Canvassing [Reno, Nov. 2016]

Posted on February 13, 2017

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In a departure from my normal life behind a computer, I went to Reno the weekend before the 2016 election to get out the vote for Hillary. Though I dreaded the idea of knocking on doors, it was the only way to salve my anxiety about Donald Trump catching up in the polls. It was too late for money to make a difference, and so I resolved to hit the streets.

Spirits were high when our Canvass Reno Crew met in Berkeley on Saturday morning. It felt like we were going on a hiking adventure in Tahoe, not trying to rescue a failing campaign. We had a long, chatty, indulgent breakfast as we waited for everyone to show up. One friend declared her faith in the white suburban moms who would put Hillary in office, women who would secretly put in their ballots without telling their husbands. Another friend, the child of Iranian immigrants, said that revolutions were for other countries. He supported Hillary over Bernie because she was the sensible choice; she would change the system from within.

When we arrived in Reno late Saturday afternoon, we found good reason for optimism. Our field office, Cathexis, was bustling with volunteers. They told us that around 250 people had come to the office that day. It seemed as if all of California had decided to drive to Reno for the weekend: Berkeley students, easily identifiable by their Cal sweatshirts; determined-looking retirees from Sonoma and Marin; civic-minded young professionals from Oakland and San Francisco. I was later told that California volunteers had worked five thousand canvassing shifts in Nevada that weekend.

We gathered around an organizer in a cowboy hat for training. He told us that our opening line should be,”Are you a voter?” Everyone on our list could vote, so the answer should always be “Yes”. The use of the word “voter” was crucial. People are more likely to show up on Election Day if they identify as voters, rather than viewing the act of voting as a societally-imposed obligation. Therefore, we had to prime our targets to think of themselves as voters.

Once we’d confirmed that we were talking to a potential voter, we would help the voter visualize precisely how and when they would go the polls. What were they planning to eat for breakfast — Wheaties or Cheerios? Would they visit the polls after breakfast, during their lunch break, or after work? Would they walk to the polls or get a ride from a friend? If we were talking to an elderly or disabled person, we should give them a phone number to call for a free ride to the polling station. Better yet, we should call the phone number right there and then to schedule the ride.

The Cowboy told us to focus not only on Hillary, but the other Democrats on the ballot, Catherine Cortez-Masto and Chip Evans. Cortez-Masto was getting slammed by negative attack ads accusing her of ignoring a rape kit backlog when she was Nevada’s Attorney General. He stared down a fresh-faced Berkeley volunteer to show us how to defend Cortez-Masto from potential detractors. “How do you think you’d look if you were the target of 40 million dollars in attack ads paid for by the Koch brothers?” The student was unable to respond.

Then we had a second training session on how to fill out the canvassing packets. This was led by a haggard but enthusiastic retiree whose voice was hoarse from talking all day. Each packet contained a list of voters in a neighborhood, arranged along an optimal walking path. Next to each voter’s name was a series of checkboxes, one for each candidate on the Democratic ticket.  The Retiree warned that some people would try to get out of talking to us by claiming they’d already voted. Even so, we should confirm whether they voted along party lines.

If we met someone who said they weren’t a Hillary supporter, the Retiree told us to ask,”Does that mean you’re a Trump supporter?” That gave us an opening to convince third-party voters to vote for Hillary instead. The Retiree reminded us that Obama had won Nevada by a margin of just 5 votes per precinct in 2012. Every vote counted.

*****

Finally, I was out on my first canvassing run with three other Bay Area volunteers. It was twilight, but our little group seemed to be in a safe neighborhood. Crisp orange leaves were scattered across the lawns, and every doorstep was littered with campaign flyers.

Fatigued by months of campaigning, the residents of Washoe County seemed to have deserted their homes. Most houses were set behind a wire fence. We rattled the gate first, loudly, in case a dog was on the property. Cautiously, we opened the gate and walked up to knock on the door. Despite the occasional dog howl, no one answered our knock. We retreated, leaving behind yet another door-hanger. Sometimes there were so many flyers that we didn’t bother leaving a door-hanger.

A., bolder and more persistent than the rest of us, suffered a setback as we canvassed two neighboring houses. She knocked on the first door, and a dog started to howl. She rapped away with knuckles of steel while the dog continued to bark. “You could start on the other door,” she said. I knocked on the second door, and out came a man holding a glass of white wine. He was irate. “You’ve been knocking for the past 10 minutes. Don’t you know they aren’t going to answer the door?” He slammed the door in our faces. A. shouted, with determination and a note of panic,”Are you a voter?” Doubly enraged, he came out and yelled,”JUST LEAVE. GET THE FUCK OFF MY PROPERTY.” We scuttled away as he slammed the door again.

We were shaken. “We’re not going to let this one guy ruin our mojo,” A. said.

We knocked another door. A woman opened it and said she’d already voted. She turned away and started walking toward her driveway, where a man was fixing a car. A. went after her and asked,”Did you vote for Hillary and Catherine Cortez-Masto?” “Yes,” she said. The man said,”This isn’t a good time.”

It was getting dark, so we split up into pairs to get through the packet more efficiently. My partner J. and I spent an hour knocking on every door in a dreary apartment complex. More people answered the door this time, but they often weren’t the people on our list. Instead we’d talk to someone’s mother, or their roommate, or discover they’d moved away months ago. When no one came to the door, J. would try to lure them out with oddball comments. One voter opened the door after she complimented their shoes.

At around 8 PM we went back to the polling station though the packet was only half complete. After canvassing for nearly three hours and knocking on dozens of doors, I could only recall two positive interactions with voters. Both were already planning to vote for Hillary and knew how they would go to the polls. They were also elderly and wary of talking to me, choosing to speak from behind a closed screen door.

*****

[Part 3 outline!]

  • phone banking, latinos, they write polling place down
  • the bbc is there, channel 2 is there
  • a lot of “training” for phone banking, they seem disorganized
  • accidental old lady trump supporter
  • places where you have to be ‘creative’ and break in
  • extremely depressing apartment building
  • disheveled man saying he was undecided — that must have been a trump supporter says janet
  • guy on my way back, saying he disliked them both
  • other disheveled man in an american flag shirt
  • new yorker compliments janet on her haircut
  • old lady who is a real Undecided Voter
  • go back to san francisco
  • Later, A. says,”Behind every door was a situation I didn’t want to be in.”
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