Monday, September 08, 2008

Surprise: Canvassing Is Not Hard

When I considered canvassing for Obama, I envisioned the following scenarios:

1. I creep up to a grey, weatherbeaten house with a dog on the porch and a chill wind whistling through the yard. Bits of torn paper and dry leaves spiral around in an eddy of breeze over a banging cellar door. A faded sign on the gate reads, "No libruls wanted." The dog bares its teeth as a voice whines from a broken upstairs window: WHO IS IT? And I say, "It's the Democrats!" And then the mouth of hell opens up beneath my feet and I'm immolated in a fountain of molten lava.

2. I stand on the porch of some smartassed Hannity listener in a sweater vest, getting asked to list three things Obama has done to qualify him for the presidency, while his preppy children sneer at me from their battery driven mini-SUVs. I forget the details of some minor policy point and am laughed out of the neighborhood. Support for Obama tumbles like dominoes as news of my shame spreads through the nearby houses.

3. I interrupt some kind of opium buy or domestic dispute or important television broadcast and am shot.

In other words, I was eskeert. I poured over my notes and Obama's web site, particularly Fight the Smears, and I prepared Benny to remain calm in the face of harrassment. On the way to the launch point, we roleplayed different scenarios, and he practiced thanking people for their time in response to everything from "GET OUT!" to "OBAMA IS A WEENIE!" That's right, I was taking my eight-year-old son on the canvassing adventure with me. Partly because he is learning about the elections process, and partly because I thought it would be interesting for him, but mostly because I thought people would be less likely to shoot/ignore/shout at me if I was chaperoned by a small cute child.

Okay. So it was not that bad. In fact, it was incredibly easy. I'll describe it for you, in case you are wondering if you can do this too. The answer, now say it with me: Yes, you can.

When we arrived at the launch, we met Leslie the organizer, and she gave us a handful of literature and a canvassing packet. In the packet was an interview script, a map to the neighborhood we were to be working in, a walking map of the streets we were responsible for, with little dots on it for the target houses, and a spreadsheet of info on each house. We had the name of the person to be interviewed, their age, address, and then boxes to check with the answers to these questions:

Who are you going to vote for to be president? Obama or McCain?
Senator? Warner or Gilmore?
Congress? Nye or Drake?
Do you consider yourself a democrat or a republican?
Are you going to vote in November?

That's it. There were other questions depending on those answers -- if they needed a ride to the polls or if they wanted to register to vote for example. We had voter registration forms and could register someone right then and there, turn in the forms for them and everything. There was no place in the interview for arguing, defending, promoting, hustling, or demanding. Mostly it was about figuring out if these people still lived at these addresses, if they were planning to vote for Obama, and if they needed help registering or getting to the polls.

At the launch we met up with Theo, who is the mom of another homeschooling mom I know, and the grandma of two of Benny's dearest little friends. She teamed up with us, and since she was an experienced canvasser, she helped me sort throught the paperwork and figure out how to start the conversations with people.

Here's a picture of Benny and Theo:

So, we did our thirty houses. We filled out our tally sheets. We turned in our spreadsheets. Benny was in charge of the interview questions on the houses we did, and he did a great job! People seemed to like talking to him. There were a lot of people who weren't home or were no longer at that address, and a few that wouldn't talk to us, but those who did were very nice.

Here's what I took away from the experience:

1. Canvassing is not necessarily personal. You're there as a volunteer for the Democratic Party and your primary purpose is to *get* information, not give it. This is not a situation where I, Lydia, am going out to meet Joe, the guy in this house, and have a political conversation. That's not to say that I was being mechanical or impersonal, I'm just saying, I'm there as a Democrat, I'm there on a specific mission, and the answers to the questions are what matters. I'm not there to defend myself or explain myself.

2. Canvassing is about finding Obama voters and getting them registered and to the polls. It's not about convincing McCain voters to vote for Obama. Those who answered "undecided" will receive a call from the campaign, and *that* person will help them with questions they have, try to convince them to vote for Obama/Warner, etc. My job as a canvasser it just to identify who these people are, where they are, and if they need to be pursued.

3. People don't know very much about the election. I talked to one guy who was pretty much unaware that there was an election going on. No one was up for a debate, no one had read up on the candidates, no one I talked to had gotten past the obvious, physical issues. Obama is black. McCain has a female VP. I wasn't called upon to discuss the finer points of health care. No one knew the names of the candidates for Senate.

Here's one scenario:

We walked up to a house and there was a lady sitting on the porch. I said, "Hi! I'm a neighborhood volunteer with the Campaign for Change, and I'm looking for John Smith. Is he here?" She asked what I wanted him for, and I said I was interested in his plans to vote in the election. She told me to go into the house. There in the front room was an elderly man listening to a football game, with the volume on very very loud. I said, "MR. SMITH?" He nodded, not looking at me. "MR. SMITH," I said, "ARE YOU GOING TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER?" He grunted at me that he wouldn't vote, had never voted, and that nothing could make him vote. I shook his hand and gave him a big smile, left some campaign literature on his end table, and told him I hoped he would reconsider, and vote for Barack Obama. Then I left.

Another scenario:

We had knocked on the door of a house where we were looking for two men, one 58 and one 18. There was no answer at the door, but as I was leaving I saw a young guy sitting in a car parked on the street. I asked, "Are you by any chance John Smith?" He was John Smith the younger. He was also registered to vote, an enthusiastic Obama supporter, and signed up to volunteer. I handed him a stack of fliers and told him he was officially a volunteer, and that his first mission was to hand those fliers out to all his friends at school. The campaign will give him a call with more chances to help. He was very excited.

There were good houses and there were not so good houses, but there were no awful houses. People are mostly nice. They mostly don't know much about the election. Some are willing to vote for Obama. Those are the people we need to find -- make sure they're registered, and get them to the polls. Now that I know what canvassing is like, and what it's for, and more importantly what it *isn't* like, I'm going to do it more.

Benny and I are going back out on Tuesday night and again next Sunday. I strongly encourage you to try this, whichever candidate you're supporting. It's a very interesting experience, and you'll definitely learn some unexpected things and see this election in a different way when you're done.


  1. Good to know! I've run into a few people who have told me that they have had trouble getting registered. That they tried two, three times, and it didn't take. :)

  2. Eichelberg7:14 PM

    Thank so much for this post!
    I was apprehensive about canvassing for my first this this Saturday, but you really spelled it out what to expect.

    Thanks again!

  3. Anonymous9:37 PM

    That experience sounds wonderful - a beginning, a middle, and end. Living on Langley makes me feel like a full-time canvasser, as I'm the token liberal in this whole establishment!
    Love reading you and Shez - I get encouragement that there are real life HS moms out there enjoying this political season vs hashing it out daily with conservative neighbors and one Hannity-listening, sweater-vest wearing husband! LOL