Notes from canvassing a Battle Born Battleground
“He’s hot tempered and she’s vindictive. I can’t stand either of them.”
Brandon heaves a sigh and runs a hand through blonde hair cut high and tight.
As if on cue, three loud barks sound from beyond the cracked door of Brandon’s putty-colored, textured stucco, three-bedroom house. He steps outside, around a grinning pumpkin and a floating, inflatable ghost to close the door behind him. Good sign. He’ll keep talking.
“So, what do you care about?” my friend Sammy asks, shifting the clipboard on her hip.
Brandon doesn’t hesitate. “Second Amendment protections. I mean, what Prop 1 proposes for background checks and firearm transfer is ridiculous.”
We probably should have looked into the Nevada ballot measures on the trip down through the desert undertaken exactly two weeks before election day. But Sammy and I had our hands full on that drive, having tasked ourselves with making it through Beyoncé’s entire discography on the eight-hour trip from Oakland to Vegas.
Sammy nodded and smoothly switched tacks. “Got it. Speaking of safety, do you plan to support Catherine Cortez Masto in her bid for Senate?”
As it turned out, Brandon didn’t know much about Catherine. Sammy handed him some literature, enumerating the ways Catherine had worked to better the lives of Nevadans during her tenure as Nevada’s Attorney General, making sure to acknowledge the outrageous smear campaigns against her running on local cable courtesy of the Koch brothers. I considered what I might add.
“A vote for Catherine is a vote for Hillary!”
The line I’d been using lately wasn’t going to work so well for Brandon. Nor was the fact that, if elected, Catherine Cortez Masto would become the first Latina in US history to serve in the Senate. Instead, in a mild tone, I reminded Brandon that votes in Nevada actually count, and while I totally get that neither Donald nor Hillary make his heart sing, when he bubbles in his ballot on November 8th he will, quite literally, be writing history.
I look Brandon dead in his bright blue eyes when I say this. I can tell that he’s listening. The dog has impeccable timing. She barks again, breaking the spell. Sammy and I thank Brandon, remind him to take advantage of Nevada’s early voting, and make our way down the gravel path, past the landscaping of shark agave and blue yucca, to the street in the gated community (which we’d snuck into) where Brandon and his wife, Katie (second grade teacher, Hillary supporter, not home) live.
Odds are Brandon will vote the way he said he would when he answered the door: for Gary Johnson. But that’s ok; our conversation had been meaningful. Sammy and I had felt it. And if I were a gambling man, I’d bet money that if we knocked on Brandon’s door again and asked, he’d say, yeah, he felt it too.
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, David Brooks offered what he called an “antidote” to the polemical, warlike relations suffusing this US presidential election. The cure, Brooks wrote, stems from a theory of being put forth by Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Buber believed existence came down to one thing, engagement. He argued all engagements fall into one of two essential categories: I-It and I-Thou.
I-It dynamics are categorical, distrustful, and fearful. Those engaged in I-It dialogues distrust each other at the core, stepping into a dance that looks more like a fight. In I-It encounters, postures of mutual defense doom the rapport from the start, making compassion and common ground as unreachable as a desert mirage.
I-Thou engagements feel radically different. David Brooks describes them beautifully:
“I-Thou relationships, on the other hand, are personal, direct, dialogical — nothing is held back. A Thou relationship exists when two or more people are totally immersed in their situation, when deep calls to deep, when they are offering up themselves and embracing the other in some total, unselfconscious way, when they are involved in “mutual animated describing.”
Knocking on the door of a total stranger to persuade them to vote for a candidate, support a cause, or even just to go out and vote, can, and I’m sure sometimes does, devolve fast into an I-It encounter. Canvassers arrive on a doorstep armed with the bludgeon of their convictions. Homeowners answer with a hearty dose of self-protective suspicion and exasperation to be bothered while eating dinner/watching their show/feeding the baby/delousing the cat. All the ingredients for the quintessential I-It cocktail, just waiting to be muddled and poured.
But overwhelmingly, over a week of walking (sub)urban streets to get out the vote for HRC in a city rising from what once was nothing, its neon powered by the electric currents of risk, excess, and abandon, skyscrapers teetering on what you might win and what you stand to lose, a place famous for vice incarnate— prizefighting, gambling, quick marriage, and easy divorce — fueled by a minority-majority workforce and presided over by the golden behemoth of the Strip’s Trump International Hotel, all sprawled in the southern portion the mineral-rich, scruples-poor, heavily unionized “Battle Born” battleground state with a pronounced libertarian streak, guns aplenty, legalized prostitution, liberal liquor laws, and draconian drug policies, where fortunes are won and lost and the stakes for Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald J. Trump are soaring sky high, most doors we knocked somehow still opened in to engagements that swerved from I-It and listed towards I-Thou.
