This is the third installment in a series on getting out the vote with the AFL-CIO in Toledo, Ohio.
The frustrating reality for election canvassers from out-of-town is that you rarely hit the same neighborhood twice – which means you’re always hitting the bricks clueless. Nothing you committed to memory yesterday will be any good to you today.
Dee and I spend 20 minutes at the union hall figuring out logistics, but it pays off when we reach our assigned territory for the day: a seven-block area comprised mostly of detached homes, in a solidly working-class suburb. We have 47 houses on our list. The streets we’re going to hit run perpendicular to the busy main road, and after a few football field lengths, dead end into railroad tracks. Thanking God for small favors, I observe that my dozen houses on the main thoroughfare are on the near side – which means no busy street to cross on foot.
At one of my addresses, there’s a Beware of Dog sign fastened to the storm door.
Through the glass, I see a lazy-looking Basset hound lounging on a sofa. I rap on the door and the hound barely stirs. I rap again – and all hell breaks loose. A second Basset comes charging toward me from the next room, snarling and barking as she repeatedly throws herself into the glass of the door. I reflexively follow the advice I’ve gotten from a fellow volunteer from the letter carriers union: “If you hear a dog, push your knee into the door so he can’t bust it open.” I feel the pressure of each crash of the dog’s body, and wonder how soon before I’ll be picking glass out of my knee.
The hound’s owner, a woman in her late 50s with short blond hair and a serious bearing, emerges, gives me a once-over, escorts the dog to another room, then returns explaining that the hound is “only doing her job.” Leaving the door shut, she drops the glass panel and slides up a screen, through which I introduce myself and state my business. She tells me she’s heard of Issue 2 but isn’t sure of the details. When I tell her it’s about redistricting and making sure that voters choose their elected officials rather than the other way around, she understands immediately and tells me she’ll vote yes.
This leads into a conversation about the candidates, the issues and Social Security. She says that she and her husband were “small business people, but lost our business to the economy last year.” Her husband recently turned 62 and qualified to apply for early Social Security, which is now their main stable source of income. Now they’re waiting for him to become eligible for Medicare. She doesn’t feel like a victim or a charity case and doesn’t understand why anyone would think she’s either. Her husband’s a registered Republican, she’s an Independent, and she volunteers they’re both voting for Sherrod Brown and Barack Obama.
Just up the street I knock at an address that’s home to a family of four registered voters, a potential goldmine. There’s a battered white Ford pick-up truck in the driveway and a U.S. Marine Corps decal affixed to a street-side front window. To reach the entrance I have to go through a screened front porch. Two pennysavers still in their plastic wrappers lie undisturbed to the side of the floor mat. A thin man in his fifties, wearing a grey wool zippered jacket, eyes me suspiciously. I identify myself as a union volunteer and ask if he knows much about Issue 2. He doesn’t, but as we talk he remembers that it’s about fair redistricting. I cautiously ask about the candidates, and he volunteers that he and his entire family are voting for Obama and Brown. “We’re good Democrats,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about us.”
The way labor runs a political ground operation would make an efficiency consultant tear out her hair. Only one-third of your targets are likely to be at home, which means having to send other teams out later to catch the people you missed. You’re constantly hustling to train new volunteers, and just as they hit their stride, they’re gone.
But duplication of effort and resources – and a rigorous preoccupation with continuing personal contact – is not just the cost of doing business. It’s the way we do our business and the way you build a movement.
The tally for your turf this afternoon comes in at 3 to 1 for Obama, which isn’t much different from yesterday’s.
It’s a small sample, you tell yourself, you shouldn’t get too puffed up.