There are few acts more debasing than knocking on a stranger’s door and asking for his vote. Picture the scene: early afternoon, an empty residential street in Cleveland, Tampa, or, in my case this past week, Virginia Beach. The canvasser stands on the doorstep bedecked like a jester in colorful stickers. The stickers, which bear candidates’ names, are important; without them he might be confused for a bill collector or traveling salesman. He juggles clipboard, pen, voter information forms, and pamphlets (the “literature,” in campaign-speak) and forces a smile. Dogs growl as soon as the doorbell chimes. If the canvasser is lucky, the door opens. Small children and pets escape, attacking his legs. A wary figure appears: a woman on the phone, holding an infant; a dowager in a flowery housedress; a man in gym clothes who hasn’t shaved in a week. Then the canvasser begins his recitation of the stale, mindless script:
“Have you decided how you will vote in the coming presidential election?”
The stranger at this point most often shakes her head with contempt and says something along the lines of, “You people are just too much,” or just flicks a hand dismissively, as if to shoo away a fly. And yet we know that direct conversation—what campaigns call “authentic person-to-person contact”—is the most effective method of voter persuasion. This is especially true when the voter believes the canvasser is from her own town or region. This is one reason that President Obama’s canvassers in Virginia are instructed to speak in the first person plural, even though many of them have in fact traveled from faraway states. Many even come from different countries—in my first day in Virginia last week, I met four volunteers from the UK, and one from New Zealand.
They knew that, before 2008, no Democratic presidential candidate had won in Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. They also knew that should Obama win the state in 2012, he would clinch the election. The race has been close the entire campaign: in the last month, Romney and Obama have each had as much as a seven point lead in different Virginia polls, with the most recent averages giving Obama a slim advantage. The Senate race, between former governors Tim Kaine and George Allen has been just as close.
Canvassing is expected to make the difference. I saw this first hand these past few days, with a frequency that surprised me. I knocked on about ninety doors a day; about twenty-five would open, and behind about four or five of these I encountered that rarest, most valuable of species, the unicorn of the American electorate: an undecided voter. These were not the undecided voters apotheosized by cable pundits—the wise moderates who struggled between conflicting impulses. These people were, for the most part, blindingly ignorant of the candidates’ positions and even the central issues under debate. They had absorbed next to nothing from the hundreds of hours of advertisements, political speeches, and pounds of campaign mail to which they’d been subjected. Many appeared to view their ambivalence as a point of pride. “I won’t know until I’m in the voting booth” was a common sentiment. “I’m waiting for a feeling,” another said, as if anticipating a visitation from the beyond. This quasi-religious tone was reflected in the statements of many of these voters, including one older woman who said, in response to a question about her political views, “That’s between me and my polls.”
I spoke to a different type of voter four years ago, when, two weeks before the 2008 election, energized by Barack Obama’s campaign, I joined several friends in Norfolk, Virginia, which is home to the largest naval base in the world. It was an ecstatic, optimistic time, and the Obama campaign offices were like college dorms—dozens, even hundreds of young volunteers passed through, not only canvassing but making phone calls, entering data, and determining strategy, subsisting on cold pizza and cold coffee. Upon arrival we were sent to some of the city’s poorest inner-city neighborhoods, composed almost entirely of black voters. We visited ramshackle, single family homes and vast concrete-and-brick housing projects; many of the people on our list had never voted before.
There were challenges, to be certain—because we were white, many people we met were convinced that we were spies for John McCain’s campaign, even though our arms were filled with brochures showing Obama’s face. Some well-meaning people, mostly older women, advised us to leave a neighborhood for our own safety. One group of teenagers drew me an intricate map of the route I’d have to follow in order not to stumble into the middle of a gang war. But over the course of a week we visited more than a thousand homes, speaking with hundreds of voters and, witnessing their enthusiasm, we became convinced that Obama would carry the state.
When I returned to Virginia to canvass last week, my friends and I went to Norfolk, excited to go back to the same neighborhoods we had visited in 2008. But the moment we entered the president’s local campaign office, we discovered how much had changed. We were informed by a campaign staffer that our services were not wanted. In fact there would be no canvassing for Obama during the week at all—and not only in Norfolk but in all of Virginia. Instead, all volunteers were asked to make phone calls to Obama’s most enthusiastic local supporters. The goal was to sign them up to canvass in the campaign’s final four days, beginning the Saturday before the election. We explained that we had not travelled considerable distances to Virginia only to make phone calls, which we could have done from our own living rooms. But the campaign would not budge. “I’m sorry,” said the young woman who greeted us in the Norfolk office, with a theatrical shrug. “I just work here.”
Here was the difference between 2012 and 2008. While the offices look the same—the young people making phone calls, the enervated chatter, the boxes of doughnuts—the underlying structure had been transformed. “I just work here.” This time around, the people in charge are not volunteers, but employees. Since 2010, when the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on private donations by corporations, the Obama campaign, flush with money, has increased its paid staff gigantically; there were three times as many employees in the Hampton Roads office as four years earlier. In 2008 the approach was politics from the ground up, by social network. This time, it was Obama, Inc., with strategy fixed at the highest level, by the campaign’s central headquarters in Chicago.
We called around and learned that Tim Kaine, the Democratic senate candidate, was grateful to have canvassers, so we volunteered for his campaign instead. The Kaine office sent us to a rural section of Virginia Beach, about twenty minutes from Norfolk, separated from the city by several rings of suburbs, followed by farmland, patches of forest, and horse stables. There, in middle-class subdivisions with streets named after writers (Faulkner Road, Thackeray Lane) and composers (Mozart Drive, Beethoven Court), we encountered the elusive undecideds—people who remained uncertain despite being targeted as aggressively as any voters in the history of democracy. It’s not entirely surprising that we found so many, for my canvassing list was created by sophisticated software, developed by the Democratic party, that was designed to target them. In a suburban neighborhood of several thousand people, my list assigned me the thirty or forty houses that contained undecided or “persuadable” voters. I had their names, ages, phone numbers, and voting history. Kaine’s campaign, we gathered, was pinpointing voters who were resolved to vote for Romney, but might split their ticket and vote for Kaine in the Senate race.
Many of these voters refused to disclose their political allegiance when asked. I suspect they did so out of a desire to be left alone, not realizing that the quickest way to be removed from a campaign’s database is to express a strong preference for either candidate. The Obama and Kaine campaigns ignore voters who have made up their mind, one way or the other. Another method is to follow the example of a man I met in Virginia Beach who, when I mentioned I was volunteering for the Democrats, said I was lucky he didn’t murder me with his gun. The man was working on the engine of his SUV. He was in his early sixties; he wore a torn baseball cap and metal knee braces. I liked this guy—at least I knew where he stood. And we agreed on one point: in this election, like every election, a lot is at stake.