How to annoy people in Pennsylvania

It’s election day! And I’m sure like many of you, I’m a nervous wreck about it. The polls and pundits are all saying that Obama is a sure thing to win, but I just can’t bring myself to believe it yet. I have never in my life voted for a winning president (except Gore in 2000, of course), and the memory of the past two failed elections is still very strong. I’ll remain skeptical until the electoral college actually votes in December.

But this year at least I decided to help out in some small way—to not just sit idly by, obsessing over political blogs while the rest of the country loses the election for me. So last weekend I drove with some friends to Philadelphia to canvas for the Obama campaign.

Taylor and Barbara (OMG! Skirko’s GF!) canvassing for Obama. Who wouldn’t want these two knocking on their door? A lot of people, let me tell you!

Barbara and Taylor volunteering for Obama

I’ve never done any door-to-door canvassing before, at least not since my Cub Scout magazine-sales days, and frankly the thought of talking to hundreds of random strangers terrifies me. But it turned out I actually enjoyed it a lot, and now wish I had done more to help. It felt really good to actually be doing something useful for once. But unfortunately the experience also made me much more nervous about our chances in this election.

Pennsylvania is one of the big “battleground” states again this year, and while it’s not quite as competitive as Virginia, Colorado or Indiana—polls have been showing Obama with a consistent 8-point or so advantage for a couple weeks now—it’s still definitely winnable by the McCain campaign. They’ve been pouring tons of money into it, and have basically focused their entire electoral strategy around winning Pennsylvania. The Obama campaign is strong there too though, and from what I could tell had an extremely focused and organised ground operation. I’m guessing it will be very close.

We started in a neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia called Mayfair, around the Fox Chase road area. It was all small 50s-style row houses surrounded by little lawns, usually split in half between two families. It felt semi-suburban, but obviously lower-middle class. And the population was very diverse. Mostly elderly, but of every type: old irish-catholics, old jews, old african americans, old eastern-european immigrants. Also a number of young families, usually latino, with a sprinkling of asian varietals. Lots of ex-firefighters, veterans, retired police officers, union members. If this is what Pennsylvania is like, it is clear why it’s a perennial swing state.

Especially since Mayfair was pretty evenly split between republicans and democrats. This being the last weekend of the campaign, our goal was not to persuade any new people to vote for Obama. We were just there to “get out the vote”—to make sure as many Obama supporters as possible came out to vote on election day; that they knew where their polling place was, to offer rides if they had no way of getting there, to ask for volunteers, etc. I had a list of possible Obama households and was only supposed to talk to those people. Which meant, in Mayfair, that I skipped over about half the houses. All the people with McCain-Palin signs in their front yards—and there were a lot—were lost causes as far as we were concerned.

So it was a very diverse area, perhaps even a microcosm of Pennsylvania in general. But the predominant demographic by far was the powerful “people who wish Taylor would just get off their damn porch and stop bugging them” voting block. Seriously, you don’t get much love as a canvasser. Nobody answered the door about 50% of the time, even though often I could hear a TV on inside, and another 25% immediately told me to go away—that they didnt want to talk about “voting stuff”. To be fair, these people have been bombarded with canvassers, ads and phone calls for months and months. I’d be pretty sick of it too, and really, who doesn’t get annoyed with door-to-door people with clipboards? Still though, I CAN SEE YOU PEEKING THROUGH THE SHUTTERS! I know you’re in there, old lady!! One family—mom, dad and kids—even pulled up to the curb while I was knocking on their door and just sat in the car pretending to not be there until I moved on to the next house. But whatever. That’s cool… they can do what they want, I’m still gonna leaflet the hell outta em!

(Speaking of knocking on doors, what’s up with houses in Philadelphia not having doorbells? My knuckles still hurt from all the knocking I did.)

It wasn’t all just people avoiding me, though. There were many people on my list who were very friendly and talkative. There were a lot of big Obama supporters, and there was a lot of excitement about the election. Every now and then someone would thank me for what I was doing, which was nice. I felt like I actually helped a few people, like the ones who were confused about their polling place, or the one old lady who was worried nobody would pick her up to drive her to vote (I really hope that lady gets there.. she was so nice).

