First published on DailyKos, 28-Sep-2008.
Until yesterday, I approached politics as a spectator sport. I watched every “game”, yelled at the TV in support of my candidate, and complained bitterly when the best person didn’t win.
But this election is too important to spend on the sidelines. If Obama doesn’t win, I truly am afraid for this country. I’m not sure we can survive four more years of the last eight years. I’m not sure the world will ever forgive us for passing on our best hope.
So yesterday, I did what is practically inconceivable for someone like me who is essentially an introvert. I joined the ranks of Obama volunteers and went canvassing in northeast Philly – a swing area. I knocked on doors and talked to strangers. It was very scary at first, but that evaporated over time. I had fascinating conversations at house after house. I learned a lot about the electorate in this country, and I was able to convince some voters that Obama really can help get this country out of the hole it’s in.
The trip was incredibly well organized. We drove in from NYC, so we had to leave very early. When we got to the meeting area – a centrally-located parking lot – we received packets and a canvassing lesson:
Here’s one of the organizers, Isaac, giving tips to us newbies on how to handle different questions and concerns:
And then we were off. Fellow-newbie Teddy and I were paired with an experienced canvasser named Sara who showed us the ropes. Sara spoke at the first few doors we knocked on, and then she sent us off on our own. Eventually Teddy and I split up, and I was ringing doorbells by myself.
Every time I approached a door I was anxious. But when the person answered and we started talking, the anxiety went away and I enjoyed the conversations. Everyone was courteous – even the one McCain supporter we encountered. Over the course of the afternoon, I developed an approach that seemed to work well.
- When the person opened the door, I’d smile! It’s amazing how something as simple as a smile can set the tone for a conversation.
- I’d introduce myself, say I was a volunteer with the Obama campaign (which they could pretty much figure out from the button I was wearing), and ask, “Is everyone in your house registered to vote?” Usually they said yes, but at one house the daughter – a college student – was not yet registered. (Our packets let us register people on the spot.)
- Then I’d ask if they knew yet who they were planning to vote for. If they said no, which was often, that was the start of a conversation. I asked if they watched the debate, what they thought of it, and what their main concerns were in the election.
Now here was the surprising part (for me). I thought I didn’t know enough to respond to what people said. I was afraid I couldn’t rattle off enough statistics to answer people’s questions. But it turned out that the combination of my years as a news junkie and passionate personal feelings about the issues were all that was needed. I didn’t know every answer, but I knew enough, and I had some great conversations with people.
CONVERSATIONS WITH SWING VOTERS
I talked to an 80-year-old woman, very well-informed and clearly agreeing with Obama on every major issue, who couldn’t quite get herself to support him. She said at one point, “Maybe I’m racist.” I said, “Young people today don’t notice the difference between black and white, but older people grew up with a different experience.” “Yes!” she said, “I don’t know anyone in the South who could vote for him.” And then I recognized that soft tone in her accent as from the South. Teddy said, “You sound like an Obama supporter” and she smiled and said, “Maybe I am.”
At another house, an older man answered the door and said his first concern was health care, but he didn’t believe that anyone could make universal health care happen – after all, it didn’t happen back in the 1990s. “What’s different now?” he asked.
I actually knew the answer to that one because health care is a major concern of mine and I’d researched it. I told him that in the 1990s, powerful lobbyists from the American Medical Association killed the health care legislation, but now they were no longer opposing it. With a Democratic Congress, as we’d surely have, health legislation would pass if Obama were president, but we’d be in a lot of trouble if McCain got in office with his very bad health plan. I think I was able to convince him because I myself am convinced.
One thing in his tone, though, is something I heard over and over again as I knocked on doors, and it made me really sad. There is a kind of “learned helplessness” and cynicism about politics among Americans. Many of the undecided voters I spoke to said they absolutely refused to vote because our entire political system was a sham, that no one could do anything, and all the politicians were the same. That is what the last 8 years has done to the American public.
Many Americans are so discouraged that they can no longer recognize when there’s an action available to them that really can make a difference.
The other striking impression I had from canvassing was how much people wanted to talk about this election and the state of the country, and have their concerns heard. At one house I visited, the man who answered the door said yes, he was registered to vote but he didn’t want to share who he was thinking of voting for. I said “Okay, thanks for your time” and turned to leave. But then he came out on the porch and started railing about the bailout and how he didn’t cause this mortgage mess but now he’d have to pay for it and these greedy rich guys from Wall Street were going to get all the money. He’d just been watching the news on CNN. “I’m just so angry about this!” he said.
I told him I felt the same way about it, and how the root of the crisis was the Republican philosophy of deregulation, which McCain supported. After talking for a while, he said he was a registered Democrat and probably would vote for Obama. He was very interested in the fact I was out there and knocking on doors and asked if I was a volunteer. I said yes, and in fact this is the first time I’d ever done anything like this, and it was because I was so concerned about this election.
I would like to encourage anyone who is concerned about this election to volunteer to canvass in a swing area. It is a fascinating and rewarding experience, and it made me feel less helpless about this presidential race. I don’t have to sit on the sidelines and be a victim of whatever happens. I can help shape this country’s destiny – one vote at a time.