Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Amid the Snowdrifts, I Felt the Pain in Campaign"

WaPo (Geraldine Brooks op-ed):
GOFFSTOWN, N.H. "Watch for Falling Ice."

The hand-lettered sign hung on the front door in the space usually reserved for cheerful seasonal decorations. I looked up. Poised just above my head was an array of icicles the size of javelins. I turned sideways to make myself a smaller target and knocked. No answer. With pen gripped awkwardly in thickly mittened hand, I raised my clipboard and marked a wobbly "NH" -- Not Home -- beside the name on my list of likely primary voters.
Then I trudged back down the long, unplowed driveway and up over the snowbank where the sidewalk used to be. I'd dressed warmly for my day as a volunteer for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, but as the snow insinuated its way into my boots and the wind blasted through layers of long underwear, I realized that there probably wasn't enough clothing, short of a full Antarctic expedition kit, adequate for such weather.

"They'll be impressed that you're out there, in the storms and all," our trainer had told us earlier that morning, as we sat in a circle at campaign headquarters in Manchester, watching experienced canvassers role-play a typical doorstep encounter. Maybe. But after an hour of door-knocking, I had a feeling that the much-canvassed citizens of New Hampshire, three weeks from the primary, are not that easily impressed.

My husband, Tony, and I had come to the state from southern Massachusetts on an impulse. It was our 23rd wedding anniversary. Usually, we marked this fete with a weekend of indolence in some luxurious inn, preferably someplace warm. But this year, for the first time since we'd married, there was a presidential candidate for whom we both felt absolute conviction. We'd sent our checks; we'd been to a rally. We wanted to do more. At the campaign headquarters -- in an unlovely converted brick mill building just across the hall from the city probation office -- we sat with a dozen other volunteers who'd traveled north on their own dimes from as far as Virginia, Takoma Park and Baltimore, and learned about the arcane codes of the canvasser.

Months earlier, dedicated organizers had trolled the state's neighborhoods for likely primary voters, divided them into separate "turfs" and plotted their locations on maps of military precision. It was our job to revisit these folks and see what information we could extract about which candidate they were leaning toward. A "2" was code for the gold standard -- someone definitely voting and committed to Obama. On primary day, the campaign would court the 2s to make sure they got to the polls and that they were helped with transportation if they needed it. The 3As were those who were leaning toward Obama; 3Bs were independents or Democrats who hadn't yet made up their minds. These were the people we were to try to engage in conversation about the issues that mattered most to them, following talking points that the campaign had prepared on the Iraq war, health care, seniors, education and jobs. I couldn't wait to get into some chewy discussions on these themes.

My turf turned out to be a hilly lakeside village of middle-class houses set amid pine trees and huge granite outcrops. "Lovely!" I thought, as I stepped out of the car and took a deep breath of bracing mountain air. I waved goodbye to Tony as he drove down the hill to find his own turf, a few miles distant. Full of enthusiasm, wearing my perkiest smile, I took a step toward my first front door -- and sank to my thighs in a snowdrift. From an upstairs window, I saw a woman regarding me as I flailed away. She raised the sash a crack and yelled into the wind.

"Can I help you?"

"Hi there! I'm a volunteer for Barack Obama and I . . . "

"I'm all set." Bam.

At the next home, the SUV in the driveway sported a sticker reading "Only $20 of ammunition on board." As I waited at the glass storm door for someone to answer my knock, I noticed a rifle that looked like something out of "I Am Legend" slung casually across the armrests of the foyer settle. A few minutes later, after a brief conversation, my frostbitten fingers were attempting to scrawl: "Leaning Republican -- 2nd amendment issues."

An hour later, I'd rung a dozen or so doorbells and managed to exchange perhaps five terse sentences with a couple of 3Bs. I tried not to take it personally. Oil prices being what they are, who wants to open the door and let out all that expensive heat? I decided that even Socrates would have had a hard time inspiring a political philosophy dialogue in these conditions.

As I started to feel the out-of-body sensation that heralds the onset of hypothermia, I decided to call Tony for some bucking-up. Tony, unlike me, is an old hand at this kind of thing, having worked as a union organizer in Mississippi and a get-out-the-vote volunteer in the last election.

"How you doing?" I asked, through chattering teeth.

"Horrible. You?"

"I'm dying out here!"

We decided to retreat to a cafe for hot soup. As I walked into the welcome warmth, I had the bright idea of double-tasking by canvassing the other diners. As I approached a friendly looking couple, I noticed that they, too, had clipboards. The cafe was filled with fellow Obama volunteers, except for one guy. He turned out to be canvassing for Edwards.

It took a massive effort of will to get back out there. But I did. As the wan light faded and I skidded in an ungraceful jet¿ across a slab of black ice, I had an epiphany of sorts.

This was exactly why I wanted Barack Obama to be president. Because back when he was a star graduate of Harvard Law, when he could have taken any number of cushy, high-paid jobs, he had chosen to do something very much like this: the hard, low-yield, little-noticed work of community organizing. And that, to me, was the kind of experience that counted far more than years of bench-warming in Congress.

At the end of the day, having knocked on all our doors and entered all our codes, we drove back to campaign headquarters to fill out our tally sheets. The Goffstown organizer fell on Tony's sheet with a cry of joy. His solitary "2" of the day turned out to be an undecided voter she had started to woo three months ago. "We've got him! That's fantastic!"

Our combined 10 hours of labor had yielded one "close." And that, apparently, was a great result. All around us, the room was buzzing with enthusiastic young people manning phone banks and scanning computer screens, settling in to spend another Saturday night slogging away for democracy.

By the time Tony and I reach our 24th wedding anniversary, we'll have a new president. We're hoping we'll have double cause for celebration. And we're planning to have it someplace warm.

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