Early on Saturday morning, the weekend before Election Day, I drove down to Philadelphia with my old college buddy James to put in some get-out-the-vote work for the Obama campaign. James, a staff member for a union of service workers, was obligated to work long hours in a variety of grassroots campaign work. I had never done this before.
We showed up at party headquarters for the 33rd Ward around 9:30. This was in a vacant storefront in a downtrodden strip mall on a hill (a vantage point appropriate to the military tenor of campaign work). James hailed fellow veteran union men and women from around the northeast, all in loud Obama t-shirts with union insignia. I studied the ward map. Here in Kensington—an impoverished, post-industrial majority-minority neighborhood in the northeastern part of Philly—most of the campaign’s efforts were directed to registering and mobilizing new voters. So far there had been a groundswell. Neighbors persuaded neighbors, parents petitioned children and vice versa, spouses and lovers had nagged and pleaded with one another. There were a lot of older people at the campaign office, but a lot of younger people, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, were showing up too: grabbing coffee out of Philadelphia Eagles-branded Dunkin’ Donuts boxes, stepping up as Spanish-speakers, holding doors open and giving pragmatic advice to one another. “Tryin’ to make it happen,” said one of the old ladies manning the bottled-water buckets outside.
We put on our big blue “Kensington for Obama” stickers and picked up our street assignment packets from one of the campaign coordinators, who must have been a Penn student. The 33rd Ward was parceled up into Divisions, and the Divisions were divided into “turfs” of six blocks or eight blocks, with the home addresses of every registered voter in the turf. The turfs are split into odd and even house numbers, so each turf assignment comes bifurcated into a pair of complementary manila envelopes stuffed with geo-tagged street maps and print-outs of each potential voter’s personal data, extracted with a software program called VoteBuilder. Volunteers work together to canvas opposite sides of each block. I took the odd map and James took the even. “Let’s fuck shit up,” said James. We strode down the hill in the sunshine and into cramped blocks of attached row-houses with food wrappers in the bushes, where ruined factories loomed like scenery. “Inner city,” they said.
It was an unseasonably mild day, a global-warming day, and we were overdressed and sweating after an hour. We managed to knock out our turf assignments by lunchtime, and we went back out for a double shift. Together James and I knocked on about three hundred doors total, had face-to-face meetings with about a hundred potential voters, plus their families, their dogs and cats, some pedestrians, a mailman, kids playing football in a vacant lot (they yelled “McCain!” at us, just to mess with us), drivers cruising up and down the block diffusing bass-rich hip-hop music—there was one house with a parakeet cage on cinderblocks in the front lawn. The parakeet whistled at us, but nobody came to the door. More than one young guy opened the door and released a gust of early-morning weed smoke. We even bumped into a pair of young Mormon fellows, doing that Wanderjahre Mormons do, and had a friendly exchange of views. There was a black Mormon and a white Mormon. “So you think Obama might win?” the black Mormon asked us nonchalantly. He seemed as though he might have been harboring some secret hope. But who can ever say what others believe? I noted that the handful of white families in our turf seemed to lean, on the whole, toward McCain; several politely declined to state their preference.
It’s empowering to summon a stranger to the door by name. Most residents paid us a measure of respect, and I began to feel vaguely municipal, like a ward-heeler. I knocked like a cop would knock, I yelled up to people leaning out of windows, I waited patiently for residents to collar their belligerent pit bulls, I remembered to close the iron security gates on my way out. Some of the row houses on our list had broken windows, graffiti, locks gouged out and replaced, decals reading “OWNER HAS A GUN. IT IS NOT WORTH YOUR LIFE TO BREAK INTO THIS HOUSE.”—but almost every man, woman and child we spoke to was enthusiastic. In previous outings, canvassers had evaluated each potential voter’s support on a scale from 1 to 5, but at this point we were asked simply to make our pitch and record a “yes,” “no,” or “undecided” (or “moved,” or “foreclosed”), and headquarters would compile our results and map out the final push. But for the most part it went like this: “Are you registered to vote?” Oh, yes. “Will you be voting on Tuesday at [polling place]?” I most certainly will. “Will you be voting for Obama?” Yes, indeed. (We had also been advised to ask what time said vote would be cast, but this struck me as too paternalistic. You have to draw the line somewhere.) A few older people told us they’d never voted before. A hulking Hispanic man in metallic shades, who reminded James and me of the rapper Big Punisher, informed us that, against his better judgment, he was going to give this guy “one chance.” It was Obama Time.
At one lady’s house a cat bolted out and James nabbed it. “That’s how you get votes,” he said to me. As a couple of young white guys, I had thought we’d have a harder time, but like they say, this was a unique election. James, tall, thin, with an unkempt beard, looks a little like another more famous community organizer: at one house a little boy answered the door, amazed, and ran to tell his grandmother: “Jesus is here!” James described his last canvassing assignment, out in the whiter and more conservative Philadelphia suburbs, with a pair of elderly West Indian women from Brooklyn. “They didn’t understand ‘lawns.’ I had to keep explaining that you couldn’t walk across a lawn to get to the next house.” That’s how you lose votes. Such are the exigencies of democracy—at least, so we imagine. In the end, it’s difficult to evaluate quantitatively how much of a difference one individual makes, but I found myself satisfied that:
1) Pennsylvania was a battleground, and new registrants in Philadelphia had to show up at the polls.
2) The Obama campaign had plotted and allocated its vast resources right on down to the level of individual voters. Other volunteers had made the first inroads on these guys and others still would follow up on Election Day, but James and I executed diligently on all of our targets for this one day; this one small, vital turf.
3) The people of Kensington pounded fists and smiled along with me, told me inspiring stories, or asked how they could volunteer. (We didn’t really know, so we pointed the way up the hilltop to the campaign headquarters.)
Would all of this energy make a difference, over the next four years, in the lives of Philadelphia’s poor? I couldn’t really picture these streets without all the smashed fragments of coat-hangers, the pigeons wandering in brownfields, the mildewed, rain-softened, sun-bleached flyers for presidential candidates, and pizza delivery, strewn here and there in the most derelict yards.
Around ten o’clock that morning James was approached by a man shambling drunkenly down the sidewalk. (All bets are off with a ten A.M. drunk, as you may know.)
“If I go and vote,” said the man, “they going to give me a snack, or five dollars, or something like that?” He sounded hopeful.
No, explained James, they can’t give you anything, not even so much as a snack. “Why am I going to vote, then?” James, the patient ground warrior, the jaded and uncomplaining role-player, came back with a pretty good answer: You have to vote for the person, and then they give you the snack.