Somewhere between Allen Drive and Lincoln Street, off the I-95, Sandy, the spiky-haired driver, after some yelling and theorising from the side and backseats, pulled over and admitted we were lost. We were close to the airport and the GPS was going crazy, bobbing around. Plus all the streets had the same name, Allen and Alfred, Drive and Alley. The long stretch of suburbs and towns south of Philadelphia, close to the Delaware state border, rows of white two-storey houses, gas stations and tyre-fitters, concrete slabs where workshops once stood. American scumble, from Philadelphia all the way to DC. Everything looked like everything else in the same direction.
“I’m from here and I don’t know where we are …”
“The numbers are odd all the way down that street … I think.”
“That’s Darby street.”
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“Darby Street! That’s where we want to be!”
“How many houses have we got listed?”
Freddie squinted at the map.
“One. Over there.”
He walked across to a row house, with kitschy garden animals, blue frogs and green mermaids, in the unfenced front yard.
No one was home.
He walked back. We looked at the map again. “Is that over the highway?”
“How many houses?”
Welcome to the great Democratic ground game.
Three hours earlier, we’d been part of a crowd, the old stone union hall in Linwood, a town down the ways. Saturday morning, people grabbing coffee from the shiny Wawa mega-garage opposite, and streaming into the hall basement, a fake-wood-pannelled joint, unchanged since the ’70s. Surrounded by all the usual accouterments, engraved presidents honour roll, unions mantels — Chemical, Steelworkers, and Local 310 Atomic Workers Union — and sheets and sheets of butcher’s paper with names listed under precincts.
Thirty people when I arrived, in an array of T-shirts purple SEIU, blue for the steelworkers, green Clinton-Kaine numbers. Old-school perms, neat moustaches, paunchy middle-aged guys, a black, white and Latino mix, the people you never see in US popular culture, unless you’re watching sitcoms from the ’70s. A pallet of lunchpacks to one side, 15 feet high, hundreds of packs. Have they overestimated? No, pretty soon there’s the sound of buses outside, and hundreds stream in, come all the way from New York, Baltimore, Joisey, places where the vote is nailed down, and there’s no borderline Senate race.
This is Delaware County, Republican overall, but with a lot of Democratic and independent patches. Pennsylvania is both a key state for the Democrat “blue wall”, and one of the few remaining with no early voting. So the effort required is phenomenal. We’re a long way past convincing people now, nor even full independents; this is all about finding the waverers who are leaning Clinton, and the pro-Democrat voters who just might not feel the urgency on Tuesday. At the back, the roster co-ordinators — three white-haired hippies types from the air-traffic controllers’ union — were handing out the visit-sheets, maps of streets here and there across the whole of southern Philadelphia. Four houses there, a house two streets across — there’s no going up and down one side and then the other. The sheets have been assembled from the plethora of data spat out from signups, donations, click-thrus, attendance, union lists, and data beyond that, magazine subscriptions, movie downloads and much more.
The Democratic ground game is an aim at the perfect score: get out every Democrat with zero accidents (i.e. no Republicans accidentally stirred up to vote, who might otherwise stay home). The sheet has an attachment, a series of small scripts for those who don’t feel confident busking it. The options are numbered 1-5, little two- or three-line exchanges designed to either nail a vote, urge a vote, or get out of the conversation quick. People are standing around looking over the arguments, trying out the line, chatting loosely.
“Hello sir/madam, just seeing if you’ve made plans to vote on Tuesday”, gap, “You can only vote on Tuesday, and we need everybody to vote for Hillary” “We sure do”, “Mmmm huh”, “Have you seen the shit they are saying?”, “How is it that Hillary, who runs an actual charity, is the one being investigated, while Trump-“, “Running a scam”, “Trump is the stand-up guy”, “It’s the media — they say its for Hillary, I ain’t seen it”, ”Try number 3 on me”, “Good morning”, “if you’re not convinced sir/madam, please go to our website, but let me reiterate, this is the most important election of our lifetime, Hillary must w-” The voices go back and forth across the hall, a hundred conversations knitting, unknitting, a mass of words and bodies.
“Arrrright, listen up”. At the front, Mike someone of the United something, bald, short-sleeved, is banging on the lectern.
“Thank you all for coming. This is not in the bag. THIS IS NOT IN THE BAG!”
From the crowd: “Amen! You got that right! Sure ain’t.”
“That’s why we’re here in Delaware County, this is a crucial place in a crucial state and we are going to NAIL THIS DOWN!”
Cheers, hollers bounding off the tight basement walls. People are jammed up against each other, the 50 or so chairs have been given up to the older and frailer, the air is humid from breath.
“You’re going to go out, you’re going to work these sheets, when you come back around four, we’ve got a hot lunch laid on for you, thanks for your work, now before you go, wait-”
People have already started heading for the exits, ready to work.
“… someone’s going to speak to you, you know him, Mr Richard Trumka!”
