Back in 2004, I helped run a campaign office in southern Broward County. In 2008, I canvassed. (Well, in the primaries, at least.) In 2012, I limited myself to donating money. I suspect that the trend was not a coincidence/
This time, though, we felt like we had to do something more direct. So we contacted the campaign and volunteered to go where they needed us. To my surprise, that turned out to be Pennsylvania. Virginia, it seems, has leapfrogged Pennsylvania to become practically a solid blue state. At this rate, it would not surprise me to see the Old Dominion become as ignored as the Bay State by 2020.
We told them that we were willing to go anywhere in southeastern PA within an hour of either West Chester or downtown Philly. Again to my surprise, that turned out to be Cheltenham, a small suburb right on the Philadelphia city line to the north. Like, straight to the north: drive up Broad Street from downtown and bam, you’ll cross into it at the aptly-named Cheltenham Avenue.
One thing I gotta mention: Cheltenham and Philly have one of the starkest city-suburb boundaries that I have seen in a long time, if ever. Wander around the north Bronx: unless you are watching the street signs change color, you’ll never really know when you’ve left the city. Ditto Queens and Nassau; the places where the difference becomes starker are divided by a big giant freeway. Where I live, friends have actually walked the wrong way out into Bethesda because it looks more urban than when you head towards downtown. Brookline to Boston does not jump out at you. Etcetera.
But Philly? Jesus. One minute, potholes and run-down taxpayers; the next, smooth roads and rolling hills. Cheltenham, in fact, is not that rich and not all of it is that nice, but damn that border is stark.
The Clinton campaign office is in a perfectly pleasant strip mall of the sort that could be in California. In fact, it really had a spanking-new Sunbelt feel to it, were it not for the fact that the house across the street from the Walgreen’s was built in 1682.
GOTV efforts do not involve randomly knocking on doors. Rather, they give you lists of people already identified as supporters and tell you to go out and make sure that they have a plan to get to the polls. Back in 2004, those supporters were identified very crudely. (The link goes to a copy of the voter contact manual we actually used back then.)
Since then, I’m told, identifying these supporters has gotten more sophisticated ... but not that much from what we could see. Every day we went out, we got a printout of houses marked on a neighborhood map. The voters identified were basically registered Democrats who hadn’t turned out in the last election. If there was more sophisticated targeting going on, it sure wasn’t obvious. Big data still looks pretty small.
In fact, let me tell you how small the data is: some of the intel we are out there gathering is whether a subdivision is gated or not. That’s right; the offices don’t know for sure whether they can send their people into a neighborhood. Since they don’t want to waste time on election day, they want early canvassers to find that stuff out ... but that is exactly what we were doing in Hollywood, Florida, twelve years ago. You would think that in someplace as long-contested in Pennsylvania these things would be known, but apparently not.
The first time we went canvassing they sent us right into a gated community, followed by a closed apartment building. Of course, we had no idea that we weren’t supposed to go into the gated areas. (In 2004, we had no compunctions. If you could get people in, you sent people in.) So we parked our car outside one of the automated exits and strolled right in. The area was integrated and heavily Jewish. Lots of mezuzahs on the doors of scattered townhouses. It lacked sidewalks, which I always find a WTF thing: why would anyone want to live somewhere without sidewalks? And the townhouses were packed together with big open spaces. It sort of felt like a big communal park, a housing project for people fleeing Philadelphia in the 1980s.
But to return to the point, it might have been gated, but nobody batted an eye at our presence, not passers-by, not people walking their dogs, not the people whose doors we knocked on. One guy did open the door (we had identified his wife) and when we said we were with Hillary and looking for his spouse he gruffly told us, “You can go away now.” But everyone else was shockingly nice.
I could go on with a million discussions, but that would get boring. Instead, let me go to the most pro-GOP neighborhood we found during our expeditions: Oak Lane Road. Now, there were no Trump signs there. In fact, although you can see huge numbers of Trump-Pence signs scattered across highway medians and planed in intersections, people in southeastern Pennsylvania seem to be very reluctant to put them on their lawns. But we did see some Pat Toomey signs around, a sign that the GOP is not nonexistent on the ground.
Oak Lane Road is what a racist realtor would call a neighborhood in transition. It is integrated, but you get a depressing feeling that its integration is just the interval between the arrival of the first non-white person and the departure of the last güero. The houses are good-sized ones on oversized lots. The lawns are all well kept, better than my own in Northwest D.C. But many of the houses show small signs of decay, even if the shrubs are lovingly tended, and a few looked to be on the edge of abandonment. The architecture doesn’t change much, but it becomes whiter as you move from New Second Street northeast to Ashbourne Road.
I cannot help but wonder if the Toomey signs were related to the demography.
It turned out that a lot of the voters we identified were first-timers. So we spent a lot of time with their mothers (always mom), trying to figure out a plan to get them to vote, especially since a lot of them were elsewhere in the county but had not re-registered. Early voting in Pennsylvania is possible only at the county seat, where you can vote absentee in person. That is what I used to do in Cambridge, but getting to the election office involved only a short stroll, not an annoying drive to Norristown. So we would help with transport, or get people forms, or whatever we could. Plenty of times that meant just passing the buck to the precinct office.
Sometimes you find someone who just seemed overwhelmed by life. For example, there was one young single mother with multiple cheery small children. She looked ... exhausted. Not sad, not tragic, just exhausted. My wife did not think that she would vote on a work day, and I sadly think my wife is right. She was the best argument for early voting that I had ever seen.
More fun was the house with the fence and the “Beware of the Dog” sign that concealed a fucking scary dog. The owners’ kids popped out onto their porch, followed by the owner, a big muscled tattooed guy who would have looked scary if you found big muscled tattooed guys with children’s toys scattered on their porch to be scary. He was pretty nice, actually, although he did insist that we had it wrong and he was “a nobody supporter, neutral.”
There was also the 40-something white lady who wanted to have a long election conversation on the porch. So we obliged! We met a lot of MSNBC-junkies on this gig. Her house, by the way, was one of the most run-down ones on the block. She worried a lot about the effect of the upcoming transit strike on turnout. (Once again, we were there for her two older daughters, not for her.)
I could go on. It was a lot of fun and everyone was charmed by the kids, who had a ball. (We would call it quits before they got cranky.) On another day we met a family where the door was open and the kids running in and out. They saw us coming, and an adult voice said, “speak Spanish, they’ll go away.” Speaking Spanish to us didn’t work, but telling us to go away did, even if their youngest boy and my eldest boy struck up a discussion about toy weaponry. And the apartment buildings, where we could not go in but the doormen always turned out to be enthusiastic Hillary supporters.
So vote if you haven’t. Soon this will be over and hopefully the Fat Crybaby will sing. We’re with her.
And how have you spent most of your October weekends?