“Yessir I’ll be voting, oh of course.” A middle-aged black woman speaks from the crack in the window of her car. The whole family is in there, six people, seven, three of them look voter-eligible. The parking bay spot is in front of an exurb condo, a red-brick pseudo colonial apartment joined to half a dozen others. Steve — white haired, droopy-dawg ‘stache, 60s, old windcheater — is talking intently, trying not to invade space. “Do you know that there’s early voting, we’re really encouraging people to early vote, do you know where you can early vote” etc.
She’s going out to the mall, she’s persuaded to make a detour. Car backs out and into the expressway: will they, won’t they? Whatever, they’ll be followed up tomorrow, if the volunteers are there. Steve goes back to the car, tick names off a clipboard sheet — it’ll go back to the district organiser, and the info will go out again tomorrow, for print out: strong pro-Obama, may or may not have voted. Someone will be out again, with 48 hours to go. This, this is the ground game.
Raw midwest Saturday morning began at eight, in a nondescript kitchen in a nondescript house, in an average street on the edge of Columbus, Ohio in Galloway. Street upon street of low-slung ranch-style homes, they almost coalesce to a neighbourhood but never make it. In the kitchen: coffee steaming from the machine and donuts in cellophaned boxes. Half a dozen people crowded in; Steve, Jamie, grey-haired guy, another silver-boomer (confessed he voted for Reagan, but who didn’t?), Mac and Dave, two young black guys in from SF, Alan a vaguely hipster NY lawyer, Mercedes a middle-aged black mom. Emily gave us the 10 minute spiel on the late-stage game, Butcher’s paper on clips and simple pictures.
A three-by-three noughts and crosses grid, with one axis about support (Republican, Independent, Democrat) and the other voting behaviour (voted, intend to vote, rarely or never). Seven of nine squares have an “x”, meaning don’t bother. Only Independent/intend to vote, and Democrat/rarely, get any love. The latter are labelled simply GOTV, the former a circled word: “persuasion”. “By Monday,” said Emily, pointing to persuasion, “even this will be gone and it’ll just be get ’em out”.
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We shift in place, eat donuts, eager to get out. But there’s rules: don’t argue and don’t choose randoms — you might send a lazy Romney voter to the polls. With maps dotted with targets — maps built up over four-eight years of organising, a house here, a house there, no street-by-street — we head out to the cars. You can’t do this stuff on foot here.
In the back, driving to someplace called Crosswinds, Mac and Dave worry at the assignment. They’re two SF doctors, wine buffs, part of the huge influx to campaign, but there’s no euphemism when one said: “I don’t think they’re using us well, sending us to white areas”. We drop them off at in a street that looks like Joss Whedon re-staged Leave It To Beaver. Mac jokes “tell my wife I love her” as he climbs out.
Steve and I head on to the Crosswinds condos, where there’s a bunch of addresses to harvest. But the multi-levelled cyberground game starts to f-ck up immediately. Maps don’t match lists, we drive slowly round the English-named streets — Tiffingham, Grundy — working out the groupings. We turn into New Dawn Lane. “It’s a neo-Nazi enclave,” I said, “these are hard yards”.
“Or a remnant utopian socialist community,” replied Steve. Turns out he’s Berkeley old-school — a barefoot doctor and member of Students for a Democratic Society. “I was going to work for the Allende government, but then the guy who hired me was killed in the coup”. Now he’s slogging it out in placeless condos on the edge of a mid-size nowhere.
It goes well at first. Every door that opens is black or Latino, there’s no question who they’ll be voting for. Next door to a big family, our first white guy, balding and slightly geeky. “Have you decided who’ll you vote for?” “Yes I have.” “Is that Barack Obama?” … (pause) … “Sure, OK.” First brush-off, impeccably American, an exchange of courtesies. He’s Romney.
Steve dodges around looking for more hidden targets. I look at the people in the place, walking around, moving from house to house. Black and white, but they move on separate tracks, pathways crossing that do not meet, a microcosm of the country? Next door, there’s an older condo development — classic 70s drab olive and slate mansard roofs. On the asphalt out front, men in tatts work on their cars and heavy women smoke. Its like the audition pool for Cops. Only target is a huge guy in trackie-daks, shuffling slowly to a vintage sports car. No he will not be voting ‘Bama, spitting the name through his gum ridges. How was that house on the list?
“She said don’t talk to me about Obama, he only talks to white people. She said he’s not my … and then she used a word I can’t.”
Mac and Dave come up from the other end of the estate. They’ve had a tough time, no real responses, a lot of slipping flyers under doors that don’t open. Emily had cautioned it would be like this: “we’ll pass these places again, so knowing how many times they’ve been contacted is good in itself. It all helps”. True, but the inherent nature of politics is to argue and persuade. In UK or Oz canvassing you’d hit the place and talk to everyone you can, find someone may be arguable around, stretch your muscles. Here, depressingly, it’s pretty obvious that there’ll a) be a few of Romney’s “47%” who would nevertheless vote for him, if b) they’re reminded the election closes Tuesday. One big argument could undo the whole morning’s work. Takes a lot of discipline, the long day gets longer, the wind chills as grey clouds come over.
Heading back to the car, Steve uses his Spanish on a couple of short brownish women at a target house. But the reference may be months years old. The voter’s long gone, the women are social ghosts, no papers, no car, cash jobs, off the grid. After that, I see a black woman going into white trackie-daks house. Clearly a couple with a split vote, that’s how come they’re on the map.
Steve’s tired, but he bounds over, thinking of Florida 2000. Effusive initially, then she says something, then he stops. She’s still talking, he wants to get away. Per training, he’s disengaging. Whatthe-? Is this Romney’s only black woman supporter? In the car, he explains: “She said don’t talk to me about Obama, he only talks to white people. She said he’s not my … and then she used a word I can’t.” No vote from the Left, sorta. But really from anger, from a glorified block of flats on the edge of a big city, no reason to be here, no reason not.
Back at base, we catch up on cable news. Obama’s appearing in Virginia with Bill Clinton and the Dave Matthews Band, so that’s the white co-ed vote nailed and then some. Romney’s strategy is taking him to both Florida and Pennsylvania, a strategy that even the talking heads can’t work out. Friday’s jobs result has been 7.9%, almost no change, over 170,000 jobs created. Neutral figures hard to spin either side, not great for Prez, no disaster though. Fox, having banged on about Benghazi, is now blaming Obama for the slow recovery of New York post-Sandy — and then tying that to Benghazi. You have to admire it, like the Seville Cathedral (“brothers,” the bishop said of it during the planning, “let us build something that will convince the future we were mad”).
Everyone’s carving up Chris Christie, trawler-style, blood and blubber draining off Jersey beach.”Voting is the best revenge,” Obama had said, riffing on an old expression. The GOP jump on it primly: “vote for love of country”. Cable game there, ground game here — and huge queues for early voting in Florida, for one or two machines, all organised courtesy of the state’s Republican governor.
Election day? Florida, Ohio, Virginia: it will be chaos at carefully selected locations. Hence the ground game. No matter what the GOP say, they have nothing like this, these armies. Which is why they’re throwing the sink out of the TV screen.
Emily hands out the afternoon’s maps, which have been rejigged. She’s local, paid, won’t say much more, wary of me, scowling under her Maddow-cut. The afternoon darkens, the wind whips up. Out people go. Today 18 work hours may no do nothing more than get eight people who were going to vote, to do it earlier. Street-by-street, kitchen by kitchen, that is happening.
“Are you voting?” “Yessir.”
And that may be enough …