Harnessing the potency of one-on-one, face-to-face interactions to gain a political edge stretches as far back as the senatorial races of Rome. Canvassing, as it later came to be called, moved into its position as common campaign practice in 16th century England, when it was unthinkable to run for public office unless you felt assured of a victory. Loss was a shameful smudge on your name. Originally “to sift through a canvass sheet,” the act of canvassing later came to mean any manner of careful examination deployed by political strategists to ascertain the odds of winning a race and minimizing the chances of publicly declaring a candidacy doomed from the start.
“Canvassing is a very powerful weapon. I mean tool.” So quoth Casey, the middle aged, bespectacled, matter-of-fact volunteer canvassing trainer for Hillary Clinton’s Centennial Hills field office in East Las Vegas.
And Casey’s right. Scholars who spend their careers studying political field campaigns have dubbed door-to-door, real time, in-person canvassing the gold standard of mobilization efforts. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Yale colleagues and political scientists Alan Gerber and Donald Green ran a series of controlled experiments on the efficacy of foot canvassing. The results showed that a strong ground game can increase voter turnout by up to seven percentage points. A robust field strategy was, in fact, the one that delivered to Al Gore the crucial extra points he needed to win the popular vote in 2000. Not that it worked out so well for Al. But the fact remains — canvassing worked.
The results of another experiment out of George Mason University went even further, indicating that canvassing is also an effective way to win new votes that were never there before.
Turns out, when working to convince people to do good deeds varying from the slightly annoying (recycling) to the somewhat inconvenient (voting) to the go-way-out-of-your-comfort-zone-uncomfortable (giving blood), the likelihood that someone will actually get off their ass and do the thing you want them to do markedly increases when you seek them out to make an earnest, in-person appeal.
“God must’ve sent y’all,” Lily said, shaking her head with trace amounts of incredulity. “I honestly thought I couldn’t vote.”
Standing on the stoop of Lily’s split-level in the neighborhood next to the trailer park, Sammy and I had just finished explaining that Lily had seen an error message when she’d tried registering online because she was already registered. That’s why she was on our list, why we’d shown up at her door to ask if she and Marquan planned to vote.
“Marquan, you hear that? Turn down the TV. They say we can go early vote at the Rainbow Library on Buffalo for two more hours tonight. You feel like it?”
Marquan, eyes still on the screen, had not yet made up his mind. But Lily was already halfway out the door. “You can come or you can stay, but I’m goin,” she said, not looking back. Lily flashed a smile as she slipped past us, into the twilight, towards her Toyota.
“This election is the same as all the others, isn’t it? Two people yelling at each other and trying to make the other look bad. I don’t really plan to vote. If I do, I guess I’ll go for Hillary.”
We hadn’t even had to knock; Kaleb had already been standing, just standing, in his immaculate driveway in sand-colored suburbia when Sammy and I had walked up with our clipboards to ask if he was planning to vote in his — so cool! — very first presidential election, now that he’d turned 18.
Maybe because he’d spent his young life in New Zealand, or maybe just because he was 18 and living in the flatlined blasé of a gated community on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Kaleb was indifferent to the American political system at best. We learned he had seven sisters and brothers.
“Probably only my mum and I will vote. If I vote.”
While I worked to quell and mask the horror of my inner civic teacher, Sammy, ever composed, asked, “Are you in school, Kaleb?”
Kaleb thought about it for a second.
“I go to UNLV. I guess I could vote. They put a place in the Student Union. I keep wondering — is voting a good enough reason to skip class?”
Without consulting each other, Sammy and I responded in unison.
The barks of the pit bull boxer mix lunging just inside the door of the doublewide translated plainly:
If this screen door were not here, I would not hesitate to kill you both.
“MAVERICK! Get outta here! Go.”
A man looking like Philip Seymour Hoffman in his greasiest film role appeared, shoving Killer Death Dog away with his knee.
Shakily, Sammy explained we were looking for Nancy, who we had in our system as a Hillary supporter. We were dropping by to confirm.
