Confessions of an Obama Volunteer

I went to Ohio and found hope, change, and a lot of unpersuadable voters.

11.04.08 10:15 AM ET

“Do not depart from the script. Do not canvas alone. Only in pairs. And do not under any circumstances enter the house. It’s like one of those old horror movies: Do not go into the house. It’s quick and dirty. Make your pitch and get out.”

So says Tara Martin, one of the field organizers for the Obama campaign. She’s a short but energetic African-American woman whose bubbly good humor cannot quite hide her mission’s similarity to that of the Louis Gossett Jr. character in An Officer and a Gentleman: to whip the 200 or so lily-livered, latte-drinking New York liberals she sees in front of her into a crack squad of electoral marines, ready to parachute into a battleground state and go toe-to-toe with the Republican party faithful.

“I want you to look around you,” Martin says. “The people next to you: This is family. You’re not going to be talking to family. It’s been two years and these people are still undecided, you hearin’ me? Anywhere you want to go on vacation because you’ve heard it’s real nice? Those are not the places we are going be going. We’re not going to Santa Fe. We’re not going to be going to Aspen. These are not the spots we are heading.”

One man sat on his porch and intimated darkly that I “didn’t want to know” his reasons for not voting for Obama.

There are 200 or of us gathered together in an auditorium in the Teamsters Building on West 14th Street: old, young, black, white,  gay, straight—like an Obama speech come to life. The first thing they have us do, in fact, is watch the speech Obama gave at the 2004 convention on a giant video screen, looking out for certain themes—adversity overcome, challenges met—so we can fashion our own stories along similar lines. “It’s the Oprah effect,” says one of the campaign’s media advisors. “You know where she gets the person on the couch and they’re crying and she’s crying and then you go off and get your book deal? In Obamaland, that’s what we call that the story of self.”

This will be our first pitch to voters: a way of establishing some sliver of human contact. Then comes the script, a multiple-choice maze of conversational options designed to push through every available crack in every door. If voting for Obama, will they vote early? If not voting early, can they volunteer? If they can volunteer, when… We pair off into teams of two to for a little phone-banking role play—first just the two of us, then in front of the class. I get a Jewish retiree with purple spectacles called Ruth, whose easy smile manner does nothing to betray the mischief she is about to spring.

“Ring-ring, ring-ring,” I go.

Ruth looks at me, as if to say: I’m not picking up yet.

Ring ring, ring-ring,” I say, a bit more insistently.


“Hi, my name is Tom and I’m calling from the Obama campaign, how are you toda—”

“What is the matter with you people,” she yells. “I already told you I’m voting for him!”

“Oh… Well… Ah… That’s great. Well, in that case I just wanted to check that you know where your polling station and…..”

“Of course I know were it is. But how am I going to get to it? I’m in a wheelchair.”

I stare at her. There are some titters at the back of the room.

“Well…in that case we can get someone to pick you up and drive you there if you like... Hang on a minute, a wheelchair, did you say?”

“Yes. I’m paralyzed.”

“Well… In that case maybe you’d like to do some phone-banking for us? You’re just making calls just like this one. You won’t have to go anywhere, you just...”
The hall erupts in laughter.

Tara calls the role play to a halt. “Never, ever say that,” she says. “I’ve gotta say it but right now you people are whack. I think by tomorrow we can get you from whack to okay. And then maybe I can get you from okay to arright. And from arright maybe, just maybe we can get you to dope. But right now you guys are whack.”

We take our seats, a little shell-shocked by the responsibilities the campaign is entrusting us with: not just phone banking and door-to-door canvassing, but recruiting and organizing the next lot of volunteers that come in through the door—teaching on Tuesday what we learned on Monday. No other political campaign has entrusted its volunteers to quite this degree. “The old way of recruiting volunteers is done. Gone,” Tara says. “We have to get viral about it. I want you recruiting volunteers when you’re on a date. Hey, you rich? That’s nice. You like Barack Obama? No? Too bad. Peace.”

