The night of the Iowa caucus, I wanted to quit my job and pack a bag for Chicago or New Hampshire or wherever the action was. I didn’t go to either of those places, and I put off my political wanderlust for an embarrassingly long nine and a half months, but I did end up where the action was. Though I now live in Connecticut, I grew up—and my parents still live—on what unexpectedly turned into a fault-line for the 2008 campaign: the Indiana-Ohio border.
Ohio, of course, was expected to be a battleground state. Indiana, on the other hand, became perhaps the most improbable chapter of Barack Obama’s improbable campaign. During the spring primaries, I told my friends that Indiana was bluer than anyone expected, but this was more a bluff than an analysis. I never dreamed that my pride-filled defense of my native state would prove prophetic.
Once Obama had secured the Democratic nomination, I contacted the Obama office that had opened in my old hometown of Richmond, Indiana. For good measure, I emailed a friend manning an office in Darke County, a vermilion county in rural Ohio that the Democrats hoped to turn just a little purple. I told them both that I was coming home—belatedly, but belatedly like the cavalry at the end of a Western. They could expect me in mid-October.
The Richmond Obama office turned out to be a squat and careless addition to a larger building—a former garage, perhaps, or a large shed that found the Indiana winter too harsh and had huddled close to its parent to share its heat. The neighborhood was residential and poor, though the poverty seemed buried deep in the houses. The yards and sidewalks contained little of the debris—children’s toys and a corner mart’s worth of soda bottles—that I would pick my way over days later on other streets.
Two of the three staff members had just arrived—perhaps had just been hired—but the third had been in town for months, gathering the threads of a network of volunteers: friendly retirees, sporadically enthusiastic college kids, schoolteachers, nurses, and a few men who lived alone and liked having company at last.
The office was cluttered in the directionless way of multiple people pursuing the same project with different habits and tempi. There were slapdash posters on every wall, colored in marker by an indelicate hand and sagging on inadequate amounts of adhesive tape. Barack-oly is good for you, proclaimed one, illustrated with a leafy green effigy of Obama. Barack Paper Scissors, read another. Plus, of course, the requisite Shepard Fairey images of Barack—twenty-two of them, in various sizes.
Forty minutes away from Richmond is Darke County, Ohio, a region made ephemerally famous by its favorite daughter, Annie Oakley. It also hosted the Treaty of Greenville—one of the more important of the many land-grab scams perpetrated by the US government on Native American tribes. It also remains, proudly, the home of the only Kitchenaid outlet store in the world.
On my way from Richmond to Greenville, I was buoyed by the sight of a modest number of Obama signs on the long lawns that abut the highway and run to farmhouses. Also I was perplexed by the quantity and complexity of Halloween decorations, including one that reenacted the full Iwo Jima tableau, replacing each soldier’s head with a Jack-o-lantern. On my way out of Richmond, I passed what appeared to be a hobo carrying a plank-wood cross.
Greenville’s lone Obama staffer, fresh out of college and now besieged by a disjointed cohort of locals demanding yard signs and reminiscing aimlessly, was, like most staffers I met, singularly focused on the job at hand, refusing politely to be drawn into the kinds of speculation and poll-watching volunteers delight in. The office, which had two previous lives as a furniture store and as a temporary library, retained neither the books nor the furniture—the former showroom floor now held only a couple of card tables and a handful of folding chairs. A few days after I showed up, a representative of the electric company stopped by to turn off the electricity.
I met one family in Greenville—a man with a hook-hand and a Harley-Davidson mailbox and matching jacket; his wife, a tiny woman wrapped in a blue and green fleece blanket; and their son, a blond, bowl-cutted kid about 13—who told me that not only would they be voting for Obama, but so would their entire extensive family network (the husband’s cousin was a judge). I told the local staffer this, but chose my words poorly: “Hey, I met this family-they say they have a lot of relatives—and they’re going to bring out the whole clan to vote.” He blanched, his face falling slightly, and I realized he had heard a ‘K’ in there somewhere. “For Obama,” I hurriedly added.
