W(h)ither America 2008: If McCain Wins New Hampshire, It’s Probably My Fault

Josh Fischel nobly dedicates his Saturday to canvassing for the Obama campaign in the contested state of New Hampshire. Lesson learned: some weird people live in Manchester.

This weekend, I decided that sending emails to friends who were probably already going to vote for Obama, urging them to vote for Obama, and donating the occasional $25 to the cause wasn’t enough; I was going to drive north and spend a day canvassing in New Hampshire. 
I was the first volunteer to arrive Saturday morning at Obama’s Manchester office—one of nineteen he’s got in New Hampshire—and among the first campaign workers to greet me was a former student of mine, Dave Hendrie. I don’t remember him being particularly politically active in high school, but he’d taken the semester off of college and spent the last five months living in campaign-arranged housing in Manchester. Drive through downtown Manchester during the day and see how few places are open and how few people are around, and you’ll understand what a sacrifice that truly is.
A few minutes behind me, workers from SEIU’s Local 1199—United Healthcare Workers East, the largest local union in the world—showed up.  Dave fondly called them the Purple Wave, a reference to their purple t-shirts.  There were only a few of us who’d never canvassed before (or for whom it had been a while), so we had two more people from the campaign explain what we were supposed to do once we knocked on a door.

“Don’t ask people for their vote,” one told us, “because military people tend to bristle at that.”

Instead, we were instructed to ask whether Barack Obama could expect their support on Election Day.  Also, we were supposed to gauge each resident’s level of support down the ticket, for Democratic Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen and incumbent Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter.
In line to receive our packets of addresses, I paired up with a guy named Vinnie, in his last year of college in Boston and originally from New Jersey.  He had a lip ring, and I briefly worried about whether people who answered the door would be turned off by it.  Residential Manchester is not necessarily the most progressive of places. 
Vinnie was just fine, though—he drove a Smart Car, the worst thing about which you could say is that it’s a glorified golf cart.  He had a bumper sticker with a picture of a Hummer, an equal sign, and the words “small penis.” 

And so we drove to the neighborhood we’d been assigned, steeling ourselves for what we might encounter.  What would we say to the middle-aged woman who told us she was undecided, and what could we say to convince her?  How would we handle the buzz-cut man with a truck in the driveway and a Rottweiler just barely restrained behind the screen door?  Which perfect rejoinder would sway the people slamming the door in our faces because they think Obama is an Islamic terrorist?  What if people wanted lawn signs or bumper stickers, when we had none (indeed, the Manchester office was out of bumper stickers entirely)?
Unfortunately (or fortunately), Vinnie and I didn’t get much chance to work our canvassing magic on many people.  The disheartening truth is that we knocked on the doors of a lot of empty homes.  Of the forty addresses we were assigned, maybe thirty-five had been abandoned for the day.  Vinnie was convinced that several people were hiding from us until we went away, which may have been true a few times, but in most homes, the blinds were drawn, cars were gone, and lights were out.

Of course, there were a few notable exceptions.  One man detained us for a good twenty minutes to tell us How Things Were.  Standing in his boat, dry-docked at the end of his long driveway, he pontificated on the futility of our mission.  He didn’t trust anyone in politics, an opinion that he seemed to base on two things: 1) Barack Obama’s parents were immoral for conceiving a child, in spite of having been of different races; 2) ten years ago, Carol Shea-Porter apparently squeezed her car into a space behind his by nudging his car with hers, and when he confronted her about it, she asked him, “Do you know who I am?” 

“I wouldn’t be able to tell her from an asshole,” this guy said.  At first, he’d seemed eager to talk, but it turned out he was just eager to swear and mock us.  It should be noted, of course, that when we left him, he was leaning Obama.  He said he probably wouldn’t vote at all, but he sure wouldn’t vote for McCain.  If even that guy isn’t voting for McCain, the Republicans are not going to win the White House.

The other people with whom we actually spoke told us in no uncertain terms that they were getting pretty tired of Obama supporters knocking on their doors. 

“I just want it to end,” wailed one woman, who we found cleaning her car. 

The whole neighborhood seemed weary of the election, and Vinnie started getting gun-shy about even approaching houses that looked empty.  Word up and down the street was that people from the campaign were appearing every other day.  I have to admit that that level of interaction seemed intrusive—at what point do people decide to vote against your candidate simply because you won’t leave them alone? 
We only encountered one man for whom we thought race might have influenced his decision. When he answered the door, he told he was for Shaheen, “but not that Obama.”  We didn’t ask questions. 
Why, you might ask, did we choose not to confront bigotry or misconceptions more aggressively?  Well, there were a few reasons.  First, you’re on the doorstep of someone’s house. You’re taking their time, and you can’t win an argument by angering them.  Your job is to be bend-over-backwards nice and hope to sway people with your kindness and your desire for change.  If someone has biases that come from ignorance, it’s hard to say anything that won’t come across as condescending and/or won’t make them unleash their rabid dog on the next Obama supporter to knock on their door.  Second, while I’m a native of New Hampshire, I don’t know much about Shaheen and Shea-Porter other than that they presumably support most of the Democratic platform, so it was hard to counter the arguments that Crazy Boat Guy presented. 
Vinnie and I returned to campaign headquarters by mid-afternoon, where we tallied our results.  This is where I realized that, even though there were often two or three people at each residence to whom we were supposed to speak, we’d only get answers from the one that opened the door; we’d assumed, probably erroneously, that everyone else would vote in unison, as a family.

By way of example: Towards the end of our tour, we came across a family unloading stuff from their car, and spoke to the daughter, who was my age.  She told us, “We’re probably the most Republican household you’re gonna’ find.”  I decided not to point out that her mother was a registered Democrat—information she might have thought she could keep secret from her conservative husband and daughter—and was tempted to circle “would like a yard sign” or “would like to volunteer” on our sheet (I didn’t).  Still, it emphasized the futility and inaccuracy of gauging interest through door-to-door canvassing.  According to Dave Hendrie, only about 10 percent of people on the lists are home when volunteers come by, and those that are there obviously don’t provide the most complete data. 
So did I do any good?  Trying to be both kind to strangers and an active supporter of my candidate proved to be a difficult juggling act.  I doubt Vinnie and I swayed anyone, because even the people who told us they were still undecided didn’t want our help making up their minds. Recent polls have New Hampshire moving increasingly into safe territory for Obama, anyway.  Maybe by 2012, with campaigns being conducted more and more online—through social networks, YouTube, and blogs—door-to-door campaigning won’t be as necessary.  It already doesn’t feel that necessary, I can tell you.

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.