Sunday, 11 November 2012

Four More Years.

Tuesday marked the end of two and a half months (in my case, much longer for others) of phone banks, canvassing shifts (in the snow and the sun), being told “shame on you” (more than once), plenty of trips down to Colorado, getting positive responses and thank-yous that make unpleasant ones more bearable, going to rallies, and making one 600-mile roundtrip to drop off a phone and a clipboard. It was wonderful.

In mid-August, I finally got round to doing something I had been meaning to do for a while: getting involved in the Obama campaign. OFAWY (Obama for America – Wyoming) was dedicated entirely to helping Obama win Colorado. We were obviously not going to win Wyoming (and its three electoral votes), so instead, we were an export state – focused on helping Obama win the state to the south (with its nine). Wyoming was a single-staff state, which means that there was only one paid staff member (Bob, the state director), who was supported by a corps of interns and volunteers. From the first day I helped out at the office, I learned that this was a data-driven campaign. It is essentially a numbers game. A great deal of political science research has shown that X number of calls/door knocks translates to Y number of votes. Our task was not to provide people with yard signs or bumper stickers. Such merchandise may be nice, but it does not provide a statistically significant electoral advantage. Yard signs don’t vote. This campaign was about spreadsheets and about making targeted calls. In this regard, it was very different to my experience of how campaigns work in the UK (for the time being, at least).

West Greeley office.
There’s an awful lot that I could write here, but instead of overloading you with information, I’ll try to give a rough idea of some of what I got up to. I'll apologize now for the abundant parentheses. And for failing to avoid overloading you with information.

Despite having planned to get involved all summer, it wasn’t until I received an email about going down to canvass in Fort Collins that I actually signed up for my first volunteer shift, and I’m so glad I did. With what was left of my summer break at that point, I started to go to the downtown Laramie office regularly to make phone calls, initially to recruit volunteers in Wyoming and Colorado. My first time involved asking people in the town of Etna (pop. 164) to attend a phone bank that week. The campaign here has been remarkably successful at establishing teams in similarly tiny towns (the explanation for which I’m sure would be fascinating to explore in itself), which has served as a good way for voters across Wyoming to get involved and make their voices heard in a state that doesn’t necessarily offer many such opportunities.

All the names we had in our system were of people who had identified themselves as supporters at one point or another, but that didn’t mean they were always glad to hear from us. Everyone who made calls enjoyed their share of angry voters – those who were bothered that you were interrupting their dinner, calling them at work/on their cell (numbers which they willingly gave us, along with an email address in some cases), and – in my case especially – asking where you’re calling from. One guy thought my calling him from what he presumed to be a UK-based call center was evidence of Obama’s desire to outsource jobs. I may or may not have called a particular supporter’s cell phone after he rudely dismissed me from his landline. I simply assumed that his providing us with three methods by which to contact him must have meant that he wanted to be very contactable. He was not terribly pleased with my decision.
Making calls using the predictive dialer.
Photo credit: Chase Harmelink.
Up until October 9th, canvassing was focused both on persuading people who we knew might vote for Obama and on voter registration. Scott Gessler, the Republican Secretary of State of Colorado (and various Secretaries of State elsewhere), had made the decision to “cut costs” by striking from the voter rolls those individuals who did not vote in 2010. As such, there were many Colorado voters who were expecting to receive their mail-in ballots for this election and who – if we had not been able to reach them – would have been disappointed. Therefore, part of our job when knocking the doors of those listed as IFTV (inactive, failed to vote), was to re-register them. Good old Gessler.

Now, as was often the way both with canvassing and making calls, most people were not in (or decided not to answer the door/phone – something which became much more common as the campaign progressed and the Colorado voters were fed up of being harassed by the campaigns). This sometimes made for frustrating walks (by which I mean canvassing trips, not like annoying strolls), where you didn’t always feel like you’d done much good, but it was important to remember that just being out there helped, and was a crucial part of the process. Even if it didn’t always feel like it, days with a poor contact rate – perhaps eight conversations out of 56 doors knocked – were still important, as was remembering that some days are better than others. I’m not sure this makes perfect sense when written down, but I think it's an important way to see things when involved in a campaign.