And occasionally I’d talk to people by mistake or be approached by people who were hard-core republicans. When I asked them why they didn’t like Obama, they almost always told me they were worried he’d take their money and give it to “people who didn’t deserve it”. Even if I explained that Obama wouldn’t raise their taxes, they still said they “didn’t believe him”. I heard that a few times.. the subtext clearly that he would take their money and give it to “people who didn’t deserve it… people like him“.

There was also this one lady who told me she wanted all the troops out of Iraq immediately, which sounded good. A supporter! But when I started to say “oh good I do too! Obama’s plan is to..” she cut me off and continued: “We should bring all our troops home right away and just nuke the whole damn place. And while we’re at it kill everyone in Guantanamo. Those bastards have nicer TVs than I do! I shouldn’t be paying for that with my tax money.” To which the old dude on the next porch yelled: “I’m voting for her!

I later got in an argument with that guy about tax cuts which ended with him pointing at me and saying, as patronizingly as possible, “Son, let me tell you something: I’ve been promised money by Washington my whole life and I’ve never seen a single penny of it. So you can take your tax cuts and shove them somewhere!” He indicated the place he meant with a illustrative finger gesture. I lost that argument.

We later moved on to Frankford (the area voting at St James Lutheran Church), which was predominantly African American and slightly more affluent. This was hardcore Obama country, and much more receptive to my canvassing than Mayfair had been. Not many republican crazies in Frankford.

But besides the staunch democrats and republicans, everywhere I went I also got a surprising amount of “undecided” voters, even on the list of pre-screened possible Obama supporters. Living in New York and reading about politics a lot it’s pretty easy to wonder how anybody can possibly still be undecided in this election. I mean really, what is there to decide about at this point? The choices are so clearly different from each other. I have tended to think the “undecided” category in polls must be some sort of statistical error or anomaly. But these people do actually exist in Northeast Philadelphia. And there are a lot of them. I was really amazed by how many I encountered, actually.

There was the old lady who liked Obama but was adamantly pro-life because of her religion. There was the guy about my age who just didn’t trust any politicians at all. There was the Korea veteran who thought Obama was better for the troops but didn’t want anyone to take his guns. But more often than not the undecided voters said that while they didn’t agree with McCain’s policies on almost anything—Iraq, the economy, taxes, health care—they still “just didn’t trust” Obama. Or they “just didn’t like him” and couldn’t say why. But I could tell why. The subtext of his ethnicity was always plain just by watching them talk about him.

These are the undecided voters this election. The Obama people say that they assume all undecided voters will end up voting for McCain, which I’ve always thought was a bit pessimistic. Shouldn’t they split roughly evenly? But now I understand a bit more. Undecided voters WILL ALL break for McCain. Because they are not really undecided.. they just don’t want to tell the nice (and handsome) Obama canvasser guy on their porch why they actually don’t like him.

This is why volunteering for Obama made me more nervous than ever about this election. Today is election day, and I am hopeful I will wake up tomorrow to a president-elect Obama. I am hopeful we dont have four years of McCain, and I am hopeful there are not enough “undecided” voters out there to wreck it all for us.

But for today I will remain nervous.

As I’m writing this, the polls are about to close in Pennsylvania. I hope all those people I annoyed don’t manage to annoy me in return.

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  1. Nov 6th, 2008at1:16 am

    that picture at the end is awesome, where did it come from? i am in the middle of writing a post about my brief phone bank/canvassing stints too. mom and dad are very proud of us, you know.

  2. Alana
    Nov 6th, 2008at5:37 pm

    A new post! Now that the election is over (phew!), I thank you for singlehandedly bringing Pennsylvania over to the Obama column.

    The Obama Column, a new spy-thriller by Taylor Shaw.

  3. Nov 14th, 2008at1:07 pm

    That photo was found on this site: Yes We Can (hold babies).

    Also of note: Yes We Can Has and Yes We Cake

    More posts are a-comin! I think. I’m not really sure what to do with this here blog anymore.

  5. Nov 14th, 2008at1:15 pm

    also of note: Cats For Obama

  6. rebecca
    Nov 20th, 2008at10:23 pm

    woohoo! i haven’t checked this blog in forever and i’m glad to have read it post-election. i share your pennsylvania/undecided voter terror! but, the worst part is over and now we just have to keep working for him. by the way, cats for obama rules


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