend, I observed that homes decorated with fake cobwebs, giant fuzzy spiders on the mailbox, cardboard black cats on the door, and skeletons partially buried in the yard tended to be Democratic homes. Those with cutesy hay bales 'n pumpkins 'n cornstalk layouts, and straw-stuffed smiling cloth scarecrows and witches tended to be Republican. The occasional fake tombstones were a tossup. I tendered my theory to Adrian and William.
"And on what science do you base this theory?" William asks me.
"Well, the fake cobwebs cost about a dollar. And you can't re-use them, 'cause real spiders get in them. The smiley straw scarecrows cost more than $15, but you can reuse them year after year. And anyway, it just seems to bear out."
And we tested it for the rest of the day. Uh-oh. There's some scarecrows. Who wants to take that house? (Try this in your own neighborhood, or on your next canvass today or Tuesday. It works 90% of the time.)
One of the largest homes, which was beautifully landscaped. Adrian and William go around to the never-used front door while I count toys in the driveway (four tricycles and two training-wheel mini-bikes, plus 4 other toddler vehicles. A veritable fleet. Turns out there are only three kids.)
I come around and joined them. A lovely young Vietnamese woman was at chatting. . An undecided.
"Well, my husband is sleeping right now (mid-afternoon). But I keep going back and forth, I can't decide."
"We have some literature."
"No, I have plenty of literature, thank you."
"Is there any specific position you're unsure about? If we can't answer it, we'll get back to you about it later today."
"No, it's just that, I, I can't decide."(A girl appears at the door.)
"Well, I decided. I voted for McCain at school!" (How on earth could McCain appeal to a seven-year-old? It's creepy to think about.)
"Oh. Who won?"
"Obama did, by 55%." (She shoos the child away.)
More talk, more questions. More attempts at closing on this vote.
"I just can't decide. I'll decide on Tuesday. I'm leaning Obama, but I can't decide."
"Well, just remember, your vote is private, and it's yours to make."
We filled out the paperwork according to her responses. But it was a recurring pattern. The Soccer Moms were not afraid to voice their differences with their husbands about the vote. But often (not always) in the more-recent immigrant families, there was a marked domination of the husband's opinions over the wife's. We kept up with the "your vote is private" theme when we encountered this.
Another great encounter: We visit a townhouse with two sweet Indian boys on tiny bikes in the street out front. Adrian and William head up the stairs. Remember, William is African-American, about 6'6", handsome and lanky, wearing a white button-down long sleeve shirt and pressed jeans. The boy's eyes are as big as dinner plates. I chat them up.
"Hi, I'm Ellen, and we're with the Obama campaign. Did you vote in school?"
"Yes I voted for him, I voted for Obama. He won. Obama won. And I voted for him."
The other little boy: "And I voted for him too! And you came to our house? He came to our house? OBAMA came HERE to our house!!!!" (It must have been their votes. I return to William and Adrian with the Obama-supporting father.)
When we left for the next door, the two boys came with us, a little mini-bike motorcade. The smaller boy os right at William's feet, and he almost trips over him.
"Whoa, I didn't see you so far down there. I didn't mean to kneecap you in the head."
At this point the child is practically swooning, unable to process this encounter with "that one". (William didn't know of the misidentification.) I did set them straight, but it was so sweet.
Knocking on 65 doors, we had 34 contacts. 29 were pro-Obama, five were undecided. The lists are very lean and culled now, and if was encouraging to encourage people to not be complacent and get out to vote. We closed out with our host office, took a few pictures there, and headed back to Maryland. William was planning on going out on Sunday with a friend, and taking his six-year-old daughter with him. We were all pumped up, chatting a mile a minute, analyzing, laughing, sending each other to read this, google that. Working on this campaign leaves you in that state.
William dropped us off at my home in Bethesda, and left to rejoin his family.
And we did the craziest thing. Too wired to stop, we went back out to canvass some more.
We returned to the Leesburg, VA campaign office, where we're both known, and Adrian is a legend. We picked up our material as the sun was getting low, and set out. As in Chantilly, this turf was around and adjacent to a golf course (what are the odds of that happening?) but in an older, more established community, a mid-70's style subdivision.
And it was an easy canvass; it being a second pass, we only had to knock on doors where people were not home earlier. And we found almost everyone in. And again, the Obama folks gushed. In this gushiness we ended up giving away many of our multiple campaign buttons. Many had already voted. And the fake-spiderweb vs. smiley straw scarecrow test held up yet again.
We had only two disappointments. As dusk turned to gloaming and house numbers were harder to read, we found ourselves in a steep cul-de-sac. One house had a car idling at the curb. Not a very environmentally thoughtful scene, we noted as we approached. And we encountered a classic case of Republican answer-pulling. We were looking for a 19-year-old female. (In past experiences, this can be a touchy situation. Often, the young adult is away at college, has registered to vote for the first time, and used their parent's address. And quite often, the parents are decidedly not pro-Obama. And it becomes 20 questions to get any answers.)
"Hi, we're looking for Sherry?"
"She not here."
"Well, does she live here now, or is she away at college?" (All while walking backwards down the driveway as Dad and another somewhat trashily dressed daughter about that age head toward the idling car.)
"Do you have a cell number for her so we can update out records?"
"If I did I wouldn't give it to you. And I don't discuss politics with my daughter."
Now remember, this is the greater DC metro area. Everybody talks politics. All politics, all the time. Worse than sports talk in Boston. This was going nowhere.
And, a final contact. It was now full-dark. The double-garage door was up and lighted. In my Nancy Drew state, it appeared a typical Republican garage. This is a phenomenon different from Republican vehicles. A Republican garage has lots of adult gizmos in it. Dirt bikes, Snow blowers, even in Virginia. All sorts of home care and yard care equipment, all of it motorized. Lots of broken motorized tools. Pieces of motors. Zillions of tools. Coolers. Fishing gear. Folding stadium chairs. Sports stuff. We went up onto the porch, and there it was. The grinning straw scarecrow. The main door was open, just the storm door was closed. Through it we could see the Mr. and the Mrs. Person in La-Z-Boy loungers, old dog at feet.
After ringing the bell, Mr. Person turned and stared. Just stared, Didn't move another muscle. Apparently picking up on an unspoken cue, Mrs. Person gets up and comes to the door, after a wait, with sweet old dog.
"Hi we're volunteers with the Obama..."
"We're Republicans. We're voting for John McCain."
"Well, thank you for your candor. Did you know your garage door is up?" (And thanks for the heads-up with the scarecrow.)
We finished up, went home, and met again the next morning at nine AM.
In the next two days, everyone, please, please get out and help get out the vote. We have to beat those smiley scarecrows.