a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Turn right at Destiny Drive: Obama GOTV in Chantilly, VA

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th November 2008

This is about my last twelve hours or so of work — Monday evening and Election Day — for the Obama campaign in Virginia.  It may not be all that riveting to you, but it was a privilege to be a part of it, and to meet so many smart, hard-working people in such a short time.

I had canvassed twice in Leesburg, and it was my intent to rejoin the Leesburg office for final GOTV (“get out the vote”) work on Monday night and Tuesday.  While I assume that would have been welcome, I also needed a place to stay, and that proved difficult to arrange.  I had needed to leave quickly on Saturday; as I tried to recontact people at the Leesburg office on Sunday and Monday about where to go,  I came to suspect I was becoming more of a  problem for the people there than a potential asset for them.

I had rented a car for the occasion (I would need to drive straight from Virginia to Ohio for a funeral).  By Monday afternoon I’d resolved to book a Leesburg motel room as well and just show up at the Obama HQ there when I got a call from one Lynne Weil, who said she’d been given my name.  Having established that she wasn’t in Leesburg, Virginia but in the vicinity of Chantilly, that that didn’t matter to me, and that she had a place for me to stay, we agreed I’d arrive around 8.  But between a late start, traffic, and eventually needing to buy a Loudoun County map to find my way, I finally arrived at the address I was given around 9 pm.

Precinct/turf situation board, South Riding hub,
Chantilly, VA, night of 11/3/08
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew
Slideshow here.

Talamore Drive
Somewhat to my surprise, it really was just another single family home among many in a prosperous looking neighborhood — big, fairly new houses, usually several cars per driveway.  But the house turned out to have been all but handed over to the Obama campaign by its owner — the garage was a canvassing staging area, the kitchen had bowls of salad and multigallon coffee containers, the dining room was occupied by four or five people entering data on their laptops.  I had arrived between shifts, and stood to the side eating an unexpected dinner on a paper plate and listening in to low conversations in the living room about how urban or rural a given “turf” was, were there enough flashlights, when the door hanger work would start.

I got to talking with another volunteer clearly also waiting for work to do — and it turned out he was part of the Senate Foreign Relations committee staff.  We talked about Iran briefly; he seemed to approve of pressure on Iran on the basis of their past nuclear weapons work, and noted that a problem with the “MIT solution” is the fear of a breakout — the Iranians might work with an international uranium enrichment facility for a while, then appropriate the facility and/or the expertise gained and go back to nuclear weapons work on their own.  I suggested that no matter what, there will be the possibility of disappointment.  But I didn’t want to press things much further than that — we’d both come to do get out the vote work, not have a debate on Iran.

Around 11:30pm, that’s what we did.  I couldn’t even say where we went — he had the map and address list, I had the flashlight and the bundle of door hangers (“Obama / Warner”); we got into a process of me shining our flashlight on the mailboxes, confirming we were at or near the right spot, and jumping out to hang up the door hanger.  After jingle-jangling my way to a couple of doors, I emptied my spare change and car keys into the back seat.  I was forever braced for Rover the dog to start barking — and not sure what I would do —  but thankfully that didn’t happen.  The whole thing took maybe an hour and a half.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Post | 4 Comments »

The Lost Cause

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd November 2008

I was in Leesburg, Virginia at the Loudoun for Obama headquarters there again yesterday — the office called me last week and asked whether I could help them this weekend and on Election Day, so I said yes. I was fortunate to be able to arrange a ride on my own this time — thanks again, Steve S.!   Usually I’ve hitched a ride with another volunteer at Bethesda High School gathering point, but that wasn’t an option this time: the Montgomery County Obama people were sent by bus to canvass in Richmond, Virginia.

This time we were sent to a neighborhood east of Leesburg, with similar-looking single family homes neatly spaced down their streets, plastic tricycles in the yard, lawnmowers running.

The second house I got to had two young voters listed on my walking list; probably students, not likely at home, was our guess at the canvass briefing, where the briefer used the list to illustrate various scenarios we might encounter.  Sure enough, when the door opened, their mom explained that one was away at college and had voted absentee, and the other was in high school — which seemed to be her way of saying I couldn’t talk to that one.  She added that I was not the first canvasser to come by, and seemed a bit exasperated about it; so I tried to say something noncommittal — “I understand” or something like that, and was about to say thanks and bye.

