My campaigning gets started unexpectedly early when Sondra, our waitress at the hotel, asks if I’m going out to work. She’s a bouncy woman in her fifties with a pencil affixing her brilliant gold hair into what I think is a French curl. Outgoing and playfully argumentative, she has conspiratorially offered us over-easy eggs not included in the complimentary buffet.
When I say I’m knocking on doors and phone banking for Barack Obama, Sondra’s wide smile turns down. When I tell her Romney wants to make the middle class subsidize tax cuts for the rich, she says, “I’m middle-class and I don’t believe it.”
When I remind her that Obama saved the U.S. automobile industry while Romney said it should be allowed to go bankrupt, she says, ”I don’t believe that’s true. I believe just the opposite.”
And when I recount the Romney/Ryan record on privatizing Social Security and gutting Medicare, she says, “I don’t believe it. I believe that’s what the other guy wants to do.”
Sondra’s manager begins to hover, so we wish each other a happy day as I head out to my car, unsure if the conversation will continue.
Today’s turf is a community six miles south of Toledo, full of ornate Victorians and clapboard cottages adorned with window boxes. Squeezed among them are more modest, less well-maintained frame dwellings.
One of my addresses is a two-story brick Colonial with a red Dodge Ram 1500 in the driveway. A solid linebacker of a man in his mid-40s stands in front, wearing a bulky gray Ohio State sweatshirt and wielding a noisy gas-powered blower. He’s a good 6 foot 3, with a pinch of dip tobacco the size of a small walnut tucked between his upper lip and gum.
It’s a mystery why his name appears on my walk list. There’s no party registration or union affiliation, but he sees my clipboard and stack of literature as I approach, so he obligingly cuts the engine and spits into the curb, waiting to see what this is all about.
He proves well-versed in the gerrymandering controversy and blames the current system for all but guaranteeing the incumbency of his district’s congressional representative for as long as she wants it. “I’ve never been a big Marcy Kaptur fan, but you see who they’re running against her? Joe the Plumber. What a joke.” He’s reluctantly going to vote for her and will definitely vote yes on Issue 2, the redistricting referendum.
When the conversation moves to the national races, he discloses that he’s “a small business man” (the proprietor of an independent carpet cleaning business) and therefore generally votes Republican. I press him, and he says he’ll reluctantly cast his Senate vote for Democrat Sherrod Brown because Brown’s opponent comes off as immature and shady, and seems to be driven by “an ulterior motive.”
The conversation then veers off into education policy. He talks about his daughter, a college graduate with a teaching degree who’s still living at home and making do with catch-as-catch-can substitute-teacher gigs. He complains about the funding cuts to education, the evaporation of teaching positions, and the unfairness of evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores. He cites the example of Ottawa Hills, “the Beverly Hills of Toledo,” where students uniformly lead the area in test scores, while the performance in poorer neighborhoods consistently lags.
“It’s a political dodge,” he says. “Who’d want to go into a profession where you’re treated like that?”
In the same breath he announces he’s voting against Obama and Biden. He says the vice president’s debate performance “shows you the guy’s erratic. Do you really want someone like that with his finger anywhere near the button?” As you’re measuring how far you can go trying to change his thinking with facts, he confides, “Romney was never my first choice or even my second. Santorum’s the one I wanted,” then spits into the leaves, fires up his blower, and thanks you for stopping by.
Eight addresses later, with the sky darkening, I approach a white frame house that is weathered and chipped but still — just barely — on the respectable side of shabby. The woman who answers after several twists of the mechanical doorbell seems to have just woken up. She’s in her 50s, with short gray hair and a handsome face. Her eyes are bleary and she has a terrible cough. When queried about the candidates, she prudently asks how this information’s going to be used.
When told it’s being entered into a database for turning out the vote for Obama and Brown, and for identifying people who might need transportation, child care or other help on Nov. 6, she says “I got it.” Then she asks who to call to offer to drive people to the polls. Taking the leaflet I hand her, she extends her arm across her mouth to muffle another cough, and with her free hand waves me out the door.
Heading into the home stretch, I come to a compact house with hedges in need of trimming. My list tells me it’s occupied by a pensioner and his two adult sons, all union-affiliated. A slight, wiry young man sporting a black Harley Davidson cap, a red Dead Kennedy’s tee shirt and couple day’s stubble steps out of the garage and says “Hi.”
When I explain the purpose of my visit he admits, respectfully, that he doesn’t vote much. His eyes glaze as I summarize the key provisions of Issue 2. When asked what kind of work he does, he momentarily perks up and says he’s been laid off for two years now, just working odd jobs. When told that Obama and Sherrod Brown’s policies rescued the auto industry and are on track to create more jobs, he says politely but without enthusiasm, “That would be good for me.”
You mark him down as “leaning,” which in this case, aside from accurately describing his physical posture, means he’ll vote the right way only if someone rounds him up on election day and physically marches him to the polls — not beyond the realm of possibility in a tight race such as this.
The clouds let loose as I finish filling out his data, and with four doors left unvisited, I dive into my rented Chevy Traverse.
At the end of every shift, I tally up the numbers: how many addresses I hit, how many voters were home, how many say they’re voting for Obama and Brown, how many against, and how many declare they’re still undecided even at this late date.
The information then gets fed back into a computer, where strategists continually refine the roster of voters: who will get which messages, who will be called again and offered rides, and who will be spit out of the system entirely.
But amidst all this data entry and crunching there are things the tally sheets don’t capture, the outliers you tend to remember most vividly. Most often it’s the negative encounters, missed opportunities, failures to communicate and regrets that you couldn’t find the right words or didn’t have the couple of hours for sharing a tumbler of Pappy’s and a cigar with an Ohio State fan who runs a small business and in many ways shares some of the same concerns you do – about the economy, his kids, the value of human life, and a political class who more often than not treat their electorate like a bunch of commodities and imbeciles.
But at reporting time, your tally reveals that you actually spoke with a voter at almost half the homes you visited, and that those supporting Obama, Brown, and Yes on 2 trump the opposition by a ratio of nearly 7 to 1. You tell the volunteer coordinator about the woman with the cough, and by the time you’ve reached your hotel room she’s already been called.
The next morning, when you slap down two dollars and the free breakfast buffet coupon, Sondra greets you with a hearty smile and asks if she can get you contraband from the kitchen.
“So are you voting for Obama?” you ask.
“Fat chance,” she replies.
But the election’s still three weeks off, and she’s going to be making the acquaintance of a lot more volunteers from all over the country between now and then, each ready to strike up a conversation and take a crack at bringing her around.