Dave Pollack, the head of operations in New York took to the stage to give us the big picture. “Only three states changed hands in ‘00 and ’04,” he says. “We aim to redraw the map. But this isn’t just about electing Barack, it’s about sending him a supermajority in Congress so he can carry on transforming this country. This is the largest field game in the history of American politics. You guys are making history.”

Everyone cheers. The mood in the hall is such that were we to fail to elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States we would all feel compelled to go and find some other country for him to be president of and elect him there.  Welcome to Obamaland.

Two weeks later and I am in a car, traveling south on the interstate into Kentucky. This is not good news. Kentucky is not a battleground state, which is why I volunteered for Ohio. After a quick call back to headquarters, I am on the right road, heading back into the outer suburbs of Cincinnati: rolling lawns, remote controlled gates, neat little suburban cul-de-sacs, and McCain-Palin yardsigns as far as you san see. My first day on canvassing does not go well. Most of the names on our list are not home. In one gated community, an old lady threatens to run us out off the premises. One man sat on his porch and intimated darkly that I “didn’t want to know” his reasons for not voting for Obama.  Finally, we find one woman, cutting the branches of a tree, a beer can in her hand. Will she be voting for Obama? Yes. Terrific. Might she be willing to volunteer? She shakes her head. “I drink too much,” she says.

By the time I get home that evening my shins ache.  “Now I know what it feels like to be a mouse poking his nose into a mousetrap,” I tell my father-in-law, Len, a retired salesman who is putting me up for my two week stay in Ohio. Len is a disaffected Bush-Republican, but not that disaffected: when I first told him I was coming to turn his state blue, he threatened to lock me in my room.  “Where are the offices? The local mosque?” he asked. “Do you want me to check in with my friend at the bomb squad? How’s your life insurance?” He is what the Obama people would call a “persuasion target” but I have decided ahead of time on a low-impact strategy: no policy recitals over dinner, no engagement over the issues, but if he asks about my day—the ups, the downs, the struggles, the disappointments—I will tell him. Its part of an elaborate Jedi mind trick to get him rooting for me, and thus my candidate, without even knowing it.

“I’ve never been so undecided about an election ever,” Len tells me over breakfast. “This has been the worst. This one I’m going back and forth, back and forth. I’ll probably change my mind again sometime in the next few days.”

I smile sympathetically and look at my watch: the actions of a man who wishes him well in his decision but must now go to work.

Our office, one of 89 in Ohio alone, is located in what used to be old pharmacy in down town Cincinnati. One volunteer tells me the owner was shot during an Oxycontin hold-up. In one corner, two printers—cutely named “Hope” and “Change”—churn out directions and maps for the other volunteers, mostly young Ohioans, but also a large contingent of out-of-state volunteers like myself.

“This is better than therapy,” an advertising art director from Los Angeles tells me. We head out into the more run-down urban areas of the city: land of the abandoned sofa, smashed window pane, and eviction notice. Weirdly, not one person remarks on the fact that a British person is standing on their doorstep asking for their vote. “We get all sorts round here,” says one elderly black woman who last voted for Ronald Reagan (“I liked the way he was on TV”). Encouraged, my pitch gets better, my conversational sallies looser. By the end of the day we have racked up 86 knocked doors and 33 voter contacts. There were 31 for Obama, two undecideds: one of them a woman banker who objects to Obama’s stance on abortion. I know what to do: stress common ground ( we may not agree on abortion but we can all agree the number of abortions needs to go down) before pivoting into a discussion of what he aims to do for small businesses in Ohio.

“You overcame the objection,” says Len admiringly when I tell him about this that night. “That’s what you do in sales. You don’t waste your time trying to win the argument.” I glow proudly. “I’d be surprised if Obama doesn’t win is because you’re all here. That organization really knows what its doing. I think that’s great. To show up for what you believe.” He takes a puff on his pipe. “Of course, you could say that Trotsky thought the same way about Lenin, and look what happened to him.”

By the end of the week, his street is littered with Obama yard signs, while the Cincinnati Bengals cap he lent me is covered in Obama pins. “You defaced it,” he grumbles. We might have won Ohio but lost Len.