Then Dad came to the door, gave me an intent look and said “Obama’s a terrorist.” I couldn’t quite believe it, and couldn’t judge his mood, so I started to smile a bit — at which point he said “I’m not joking”, and slammed the door on me.

Naturally, I took that as my cue to leave, walked up the road a bit, and stopped to record some notes about the address.  Then the door opened back up — as you may imagine, gentle reader, a very unwelcome development from my point of view.  “What all adjectives are you writing down there?” shouted Angry Dad.  “Just that we maybe shouldn’t come back,” I said, noting to my relief that he didn’t appear to be armed.

“You all act like people are too stupid to know how to vote.” No idea what he meant by that, maybe that there are a lot of “know your voting rights” leaflets and messages floating around; at least for in person absentee voting (in its last day as we spoke), the i.d. requirements in Virginia require some explaining, as they depend in part on whether you’re a first time voter or not.  I actually thought all this, in shorthand so to speak, as he ranted at me.

“You all shouldn’t be here,” Angry Dad continued shouting.  “You all should be in the projects” — he drew it out, a contemptuous “praww-jecks” — “that’s where his supporters are.” Umm, yeah, you racist sh*thead, I thought but wisely did not say, opting instead for a bright “Have a good day.”  The door shut, this time thankfully for good.  I added “A hostile reception.  He may not be a supporter of ours” to my writeup.

Later on I ran across my first sign of life for the McCain campaign in Virginia — a door hanger.  The part I could read — I didn’t take it off the door knob to read the other side — said, from my partial recall: John McCain, Sarah Palin.  A country worth fighting for.  A people worth protecting.  … We are Americans, honorable and noble… Our future: Prosperous. Remarkable…” etcetera.

There’s something a little pathetic about insisting we are honorable and noble.  There’s also something more than a little disquieting about implying McCain’s opponents are not, or that they don’t consider the country and people of the United States worth protecting.

But you know what: whatever.  I think the McCain (and formerly Bush) people know it’s hopeless, that they’ve lost already, and that their disastrous ascendancy is about to end.  So you get these flareups on the one hand, and these pathetic little passive-aggressive “well, we’re the real good guys” messages on the other.  Angry Dad will be stewing something fierce next week, I hope.  His problem, not mine.

Posted in Post | 3 Comments »

The battle of Fredericksburg

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th October 2008

After canvassing for Obama in Woodbridge, Virginia the last two weekends, I was sent to Fredericksburg, Virginia yesterday. I arrived at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School after taking care of absentee voting in Rockville — I plan to take Election Day off and will in fact stay overnight in Leesburg, Virginia so I can help with election eve “get out the vote” (GOTV) work there.

Unlike every other weekend so far, canvassing weather yesterday was *not* gorgeous. We were caught in a driving rain at the high school, and the rain continued in patches all day long. Luckily, my ride to Fredericksburg, Jim M., was utterly brilliant and had brought two huge golf umbrellas — my umbrella is broken and drooping on one side, it would have been a pathetic sight.

Fredericksburg is quite a hike from Bethesda; it’s about an hour down I-95 when the traffic is good — and the traffic wasn’t all that good.  We left Bethesda about 12:30, and got to the Fredericksburg office about a quarter after two, I’d say.  We got the usual briefing, walking materials, political “literature” — always strikes me as a funny word for the glossy, buzzword-laden fliers — and absentee ballot applications, and headed out on our way, destination Autumn Leaf Circle in nearby Stafford.  The route took us past Spotsylvania Mall, and thus through more incredibly bad traffic.

And when we got there, we realized our walking list said “Autumn Drive” — not “Autumn Leaf Drive.”  A phone call back to the headquarters confirmed the bad news: we were about 30 miles from where we were supposed to be, the wrong map had been attached to our packet.

