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What Canvassing Taught Me

by Poornima Apte

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a rooibos-sipping, latte-chugging, arugula-munching liberal. By today's lingo that probably qualifies me as an “elitist.” I am one of those who just couldn’t comprehend that anybody would willingly vote for Dubya—twice. “Who are all these people?” I whined regularly. “You mean there is still 20% of the country who actually approve of Pres. Bush?” I kept asking. But I was getting tired—tired of complaining, of fearing the “other” side, of not getting it. Much of my fear was rooted in ignorance, I know. So this fall, I decided I would try and have a hand in the outcome of the election somewhat. I would meet some “undecideds” up in our closest “swing state”—New Hampshire. I took to canvassing for my candidate, Pres. Elect Barack Obama, in New Hampshire.

My husband and I have been one of Pres. Elect Barack Obama’s earliest supporters. It was his deeply moving, soul-searching book, Dreams From my Father, that really did it for me. Here was somebody who looked at America both from the inside and out. An intelligent, caring, kind, person whose multicultural heritage really is the symbol of the new America. A person who acted calmly and deliberately. How great it would be if he were our President. It would be wonderful to have an intelligent person back in the White House—someone who can understand the complexities of the modern world, and equally important, wants to do so.

My husband and I went out in the cold last February—hitting the streets in Massachusetts doing our bit to get Sen. Obama nominated. As we stood there in the freezing cold early one weekday morning with our signs and pins and enthusiasm, a kindly commuter noticed. He called his wife and had her deliver some hot coffee and muffins to us. I was touched—not because I really appreciated the hot coffee (I did)—but because I was convinced we had found yet another Obama supporter. Every vote mattered.

Sen. Obama didn’t win Massachusetts then but he did garner the nomination.

This fall, I have driven up to New Hampshire (not as often as I would have liked to though!) to talk to undecideds and it’s been an incredibly cathartic experience. It does take a lot to go into strange neighborhoods and knock on the doors of perfect strangers but the base camp at the Obama supporters assured us: New Hampshire residents are used to this.

I remember Jane (my fellow canvasser) and I knocking on a door and a guy opened the door with a baby in his arms. “Hi, I am a volunteer for the Obama campaign. May I speak to Karen, please?” I asked. We were all handed lists detailing specific people to ask for. “Karen’s not home,” he answered, rather brusquely. “And I don’t think she would want to talk to you.” Oh-kay. We checked off the McCain column dejectedly.

Then there was this house with four undecideds. I quickly went through the checklist—the kid who opened the door didn’t look particularly happy to be bothered so early on a Saturday morning. “Derek?” I asked assuming he had to be the youngest, the 21-year-old in the family. “Yes, that’s me,” he said. The dyed mop, the tattoos everywhere, the two piercings on his lower lip were not going to throw us off. “Hi, I am a volunteer for the Obama campaign, can Senator Obama count on your support this election?” “Absolutely,” Derek said, to my great delight. “He has my vote.” What about your parents, I asked thinking I could push his kindness a bit more. “I don’t know about them. I don’t think they’ll go for him,” he said. I moved on.

My revelatory moment came in a really, really seedy broken-down neighborhood where I got to talk to a hardcore Republican who had twice voted for Bush. He asked his huge Doberman Pinscher to “stay” and it was still skittish. It was a good thing I am not scared of dogs. “Two months ago, I would not even consider voting for Obama,” Bill told myself and my fellow canvasser, Jane. “But now, the more I see the guy, the more I like him.” Bill also told me he really liked what “Sarah Palin stood for.” I read that as a nod to his conservative beliefs. I kept myself restrained and didn't ask how on earth anybody could like what she stood for. Then came the Aha! moment: “But I don't think she is qualified to be Vice President,” he said. That one statement shattered all my sweeping preconceptions about the “unthinking” other. After all, here was this guy—an avatar of Joe the Plumber for all I know—who was using his own brand of logic to make his decisions. He wasn't just a hot-blooded conservative who voted on his ticket blindly. Sure, his theories didn't quite agree with mine. But at least he was evaluating the choices through his own prism instead of voting party line no matter what. There was a nuance, I am ashamed to admit, I didn't think I would see.

The experience on the ground has taught me many lessons. First, there is nothing quite like the power of a community of organizers who are really keen on seeing change go through. To me, Jane and her husband, Eric, exemplified the idea of dedicated volunteers. Every single weekend day since August, these guys got up and made the drive all the way up to New Hampshire. Their car was stocked with everything we'd ever need on the route: Clipboards? Check. Granola bars? Check. Water? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Pres. Bill Clinton once said of Obama, “It's great that so many people love him so much.” Count Jane and Eric (and yours humbly) among these people. Jane would obsess about every single poll, worry herself to death about any tiny fluctuation, just like me. Jane taught me that even one single dedicated volunteer can effect change. She has inspired me more than she'll ever know.

Second, I have learned to try and steer away from condescension. The country is not nearly as uniformly red or blue as we might believe. There are nuances.

Bill, for his part, did go back and forth for a while about Obama. “I don't think the next President can fix the economy right away,” he told us. “I agree,” I said, “But I am voting for Senator Obama because I really do believe he will be on our side,” I told Bill. He nodded and I went my way. Bill did get there eventually—he used a different set of deciding factors than I did—but he voted for Obama.

And now, we have Pres. Elect Obama. I still tear up every hour—I am so overjoyed. We watched the results roll in with Jane, Eric and other fellow canvassers and good friends. One of these was an African American woman from the deep South, who was a middle-schooler when the infamous Emmett Till incident galvanized the Civil Rights movement. When Angie recounted this to us once in a car ride on the way back from NH, I choked up. An Obama win meant a lot to me, but I can't even begin to imagine what it must mean for Angie. She celebrated his win with a toast of apple cider—she didn't care for champagne, she told me. She did get in on the group hug though.

I canvassed because I wanted Senator Obama to win. As it turns out, it did more for me than it probably did for him. In four years, I'll probably pay Bill another visit. This time though, I'll ask that Jane not drive us around in her Volvo—I'll drive our Camry instead. I can swear the lattes and granola bars give us away enough.

November 6, 2008