Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Canvassing in Virginia with the College Democrats

'Prince' Contributing Columnist Charlie Metzger '12 was in Fairfax County, Virginia over the weekend campaigning for Barack Obama (D-Ill.) with the College Democrats. These are his thoughts about the trip, the Obama Campaign's "Ground Game" and its GOTV/canvassing efforts.

Day 1 (October 24th):

I found it especially appropriate that the cover of the 'Prince' today detailed the origins of Fall Break — desire for political activism born out of the Vietnam War.The number of people gathered here at Baker Rink to head down to Virginia is far higher than I thought it would be. Scott Weingart '09, my ride to Virginia, mastermind of this trip, and the Vice-President of the College Democrats, tells me that it’s 48. Only three people don’t show, and we pick up several more last minute before we head out. Before we drive away, Rob Weiss ‘09, President of College Dems, gets everyone fired up.

We actually leave around 8, and arrive in Great Falls, Va. in supporter housing shortly before midnight. On the way, we talk about Virginia’s centrality to the ’08 Election. We’ll be canvassing in Reston, Va., on the edge of Fairfax County, and in the heart of Northern Virginia. Reston is chock-a-block full with new voters; this community, Scott tells us, didn’t really even exist 20 years ago. He expresses it thus: “You’ll be campaigning in the most important part of the most important county in the most important state in the most important election of the last decade.”

Day 2 (October 25th):

We woke up around 8:00 a.m. today and arrived at the Reston/Herndon Democratic Office just after 9:00 a.m. I’m immediately struck by how much more organized the local Obama Office is than was the Kerry Office in my home county (Palm Beach County, Fla.) in 2004. When I volunteered that year, the Kerry office out of which I worked lacked a central organization or hierarchy and was generally a mess. There is a clear food chain at this office. Interestingly, those in charge all seem to be under the age of 30.

We’re shepherded into the second floor of a two-floor building: the ground floor is the original Democratic Office, and the second floor is a massage school temporarily loaned to the Democrats (testament, the staffers in the office say, to how terrible the real estate market in Fairfax County is). We’re greeted and then trained/instructed by a man whom everyone addresses simply as “Gerry.” Gerry is allegedly a big deal; he worked on Capitol Hill for a decade, has taught classes at Penn on elections, and was a bigshot in Kerry’s campaign in Pennsylvania in 2004. We’re once again told how important our work in Virginia will be: “nothing short of crucial.” Bush won Virginia by 360,000 votes in 2004, but the demographics of the state and political sentiments here have changed drastically since then; nowhere is this more evident than in the 2006 Senatorial campaign, in which dark horse candidate Jim Webb unseated popular incumbent George Allen, largely by galvanizing the voters in the tech corridor here. The Democrats have registered 300,000 new voters, but are running as though they’re in second (which, according to, they are decidedly not).

We leave the main Reston/Herndon office and head to what’s called the “Staging Area” — a satellite office where we’re given the packets we’ll use to canvass. My partner Marquis Pullen ’12 and I take a packet each, and we’re dropped off in suburban Reston. We have little success at first; despite the (pouring, miserable, and icy) rain, very few people seem home on this particular Saturday morning. The few voters with whom we make contact are very cordial — a few solid McCain supporters, but mostly swing voters. I have a long conversation with a Treasury Department employee who says that he just “doesn’t trust Obama.” Marquis and I give him some literature and move on.

I’m going to hesitate to make any definitive judgment about my time here until tomorrow night when we leave. It’s difficult to draw any conclusions about my experience here thus far. I think you have to spend an extended amount of time in grassroots in a particular area before you can get a good handle on what the prevailing feeling in the area is (providing you weren’t told what it was already). The volunteers with whom we work seem pleased with our progress, though — and pleased as well with the prospects for an Obama victory a week from Tuesday.

Day 3 (October 26th):

We get up a lot later today—around 9:45 a.m. Gerry at headquarters gives us another pep talk before dispatching us to new staging locations. We’re all elated that today’s weather is several orders of magnitude nicer than yesterday’s: 65 degrees, clear skies, and crisp. Marquis and I are sent back to our location from the day before, while others head to the “Dulles” staging area — clear on the other side of town. The people at our location are elated to see us; we’ve been a real shot in the arm for their canvassing efforts, it seems.

Marquis and I team up with Tom Hollenbach, a psychologist from the Princeton area, to canvass an area called “North Point”, part of which is mostly solidly middle-class townhouses, but a segment of which is an upscale community that we're told would be solid McCain territory if the economy weren’t in its present state. There are a few foreclosures in the neighborhood.

We have a lot better luck today with catching people while they’re home. While some of our fellow Princeton canvassers had ridiculous stories to tell last night, Marquis and I talked to only sane, relatively normal-seeming people. That trend continues today, except for an encounter we have with an annoyed Korean man who tells us that if we knock on his door again, he won’t vote for Obama. Still, only around 25 to 30 percent of the doors that we knock on are answered. An overwhelming majority of the people whose houses we’re assigned aren’t home or don’t want to come to the door.

The highlight of the day, though, is a conversation we (Marquis, Tom, and I) have with a Reston resident named Ron, who is a state trooper for the Virginia State Police. He considers himself very middle class (though his house and his wife’s car would suggest otherwise). Ron seems to be the model conservative Republican values-voter. While he strongly dislikes McCain and has little respect for Palin, he says he’ll be voting for them anyway because of three factors: national security, the economy, and Obama’s pro-choice stance. As he explains to us his views (he does most of the talking at first), I’m fascinated by how much of what he says reflects, near-verbatim, the messages conveyed by McCain and RNC ads: “Obama’s not trustworthy”, “what about that Rezko guy he got his house from?” “He’s had so many plans to fix the economy”, “Iraq has made us safer”, “I love this country — free speech — and it worries me that his wife [Michelle Obama ‘85] doesn’t seem to be proud of America.”

As Tom, Marquis, and I begin to try to systematically reveal the inconsistencies in his argument, Ron begins to look progressively more uncomfortable. By the end, we seem to have at least humanized Obama for him; I concluded about halfway through the conversation that we wouldn’t be able to sway him entirely. All the same, though, Ron is extraordinarily polite. My/our conversation with him is the most interesting I have all weekend.

In final analysis, I’m not sure how much of an impact I made in my two days in Fairfax County. I’ve knocked, in total, on more or less 100 doors. Will Wallace ’09, Treasurer of the College Dems, estimates that Princeton students have knocked on around 10,000 doors over the course of the weekend. My time illustrates for me how important repeated grassroots and GOTV efforts are. We’re told over the course of the weekend that voters who are talked-to face to face by volunteers are significantly more likely to vote than are voters simply contacted by phone, and that knocking on a door and talking to a prospective supporter 7 times is the magic number. After only a weekend, I begin to see why that’s true.

So that we have enough seats to get everyone back to Princeton, I’m assigned to leave with Tom, Marquis, and two other students tonight. Before we go, we have a pizza party and take a group picture, congratulating ourselves on what Gerry describes as “a job very well done.” After campaigning in the rain, in the cold, and walking several miles, the prospect of my warm bed back in the Orange Bubble extremely inviting.