Sigh.  So we drive back through the ongoing traffic jam, on to I-95, north to the other side of Fredericksburg, and west on VA 3 into a half rural, half exurban countryside of horse farms, mobile homes, and McMansions; houses up long gravel driveways, mailboxes on the other side of the road, that kind of thing.  We drive and drive and drive —  finally finding ourselves on the walking maps, and head up the first street we’re supposed to visit.  We pull up at the house on our list, put our clipboards together, get our umbrellas, get out, walk up the driveway and sidewalk, and knock.  The rain is steady; it’s around 4 in the afternoon by now.

And a lady answers, and when we tell her what we’re there for, she says, “You know, I don’t want to talk about this, you all come here too much.”  And that was that.

It helped to have a canvassing partner with a good sense of humor.  The whole thing really was funny —  like we were the butts of a long, long shaggy dog joke.

Things went better after that — how could they not —  and we actually did contact or recontact Obama supporters, even way out there in rural/semirural Virginia.  The rain let up now and then, we got through maybe half of our “walking” (really “driving”)  list of 40 or so houses, and got back to Fredericksburg around dusk.

Please note that I’m not complaining about the map mistake.  That kind of thing happens; it just goes to show how every detail is important — and how every detail has usually been right when I get to the Obama campaign in Virginia.  A lot of care goes into assembling the walking packets, the people who put them together deserve a lot of credit.  Thanks!

Posted in Post | 2 Comments »

Split ticket weekend

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th October 2008

Saturday for Barack Obama in Leesburg, Virginia; Sunday for Gordon Clark (Green) in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Marylanders — most, if not all, from Montgomery County — swamped the Loudoun County Obama headquarters in Leesburg on Saturday in two shifts.  I was on the late one, 1 p.m. from Bethesda High School (the meeting place there is now in front of the high school, not in the parking lot).  Drove over with a very interesting lady, wife of a former Republican congressman from the South.  As she explained, being progressive in the South once meant being Republican.

Loudoun County Obama HQ.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew.

Anyhow, the briefing at Leesburg was a little chaotic — people kept interrupting the guy doing the briefing — but the upshot was that we were using data from the past few elections to contact sporadic, possibly persuadable voters, we wanted data even if it was indirect, and we wanted to make sure people were registered.  As in Dumfries two weeks ago, the questions were about who people were supporting (“not ‘voting for’ — people will close the door on you if you ask that”) for president, senator (Mark Warner (D) vs. Jim Gilmore (R) to replace outgoing Senator John Warner), or representative — Judy Feder vs. incumbent Frank Wolf (R).

Bank owned property, somewhere in
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew.

The two of us wound up in a similar neighborhood to the one I canvassed in Dumfries a couple of weeks ago — rental apartment complexville, Mr. and Ms. (Pretending They’re?) Not Home on Weekends.  Between the two of us, we knocked on about 60 doors, found 8 strong Obama supporters (2 volunteers among them), 1 leaning towards Obama, 2 McCain.  I was surprised at that, because I got both McCains, the Obama leaner and the undecided person, and just one of the strong Obamas; maybe people are likelier to open the door for an older lady than for me — even though I’m such a nice guy!

Unlike in Dumfries, this time every time I actually did speak to someone, it was the person named on the list.  The “Votebuilder” lists are quite good, but there are some glitches.  To whoever programs the software: you might as well not include “Apt 000” addresses in the printouts, OK? Also: the only “lit” (=”literature” =political fliers to stick in people’s doors if they weren’t home) they had for us to drop was a Warner/Obama flier — nothing for Judy Feder; that was a bit of a missed opportunity for that campaign.

The last observation of the day was from a birthday party Maddie went to here in Takoma Park that evening.  It must be the circles we frequent, but many of the other moms and/or dads had been out canvassing as well.  People really want this.

Today I fried my face on Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park from 10 to noon while repeating three main phrases — “Gordon Clark for Congress,” “Here he is,” and “Would you like a sticker?” — to families drifting by the Green Party booth at the Takoma Street Festival.  (See these posts — mainly this one — for why a long-time Democrat like myself is supporting Clark over Van Hollen.)  Our booth faced south, and I forgot to bring a cap.  I think I’ll pay a price tomorrow, even though I did use some sunblock.