Even though the walk packets contain maps of the turf you’re canvassing, navigating unfamiliar territory can nevertheless introduce you to some confusing/frightening/interesting experiences. If, for example, you’re canvassing in poorly-planned Greeley, CO, you must try not to get confused about whether you’re on 30th Avenue, 30th Avenue Court, or 30th Avenue Place, or why house number 412 does not seem to exist (it’s in a cul-de-sac a quarter mile south of 410, naturally). Be aware of large dogs in front yards. Your knocking the front door may wake them from their sleep and lead to a frantic ten-second panic which involves you failing to latch the gate as you run yelling and screaming out of the front yard, dropping your voting location stickers and trying to use your walk list clipboard as a shield… or so I’ve heard. Canvassing may take you onto front porches with creepy cuddly-toy tea parties (and not in a way that made it seem like they were just toys that had been left out by a child who lived therein). It may enable you to talk to people in trailer parks, where the homes seem to have inadequate guttering to deal with snowmelt (an important matter in the Mountain West), presumably leading to some unpleasant living conditions for the residents, and it’s possible (although unlikely) that you’ll be confronted with some vehement racism towards the president. Canvassing was a good way to see more of this fascinating, varied and often perplexing place.

President Obama came to speak on the Colorado State University campus in late August, and since tickets were distributed on campus the Saturday before by his “advance team”, it was a good opportunity to register many of those waiting in line for tickets. Since a large proportion were students, many had either just moved away from their parents’ homes, or had recently moved between student accommodation, and needed to re-register. This, plus the fact that they were something of a captive audience while waiting for distribution to begin, made for a very successful day of registration. I really enjoyed registering voters – it is a tremendously satisfying activity in itself. I know it sounds incredibly corny, but it just feels good to be facilitating democracy, helping people exercise their democratic right.

Not long after voter registration ended, the campaign shifted its focus toward ‘Get Out the Vote’ (GOTV), which involved a combination of checking to see if those who had applied for mail-in ballots had received them and sent them off yet, and encouraging everyone else to vote early. Later, we made lots of ballot-chasing calls, making sure voters with mail-in ballots sent them in before the deadline (“No, ma’am. I’m afraid you can’t send it in at the end of the week, the election is on Tuesday.”) Particularly exciting for me was the fact that some of the people we called/canvassed were more comfortable speaking in Spanish. There is a box on the sheet you can check to indicate this and the campaign will have someone get in touch later, but I was really glad of the opportunity to be able to talk to them then. I think it’s really important that participation in the electoral process is encouraged by facilitating greater involvement across the changing American electorate (the subject of my undergrad thesis, if anyone’s interested). The matter of how Latinos vote – particularly how such voting behavior may be affected by the complex process of racial/ethnic identity formation, shaped in part by religious, regional, class and national identities – will, I think, be of increasing interest in elections to come (the developing topic of my grad thesis, if anyone’s interested).

'El Norte': the staging location in North Greeley, which has a high concentration of Latino voters.
When Election Day arrived, I simply could not concentrate on my work. At 12:30pm, I decided to head down to the office, since I figured I’d be of more use there than staying at home trying to plan a paper, where brief periods of productivity had been punctuated by periods of pacing around the house and moments of anxiety/excitement/swearing. There were lots of final GOTV calls to be made, and from lunchtime until the polls closed at 7pm, the group of us in the office made 2000 calls. We made calls right up until the moment they closed, on principle, and then it was done. There was nothing more we could do. Many months of work had been leading up to this one day and now it was over. Since OFAWY had started up, a total of 68,000 contact attempts had been made (calls or door knocks). Various other volunteers and interns arrived to watch the results come in, which was great – it was really nice to be in the company of everyone else who had contributed to the campaign. I've met some tremendously smart, hard-working and talented people and it was an honor to be part of their team.
Election Night: computers, call sheets, phones, food.
Every time the networks announced that Obama had won a state, people cheered. Then when Ohio was called, the place went nuts. Screaming, hugging, high-fiving. We had done it. Everyone was very happy, but still eager to know how Colorado had gone. Of course the outcome would have been great regardless, but we wanted to know if the state we had been relentlessly calling and visiting for months had gone in our favor. When we found out that it had, we were overjoyed. We built that.

It was one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.
Bob had all of us sign the banner during the results.

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