The man threw back his head and laughed. “Whether she likes Hillary or not, Nancy ain’t gonna be voting in this election. She’s 300 lbs and can’t get outta bed.”
“Well, you aren’t bedridden,” I said. I was feeling a little punchier now that Maverick was gone. “Are you gonna vote?”
“I ain’t bedridden, but I got diabetes. Need my Medicaid.”
“If you want to keep your Medicaid, you should probably vote for Hillary ,” Sammy said. “It would be bye bye, insulin with Trump.”
There was a polling place open right then, just up the road, I added. He could go right now. The man seemed amused by our doggedness.
“Alright well, my record has eight felonies. Can I still vote if I got it like that?”
In truth, I was surprised by how many feisty but ultimately friendly conversations we had. And by how few doors were slammed in our face. Zero doors, actually. At first, I was a little mystified that people were willing to talk. But the truth is, humans love to connect. Canvassers at your door may be a pain in the ass, but they’re also almost like a concierge service, albeit with an agenda.
In anticipation of a pending election, you don’t have to Google, watch, or read anything. In a battleground state like Nevada, someone just magically shows up at your residence and asks, “What matters to you?” They listen, and then, they give you the lowdown, custom tailored to what you care about most.
When a stranger comes to your door to find you, how does it feel? What do you hear when that person says, “Your vote matters?” You hear “You matter.”
If I-Thou engagements are the antidote to this election’s bellicose I-It sniping, the I-Thou of canvassing is also the riposte to a question repeated more often in this election cycle than perhaps any other —
“These people” — the ones who want to vote for the candidate you abhor. The ones who are, somehow, “undecided.” The ones who plan to vote Independent in a state where their vote could actually be decisive. The ones who don’t plan to vote at all.
“Those people” are Jean-Pierre and Moises and Tawni and Luz and Cletis and Irma and Misti and Jawan. They live on Puddleduck Lane and Candlenut Street and Lomaland Ave and Boomer Beach Drive, in singlewide trailers with yellow eviction notices wheatpasted to the front window and flocks of Chihuahuas of varying size who surge together in response to your knock. They rent or pay mortgage on homes in unexpectedly racially diverse sub-divisions with projections of LED ghosts swooping over the fronts of their houses in anticipation of Halloween. Their neighborhoods smell like all kinds of things — smoking meat, gerbil shavings, fresh manure, the gaminess of roast lamb. Pretty much all of them drive pickups.
And they answer their doors when you knock. They say,
“I’m sitting this circus out.”
“I’m for Hillary but my husband’s for Trump. We don’t talk politics in this house.”
“As far as I’m concerned, Trump can get a bomb up his ass.”
“Hillary Clinton? Oh no, we don’t want no thieves in the White House.”
If the national polls show you the forest, canvassing shoves your nose right up against the bark of the trees. Canvassing calls on you to get crystal clear. Why are you voting for this candidate? What do you stand for? More to the point, why did you drive nearly 600 miles through the desert to sneak in to a gated community to track down these addresses and knock on those doors, and why are you standing on these steps juggling a clipboard and sheaf of various sized leaflets while you try to explain your position to a stranger with guarded eyes?
In 18 hours spread out over four days, Sammy and I knocked, rang, and “helloed?” into the interiors of roughly 250 houses. We probably talked to something like 270 Nevadans. In my normal life, that number’s impressive; I certainly talk to far fewer strangers than that over four days of standard living. But in a state with 1,464,819 active registered voters, 270 feels like woefully few. That’s the thing about human connection though — I-Thou relations can never be mechanized. They will forever and always be painstaking, and slow.
Pains-taking. Where did that word come from? A user on a Reddit etymology thread postulated the word derives from crafts that required so much effort as to elicit pain from the maker. Aching backs, pricked fingers, blistering feet, raw hands — the battered body evincing great care.
When I think about taking pains in regards to the United States, what deserves more ache-inducing care than the crafting and upkeep of our democracy? What better way to safeguard the exquisite numen of person-to-person connection than, quite literally, taking it to the streets?
Sitting back to watch the election while biting one’s nails in fear and trembling is like listening to far off reports of explosions in the sky. Canvassing is like crouching in a cold river with a sifting sieve, hands in the muck, body attuned to the fine tremblings of the earth. It’s hard work with no guarantee of a payout. But even when a whole day yields only the briefest glimmers of gold, it’s worth it.