The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.
"Good luck, my minions! Go forth! Conquer!" And so Robert Schoumacher marshals his troops for the Obama Canvass for Change. Easy for Schoumacher to say. He sits in the Saturday shade at an Audubon Park picnic table, issuing orders, while we, his foot soldiers, slog the surrounding neighborhood, the day growing hotter, the homes farther apart, the inhabitants crankier, human and canine alike.
Neighborhood. Sounds doable--just one neighborhood, one small section of a mid-sized city, here Memphis. Schoumacher has used Google Earth to assess the blocks and houses around the University of Memphis. He has printed detailed maps with the route for each pair of volunteers outlined in purple, so that no doorbell will be rung twice. The geometric precision of Schoumacher's grid is a paradigm of the Obama Grassroots Battle Plan: troops are assembling and training (Camp Obama, recently in Birmingham), supplies are meted out (try getting an Obama house sign for free--try getting one at all right now, months before the primary), and discipline, the strategy of waiting to attack, is holding. When the Obama folk say theirs is a grassroots campaign, what they mean is a flanking maneuver on Camp Clinton, an end run around the major endorsements and the press coverage. Outflanking Clinton, the Obama folk aim to reach every single potential voter and to bring each one-by-one into the Obama fold. This grassroots strategy may be working in Iowa, where there are many troops on the ground. It's harder to see it working in states where the resources are thinner. The Memphis Canvass is an example. Here the sidewalks and front walks, the driveways and porches, up close and personal, are not the same as Schoumacher's beautifully-organized neighborhood maps.
Doing the Obama Canvass is particularly daunting in Memphis because Tennessee is an open primary state, where any registered voter can choose the Democratic Primary on February 5. This means that Schoumacher's merry band of eight--nine, if you include me in my role as OffTheBus gadfly--are doing the ambulatory version of cold-calling. We're ringing every doorbell, whereas elsewhere on Canvass Saturday Obama volunteers are working registered Democrats only. Click here for the full Off the Bus reportage, from fourteen cities in nine states. So by its very nature the Memphis Canvass is not going to be as rewarding. Leader Schoumacher warns us. "It's extremely early in the overall scheme of things. Don't be discouraged or downhearted. The dogfight's in Iowa, and unless there's a sweep, what we do will matter. We have to be prepared for the possibility of a split." Thus fortified, Lindsey, Maia and I set forth. Lindsey, a high school student, and Maia, a seventy-something political activist, carry Obama pamphlets (the same ones used in the Obama Walk for Change in June) and sturdy plastic clipboards, advertising Relpax migraine tablets, to which are fixed a helpful hints page, a volunteer sign-up page, and a summary of Obama's 2002 speech in opposition to the Iraq War, which is supposed to be the raison d'etre for the Canvass for Change. I carry my Off the Bus notebook and tape recorder; trying to be helpful, I also carry most of the pamphlets.
Quickly, we realize that we have a daunting task. We pick our way around broken pavement and overgrown crepe myrtle, maneuvering through crab grass and under wasp nests and up peeling porch steps. Our intended subjects don't make it easy for us. From the number of cars in the driveway, we know that people are home, but often no one comes to the door. And who knew there could be so many dogs on one street? Maia, who is afraid of dogs, is always the first to spot the Beware of Dog sign. Lindsey marches up to those front doors. She, in turn, moves us past a yard littered with cigarette butts. The three of us are in agreement about the yard where a wallet, its credit cards spilling out, has been discarded. So we are making judgment calls about where to knock. For that reason, as well as the fact that so few people answer the door bell, the possibility for personal contact is shrinking.
As we walk, Maia regales me with tales of the recent mayoral election and how she has converted the women in her own neighborhood to Obama. Maia strides up to an elderly lady mulching her garden. I soon discover that Maia's a naturally-gifted speaker when she launches into her testimonial to Obama: "He's the eraser. He's the only one can erase that color line's dividing us so." The gardener is interested and leans on her shovel the better to listen. Using the same eraser metaphor, Maia is successful twice more, and if only the neighborhood were full of early-morning gardeners, we would be looking at one whopper of a canvass. Sadly, this is a place fallen on hard times, despite the efforts of long-timers to keep up their homes. Practically speaking, that means there's crime. On the first street we walk, a university football player has been shot to death the week before. Memphis has just been named by the FBI the number one city in the country for violence. The empty front porches of our canvass speak eloquently of the sickness that has befallen Memphis. This is the reason the neighbors are unresponsive at our approach. Overwhelmed by personal troubles, fearful of strangers, in a city with corrupt local governance and race relations as divisive as any in the last century, many Memphians are just not that interested in the larger picture. In that light, it's not surprising we ladies never have a chance to talk about Barack Obama and Iraq.
Nevertheless, Maia and I are enjoying ourselves. (Lindsey, being young, is soon discouraged, despite Schoumacher's pep talk.) We like passing the time in one another's company and discover that we are both voracious readers. "I found out when I was 39 or 40 that human beings are supposed to read something," Maia says. We talk about Doris Lessing and her Nobel Prize. Finally, after five hours and nearly five miles, we three (well, four, as a Cat for Obama joins us) return to Schoumacher's picnic table. We're footsore, and Maia needs her diabetes medication. Lindsey hurries on ahead, eager to be off. Obama hasn't gotten much from us, but Schoumacher, stretching his legs on a stroll to the street corner, has signed up a passerby as an Obama volunteer. There's the phalanx of women in Maia's neighborhood ready to enroll. One voter at a time. Despite my propensity toward skepticism, and despite the evidence on the ground in Memphis, I'm still suspending disbelief.
Read more OffTheBus coverage here.