Gordon Clark was there too, of course.  He’d been at the “Taste of Bethesda” event on Saturday, and said Chris Van Hollen came by.  The meeting was not cordial — Van Hollen told Clark to “stop lying” about him; Clark says he replied he’d be happy to debate Van Hollen whenever he liked.  I wonder what that was about — everything on the issues comparison brochure the Clark campaign has is documented.

People can be funny about political booths.  It’s their weekend, of course, and not all of us want to gather political information at a crafts, food, and music fair.  But some people pick up speed and/or veer away as they might catch something from us, while others will make a self-approving point of how much they dismiss whatever you’re doing — demonstrative handwaves of refusal, little snorts, that kind of thing.

But the people who kind of slowly walk up, looking at the signage and the table, coming to a decision — they make up for that.  I think it’s kind of fun, and kind of good, to be a part of that — encounters like that, decisions like that, they’re the little atomic units and molecule formations of politics.  I’m just there trying to help catalyze the reaction.

EDIT, 10/6: added comment about having no Judy Feder fliers.

Posted in Post | 3 Comments »

A weekend of canvassing

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd September 2008

Million Doors for Peace on Saturday. Obama on Sunday. Today must be Monday.

I only knocked on about 80 doors this weekend, but on Sunday it seemed like every d…elightful one of them was on the 3d floor of IdentApartmentComplexVille in Dumfries, VA.

In both cases, I was working from walking lists — lists of selected names in address order.  The common thread was that both lists — as usual — bore only an approximate relation to reality.  On Saturday, I was in my own neighborhood, and the names were of infrequent or new voters.  They turned out to be mainly — duh — kids who had left for college.  I had enough presence of mind to ask their parents whether they might sign on to the MD4P petition  to Congress (out of Iraq in one year), and a fair number did.  Most importantly, I got three or four (potential) volunteers for future work that way, vs. only one off the walking list.

Dumfries, VA Obama HQ
Dumfries, VA Obama HQ.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew;
see also slideshow.

For some reason, I was less mentally flexible the next day, though the problem was a little different.  In this case I was in a cookie cutter low-to-middle-price range apartment complex development in Dumfries, Virginia.  By whatever criterion the names were selected here (perhaps also newly registered and/or infrequent voters), turnover was high — and this time, instead of doing something with Mr. or Ms. Surprise NewlyMovedIn at the door, I just gave them the packet of literature and moved on.  The difference, I think, was (a) that I was maybe a little more tired and stupid on Sunday, (b) I had it in my head from the briefing that I was only after answers about the names on my walking list, and (c) that I didn’t have any designated piece of paper to put Mr. or Ms. Surprise NewlyMovedIn on.  (Though I might have crossed out the Mr. or Ms. NotThereAnymore and just written in the new name.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.)  I did get one volunteer and a couple of strong Obama supporters, but my unstupid partner did much better with fewer doors.

Well, I’ll do better next time.  Now to bed.

UPDATE, 9/22: Prior “Million Doors for Peace” posts here. Also, eRobin at factesque provides a video of how things went in a Pennsyvlania “Million Doors for Peace” canvass.  Pretty well! — 3 hours, 257 contacts, 11 volunteers.
UPDATE, 9/22: SurveyUSA has Obama up 51-45 in Virginia, though results are among voting age; likely voters made up 80% of the tally. Still, how about this: “Among women, Obama led by 6 points before Sarah Palin was named to the GOP ticket, now leads by 16.” Survey taken 9/19-21.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE, 9/22: I’d heard of this, from Yale U.’s Brett M., but here’s the specific finding and reference, via Sean Quinn (“”): “For every twelve voters who you talk to at their doors, one voter goes and votes who would not otherwise have voted. If you’re asking: “how can I be most effective in helping my candidate win the election?” then an organizer’s answer is going to be: knock on doors.” (Source: Getting Out the Vote in Local Elections: Results from Six Door-to-Door Canvassing Experiments. Donald P. Green, Alan S. Gerber, David W. Nickerson; Yale University.)

Posted in Post | 3 Comments »