Talking to voters is hard only if you think you know something about your candidate, or about politics or news. That may sound like an awful, cynical thing to say, but it’s important to recognize what your job as a volunteer really is. It’s tremendously easy to romanticize the work of campaigning. Volunteers are tempted to view canvassing or phone-banking as involving persuasion, epiphanic one-to-one interactions that aggregate into a winning majority. But a voter who is likely to change his mind because a stranger just walked onto his porch is probably just as vulnerable to the sophistry of direct mail or robo-calls.
So I had to forget my talking points. For weeks before I returned to the Midwest, I collected clippings—Frank Rich columns, New Yorker pieces, posts from progressive blogs, stray thoughts of my own—in an effort to assemble a vast and supple defense against all the smears and arguments arrayed against my candidate. All that work came in handy a couple of times, but only because it bailed me out of looking foolish, not because it got someone to flip to the light side.
After a few futile exchanges, I found out that a volunteer isn’t there to talk someone down from the ledge that empties into conservatism. He’s there because an accumulation of positive contacts will secure hesitant or wavering voters. And a “positive contact” isn’t about eloquence or cogency. It’s about politeness, enthusiasm, and confidence. And that’s why you’ve got to forget you know anything about politics. Not because voters are stupid or ignorant, but because it’s really tempting to treat them that way if you’re caught up in evaluating them as political thinkers.
A number of folks I talked to had difficulties with Obama’s name. Some would just hesitate after “I’m voting for …” and then tell me huffily that they were Democrats. Others kept calling him “Baracko,” which I thought was a pronunciation worth keeping. To be fair, about an equal number of voters called Obama’s opponent “McClain”—after I heard that pronunciation often enough, I began attributing it less to ignorance than to some sort of regional linguistic anomaly.
While out canvassing one day, I was run down by a bored and laconic cop. He notified me that solicitation was not only illegal but an invitation to be shot at. I showed him that I was campaigning, not selling anything, and he drove unsmilingly away. It was the third time in two days that I had been admonished about the possibility of being shot while canvassing. I tried not to let it go to my head.
The slowness of canvassing sensitizes you to poverty. Neither Richmond nor Darke County is statistically poor relative to US averages, but you spend enough time in a neighborhood to notice every broken window, every tattered baby carriage. Many of the houses I visited shared a common smell—cigarette smoke and laundry detergent, mixed with lumberyard scraps cut roughly and nailed provisionally to replace rotted lintels, door frames, window frames, railings. This wood wears down quickly and soaks up all other smells, so that all you have to do is stand outside a front door and it hits you like a wall.
Many doors I needn’t have even knocked-foreclosure notices tagged the windows of some, and others were obviously vacant. On my walk-packets of names and addresses, I checked off MV frequently—moved—and for one 19-year-old girl, Dec—deceased.
Then there was the Muslim thing, which of course came up a number of times, though it didn’t work the way I thought it would. You would think that the folks who bought into such scare tactics would be fanatical McCain supporters. That wasn’t the case—the more certain someone was that Obama was a Muslim (or, in one case, the Antichrist), the more fatalistic they were about politics across the board. Most weren’t even voting Republican. The lady who believed Obama was the Antichrist also believed McCain was an idiot who would govern poorly.
As for the cases where someone didn’t entirely believe the smear—well, you knew you had a very gullible voter in front of you, and it was best to be firm. Unfortunately, that meant a simple refutation—no larger invitations to consider the bigotry behind the accusation. Withholding this was very hard, and I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been better to lose the voter and maintain some integrity. I had better arguments prepared than “No, ma’am, he’s not a Muslim. He’s a Christian,” but I ended up trumpeting Obama’s vigorous Christianity while standing silent, even complicit, in the generalized disparagement of a faith and, implicitly, a race. ‘Choose your battles’ is the easy mantra, but winning doesn’t make the choice any braver.
The night before November 4, I felt a quiet synchrony, the knowledge that in countless towns and cities, a very large number of restless, sore-limbed, anxious people were stacking door-hangers, counting canvass-lists, sorting papers. And I felt something difficult to identify, but which I later realized was a sort of patriotic conviction, a Whitman-esque glow. I was in what Sarah Palin would call “the Real America,” and it was nearly as red as it had ever been, but it felt like home.