With a couple of aides, a small man barrels through the crowd, grabs the lectern. Trumka’s head of the whole AFL-CIO, the US union peak body, 14 million workers. That’s how big this deal is. Won or lost in the Philly suburbs. “He starts soft and ends big,” an organiser told me. “Big Nirvana fan.”
Trumka is short, but powerfully built, neat grey-black short hair combed back with a slight rise, a neat biggish moustache and, oh look, there’s no way around this, the guy looks like Stalin, the dead spit.
“You’ve heard it before, I’m gonna say it again, this is not there yet … we can’t celebrate now … we have to take the power in this room and get it out there …”
Soft is right. It’s a low growl, rising upwards: “This is the fight of our lives, and everyone here is part of it. People are doing this all over the country today, tomorrow, and” — yes, the voice starts rising — “and we know what we’re fighting, we know what this is.” By the end, he’s waving his fist, people are cheering, crescendo, “Get it out, get out the vote, EVERY PHONE CALL, EVERY DOOR, EVERY MEET, GET OUT THE VOTE!”
We all roar out of the door, up the stairs, and into total confusion. Bus-ins have been paired with local drivers, they’ve been matched up, but there’s no system for matching them up.
The co-ordinator, a student-ish type with a student-ish voice is trying to yell it out “Uh Meredith Johnston and Hidalgo Suarez, you’re paired with uh James Seeptill, is James anywhere?” Milling about, the thing on the verge of falling apart. Unions are what the tech crowd call “partial adopters” of hi-tech systems. After three or four minutes of this, a steelworker stands on an oilcan.
“Orrrrright here’s how we’re going to do it! If you’re a driver stand to the right of me! If you’re in pairs, with your sheets, you’re all in pairs, stand to the left, come past me grab a driver as you go, doesn’t matter who you were paired with, let’s get out there!”
Organiser kid slinks off. I feel for him, but it was necessary, the thing was falling apart.
People are going to their cars, and Sandy’s looks an interesting group: she, spiky-haired and big glasses, a redhead, an older Latino guy. I should probably ride with three steelworkers, or a car of black ladies. But this lot looks a little more sympatico.
“Sure,” says Sandy, group leader. “Ride along. This’ll be smooth.”
And that’s how, 30 minutes later, we were lost in the ‘burbs.
On the way down the I-95, they’d given me potted life stories. Marie, a horticulturalist, New York public gardens, Hector, administrator in the Public Defender’s office, Sandy a “municipal worker” — more than that she would not say. Hector had come 30 years earlier from El Salvador, Marie had worked racetracks before garden, “so I got my fingerprints on file with the FBI”.
“Ha, so have I,” laughed Sandy. “I spent a period of my life in New Mexico — doing … well, being in New Mexico is kind of a full-time occupation.”
They were all solid Democrats, had spent the last few weeks canvassing, and talking round hesitant friends and relatives. It sounded exhausting: “they say ‘what about the emails?'” Marie said. “I say ‘what about the goddamn emails? What do they prove? That she did nothing wrong!’ Trump’s buying pictures of himself with his foundation, and she’s the crook!”
“You gotta hold your tongue,” Sandy said. “I got relatives who are Trump supporters. They send me emails. Every time I see em in my inbox, I know it’s a goddam email. What is it now, oh she’s a witch, sex parties, she broke 38 federal laws, she murdered 32 people. Benghazi. Ben-gha-zhee. Look out for Dabny Street.” Sandy grips the wheel tighter.
Do any of them have Trump supporters as friends? “One guy at work,” says Marie. “He’s not a bad guy but he’s…..well anyway we’ve agreed to talk about sports.’ ‘We got one guy at work’ says Hector. ‘He’s not a good guy.’ Confirmation of my theory that the Trump base is the asshole in the lunchroom, that one guy or gal with the printouts, the theories, the talking points from Rush.
We pull over, bail up a guy. “Where’s Allen Drive?” “Madam you’re in it,” he says, Englishy-African accent. “Are you registered to vote? Will you be voting for Hillary?” “Oh, yes …”
We look around. It’s upmarket public housing, the numbers stacked one on top of the other. This was going to be tricky.
We split, I tag along with Marie first. First door locked no answer, second door locked. All the doors we need to get to are behind these front doors. We call numbers on the tag sheet, get voicemail. Eventually one answers. “Hi, I’m outside your door down here, would you be able to come down, we’re running around for Hillary Clinton,” pause, “are you registered to vote, would you come down?” Pause. Calmly: “Well, I know but I cam all the way from New York …” A minute later, she comes down, old grandma. “Of course I’m gonna vote,” but she lets us in.
The whole estate is black, clear what the mission is, from these sheets. Get the turnout up. The Clinton team are calculating a 5-10% fall in black turnout, as Obama leaves the stage. If it falls much below that, that’s a problem, in several states. General spruiking of the candidate won’t be a problem around here. There are precincts in Philly where Romney got zero votes, and this is surely one of them.
