When friend Richard Margolies many months ago urged me to join him in going to Ohio to help canvass for the President, I quickly agreed. Richard had previously canvassed in PA, VA, IN, and OH and believed the balance of this election depended upon who would win in Ohio.
So, on Friday morning, Nov. 2, 2012, as the sun was just coming up, RM, who had driven to Ohio two days earlier to begin his canvassing, picked me up at the Columbus airport to begin a six day period I will never forget.
Starting Friday and continuing until Tuesday at 7:15 PM, we knocked on doors in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood (1.6 square miles, 2,610 inhabitants) of Columbus, a largely African-American neighborhood that in some places seemed to me like an ‘urban Appalachia.’
Our task was specific: we were to get Obama supporters and registered Democrats who had voted in previous elections to go to the polls and cast their ballots.
Each day we were given lists of individuals with their street addresses and a script and literature. Then, from 9:30-noon, 12:30-4 pm, and 4:30-7:30 pm, we knocked on doors, spoke with those who answered, left literature, and marked our lists, noting who had already voted (early), who had returned (or not) their mail in ballot, and who needed to be encouraged to get to the polls.
As it turned out, Ohio was the state that put President Obama over the necessary 270 electoral votes. Though not as crucial as everyone thought, the Ohio victory was the point at which various TV networks called the race between 11-11:30 pm. (Pres. Obama eventually won eight of the nine so-called ‘swing states’ and totaled 332 electoral votes and at least three million more votes than Romney. In fact, Pres. Obama was re-elected with more electoral votes than Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Bush (George W) and a larger percentage of popular votes than all but two of the last 10 presidents, Reagan & Obama.)
Almost no one, except NYTimes data expert Nate Silver (he correctly predicted the outcome in all 50 states), expected Pres. Obama would do so well. Not even those within the campaign. Everyone, for many months, thought the race would be close.
But behind the scenes something else had been happening. Since the day after Obama’s election in 2008, there had been a sustained effort to plan for 2012. Particularly in the last two years, OFA (Organizing for America, the name given to the campaign) had not only built lists of voters to contact but also had determined the best way to deploy resources, the best way to be sure their supporters voted: repeated, personal contact, as many as six times, over the week leading up to and including election day. (Earlier, OFA had made a major effort to register voters.)
The campaign determined that one-to-one contact with those who were Obama supporters, combined with friendly but aggressive urgings about the need to cast a ballot would be the determining factor in the election.
So, along with what turned out to be thousands of other volunteers, not only in Ohio but in all the swing states, Richard and I — and about a dozen others — spent 10 hours a day for five days in the 1.6 square mile neighborhood of Milo-Grogan doing precisely what OFA told us to do. Walking. Knocking. Talking.
It was an incredible experience at many levels.
Here are my ‘takeaways’:
- OFA was correct: repeated, personal contact is effective and powerful. There is no doubt in my mind that because we knocked on those doors, left the literature, and especially because we talked repeatedly with the residents of Milo, the numbers of votes Obama received was significantly higher than had OFA just relied on TV and radio commercials, phone calls, and other traditional campaigning.
- Although Milo is not the most destitute or poorest area of Columbus, it is in terrible trouble. Many of its residents are just barely hanging on, just getting through each day. Largely made up of single-family houses, often duplexes, probably one of every dozen homes is boarded up, or just close to being abandoned. And in those supposedly single family homes, there are often more than one family. We frequently saw two or three families in a house, largely headed by women, many by grandmothers, and houses with many children.
- The attempt to suppress voting, under the guise of ‘protecting our electoral system,’ backfired. Many of the voters we met and many of the volunteers for OFA were upset and angry at what they perceived as an alleged Republican plan to deny voters the right to cast their ballot or to have their cast ballot counted. Ultimately, I suspect far more people ended up voting, who may not have otherwise done so, than the number of votes that were suppressed. Plus, there were large numbers of volunteers for the very same reason. I know my going to Ohio, and my decision to stay there and work for five days, was influenced by my outrage at what I felt was a concerted effort to deny people the vote.
- It was not only those who voted for Obama who made a difference but also those who worked for him that was crucial. I agree with, saw, and felt some of what Maureen Dowd wrote in the NYTimes yesterday: “Last time, Obama lifted up the base with his message of hope and change; this time the base lifted up Obama, with the hope he will change. He has not led the Obama army to leverage power, so now the army is leading Obama.” Perhaps Dowd overstates, but many voters in Milo felt Obama understood them and their needs, and they were suspicious of the alternative. Also, the volunteers I met, though disappointed in many ways by Obama’s first term, were frightened by what Romney’s election would mean for the issues about which they cared most. The result was a significant outpouring of volunteers helping to get out the vote.
- There was a mixture of impressive young people, often students as well as older folks who dedicated time and energy to the campaign. We met many young people who had taken a semester off from college or a month or more to work on the campaign – those were the folks generally in charge of the OFA’s get out the vote campaign. These were committed, smart Millennials (?) and committed, determined older folks who worked hard for Obama’s reelection. They made a difference.
- As was the case for me in the past, (my Peace Corps experience is but one example) I ‘got’ as much as I ‘gave.’ Yes. We contributed to the victory. But what happened in the process of the past week (longer for those who gave more time than I) had significant personal impact. For me, not only did I have to move out of my comfort zone (I don’t find it easy to approach strangers, knock on doors, engage folks I don’t know, ask for things, etc.), but what I saw, experienced, felt and therefore learned about a part of our country will remain with me for a long time. What I saw and learned was sobering.
- Another part of what I gained was a special connection, not only to my long time friend, Richard, with whom I spent 24 hours a day for six days, but with other volunteers (Mac, Dennis, Sam, Matt, Joe, Nancy, Fred, etc.). Every single one of them were committed, experienced, and passionate about making a better country.
- Finally, I came away from this experience believing that devoting some time to efforts such as these is a wonderful way to learn about our country and about what life is like for others. Nothing I know or have done compares to spending time in another person’s ‘world.’
I’m sure as soon as I ‘publish’ this post, I will come up with other ‘takeaways’ from the past week. Additionally, I suspect that in the next days, weeks, and months there will be other lessons I realize I learned.
But I do believe it is in part because of the kind of campaign that was run by and for Pres. Obama that we have stepped back from a precipice, a direction our country was heading where division, denial, selfishness, and even hatred has become almost ingrained in the national consciousness.
Whether it is naïve to think that we’re headed for a better tomorrow or not, I believe Pres. Obama’s strong win has been a victory for facing a reality that won’t be denied: that we must come to terms with the very serious problems our country faces and that we can’t afford to be deterred by those who fool themselves and try to fool the country with their ‘alternative realities.’