Over the next hour or so, we knock on doors, up and down stairs through different blocks, get one person for every 10 tries, do the spiel. Marie has a way with it, keeps em talking. She is barely five foot, the men tower over her. She keeps them talking. ‘Are you voting? Are you sure you’ll be voting? Have you made arrangements. Because we can’t let Hillary lose? We can’t let Trump win. He builds his skyscrapers with Chinese steel, he doesn’t pay his workers.’ She’s well off script but it’s beguiling, grabs everyone.
There’s chefs going to work, getting in the car with their check pants and white blouses on, a young couple playing with a perky dog Marie plays with to speak to them. Around one corner there’s a father and daughter loading stuff into an old ’70s Ford, which has a giant, lightable sign on the roof, cab-style, reading “DONT BELIEVE THE LIBERAL MEDIA”. What they’re loading into the boot is Bibles.
“Let’s talk to them.”
“Marie did you see the sign?”
“Ehhhhhh … have you voted ma’am? Are you registered? How old are you?”
“Eighteen, uh Trump, Clinton, I don’t know.”
“You have to vote for Hillary Clinton.”
The dad comes over.
“Yes, I’ve been telling her, you have to vote for Hillary Clinton.”
“I will, I will,” the girl says, bored.
Flattered at the attention. South Philly, when even the black Christian Rush Limbaugh listeners are voting for Hillary.
“Wow you really keep ’em talking, you draw ’em in.”
“I’ve been a shop steward for near 20 years, it’s 101.”
We spot someone else, a middle-aged guy walking past.
“Excuse me sir are you voting on Tuesday? Got a plan?”
He stiffens slightly.
“Yes, I’m voting — but you have already spoken to me.” He was the guy who’d given us directions. He’d changed his jacket.
“Let’s not tell the others,” Marie says.
With Hector, down the other side of the street, it’s easier. He sticks to the script, does the sentences in his light accent, unless they’re immigrants, in which case he goes into an impassioned spiel: “Man you not going to let this guy win right, you gotta get out and vote, man, we got here, right, we can’t let this guy win …”
We do the main buildings, come round the corner, look at the sheet, there’s three addresses in the block across the road, a crumbling old stucco block which may as well have Sketchy Towers signed in neon across the roof. Two “no” answers and as we’re knocking at the third, a girl comes up, knocking at the door behind us. A big guy, muscular answers, wearing only jockey shorts in a stars and stripes pattern. There’s already two girls behind him in the room. I clock the scene from the outside: me and Hector in suits, he with clipboard, knocking on door, like this is Act I, Scene III from an old Law and Order episode. Cha-ching. Or a still from Larry Clark’s Tulsa. Or a Weegee, for that matter. The guy looks at us, we at him. Pause.
“Sir, are you registered to vote?” says Hector.
Stars and stripes stares at us, eyes even wider.
“Oh he kaynt,” says the girl. ‘He’s E-frican. I’m always telling him to get his citizenship.”
She slaps him across the shoulder: “It’s important. I’m voting.”
“That’s very good. Please tell all your girlfriends.”
“How’d you do?” Sandy asked, back at the car.
“Everyone was very nice,” Hector says.
On the way back down the highway, between the wooden houses, and the railyards, the chemical plants and the giant liquid gas tanks, Sandy loosens up about New Mexico, Sante Fe in the ’70s, before it became chic, when no one knew about it, when the place was an interzone, Mexico and the US, the mountains and the desert, Taos and the Indian lands. Marie talks about gardens, about starting in the morning before the sun’s up, seeing the dew shine on giant flowers, skinks and geckos running for cover, life, life at your fingertips.
Hector talks a little about New York, how he’s lived in every corner of it, about decades in office filing to raise a family, then lays back a little in the back seat, and speaks, in his soft Latin lilt: “you know I’m doing it for her, but I’m doing it for for him, for Obama. Because he’s right, it doesn’t work if its just eight years. We have to win. You know, 2007, it was bad there was no work, I was bout to lose my house. Then I got work again, my house is paid off. And no-one helped him you know, the Republicans they didn’t help, they wanted him to fail. They didn’t give him the tools; he had to make the tools. I’m very grateful.” The softened Ts and Ds, the breathed vowels, the monologue had the character of a dream, as, in the warm afternoon, America slipped by, lost and found.
They dropped me at the Econolodge near the airport, on their way back to the union hall. They were all going out again tomorrow, somewhere else. Twelve people spoken to in an afternoon, an hour driving up wrong streets, talking to people who’d been seen three times. Messy, slow, sometimes stumbling, but everywhere and always relentless, but that’ll do it, that’s the ground game, and Trump has nothing like it. If he loses on Tuesday, that’s what will have done it, and that will be the sweetest victory of all. Phone call after phone call, locked door after locked door until a call is answered and the door swings open.