My Week as a Foot Soldier for Hillary
As a Hillary Clinton supporter who lives in Los Angeles, I felt there was a limit to what I could do to help in the bluest of the blue states. So I spent the week before the Election canvassing in Las Vegas. It was a week of highs and lows, ending with an extreme low, and I want to share my story in hopes of inspiring more people to volunteer.
Sometime this Summer, a friend of mine started phone-banking for Hillary and invited me to join her. I was hesitant because I really am uncomfortable on the phone. I’m an ambivert, but I’m almost phone-phobic. Early in my career as an executive assistant in the late 90s/early 00s, we spent most of our time on the phone — scheduling meetings, booking travel, etc. Building relationships on the phone was hard for me, and I remember blushing as I called strangers, feeling a bit paralyzed whenever the phone rang. I was much happier when I ended up working at a tech company, and we did almost everything by email or instant message. As texting took over, I found myself rarely on the phone, even with friends. So I declined my friend’s phone-banking invitations for a while. I thought about what else I could do, as I wasn’t working and had free time, and I decided I’d sign up to go to Las Vegas to canvass for a week before the election. I’m not sure why I thought knocking on doors would be more comfortable than making calls, but I wanted the experience of working with a campaign in a swing state. Living in Los Angeles, I know I am in a bubble, although keeping in touch with friends from St. Louis where I grew up keeps my facebook feed from being a total echo chamber.
I did do a little phone-banking before my trip, starting in early October. I found it energizing more than terrifying. Both times I was just given the task of calling people in Los Angeles who had indicated on the website that they might want to travel to Nevada to canvass. So I didn’t have to deal with any hostile calls. Some people around me were calling voters in swing states, but they were only calling people who were registered democrats or who had at least given their info on the website or at a rally, so they didn’t encounter much hostility either. People who didn’t want to talk on the phone were kept busy doing data entry. There were many ways to help. It wasn’t scary.
One call from this period sticks in my mind. I spoke to a young guy with a Mexican accent and asked if he might want to join a bus trip to Las Vegas. He said, “Is that really necessary, Miss? Everything I read says Hillary has a huge lead.” I told him while it did seem like she had a healthy lead, we didn’t want to be complacent, and Nevada was still a state that could go either way. He said he had been encouraging all his friends to vote Hillary and would think about taking the bus trip, but I could tell he still wasn’t sure if it would be worth his time. Perhaps I wasn’t great at convincing him because I too believed the polls, and I wondered if we needed to be putting ourselves out there like this.
To get my feet wet, I took a one-day bus trip to Las Vegas on October 22. This required getting to the campaign office near LAX at 5:30 AM. There were more volunteers than there were seats on the two buses, and there were at least two or three buses going from other Los Angeles-area offices. Our full bus left a little after 6:00 AM. We stopped for a quick meal on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and then headed to the Southwest Vegas campaign office. They divided us into teams and sent us out in vans into the surrounding neighborhoods. There were more volunteers than there were packets, so I ended up sharing a packet with two other volunteers from Los Angeles — an Indian-American mom / project coordinator and an African-American Vietnam veteran and accountant. The packet had the names and addresses of registered Democrats or people who had attended a rally or signed up on the website, so once again we would not be knocking on potentially hostile doors. However, people in Vegas move around a lot, so you never know who might answer. Our van driver dropped us off and we realized our packet was not really in the right address order. We spent some time reorganizing it, using Google Maps, and started knocking on doors. Not many people were home, or if they were home, they ignored the doorbell. We left literature about early voting. People in Las Vegas could go to early voting locations for three weeks prior to election day, and the Democrats’ ground game was built around encouraging early voting. I enjoyed getting to know my canvassing partners, and we helped each other over our fears of approaching the doors, practicing our script which was quite simple: (1) can we count on your vote for Hillary? (2) will you also vote for Catherine Cortez-Masto for Senate? (3) and all the Democrats down the ticket? (4) are you aware of your early voting location and the hours and dates you can go there? (5) would you have any time to volunteer?
We finished one packet and went back to the office for a second packet. It was a bit hard without a car, as we had to wait for rides and sometimes had to walk a few blocks in between houses. By the end of the day, I believe we had knocked on 200 doors and only had about 15 conversations with the voters on our list. Some people said they would vote for Hillary. Some said they were still undecided. Nobody wanted to volunteer. We got back on the bus to go back to Los Angeles, feeling very tired and wondering if the effort had made any difference. I felt it made me feel less helpless to be active and to be among people who were passionate about the same cause. And I hoped the literature we left behind at all the houses might remind people they could vote early. For some reason, I found knocking on doors easier than making calls, although I was fully aware most people didn’t really want to be interrupted either way. Making connections with a few people who were grateful for the info or who were enthusiastic supporters kept me going. I think I walked close to 20,000 steps that day, and most of us slept on the bus ride home. We didn’t get back to the Los Angeles office until 1:30 AM! I wouldn’t do a one-day bus trip again — I’d prefer to at least stay overnight. We only ended up with about six hours of actual canvassing versus ten hours of travel. But if you have limited time, it’s an option and it certainly was appreciated by the office staff.
On November 2, I drove back to Las Vegas. I had been assigned to the Southwest office — the same office I’d visited on the one-day bus trip. I checked in at the office and met some of the staff members. Hillary would be speaking to volunteers at the Pipefitters union office in the afternoon, and I wanted to attend, so I just spent about an hour making phone calls rather than try canvassing, which would have taken two hours or more to complete a packet. The Hillary rally was also a canvassing kickoff. I was excited to be at this rally as there were only about 300 people since it was just for staff and volunteers. While I waited, I talked to a group of five volunteers who had come from Canada to volunteer. I almost got teary-eyed — it moved me so much that they would come volunteer when they can’t even vote here. They explained Canada is one of the US’ biggest trade partners, so they were watching the election nervously.
We heard from a housekeeper and a chef at the Trump hotel who spoke about their efforts to unionize that were being blocked by Trump. It baffles me that anyone can expect him to really be a friend to the worker, when he has no history of doing so. We then heard from Catherine Cortez-Masto, who was running to be the first Latina senator. And then Hillary came out and spoke for about thirty minutes. Although she was a bit hoarse, she was inspiring and thanked us all for our efforts. She spent more time criticizing Trump than on outlining her own policies. I felt she was preaching to the choir at this event anyway, since it was not really a public rally but one for her active supporters. After she spoke, some people went out canvassing, including many union members. I was tired and wanted to watch Game 7 of the World Series, so I went to check into my hotel — Sam’s Town. This was not the best hotel choice as it was twenty miles from my office, but it had been the best deal I could find. Strip hotels were really high mid-week due to some convention and the bull-riding championships. The campaign had offered me supportive housing — staying with local volunteers — but I wanted my own space. In the sports book, I watched the Cubs wrap up a thrilling World Series and felt that if the Cubs could finally win, surely a woman could win the presidency!
Thursday, I canvassed on my own. Generally, people go out in teams, but I didn’t feel unsafe in this part of Las Vegas. We were in Enterprise, about ten miles from the Las Vegas strip, visiting subdivisions full of stucco houses in varying shades of beige, built close together with small yards and cinderblock walls. The houses were in the $200–300,000 range, which sure sounds good to someone from Los Angeles like me. We also went to apartment complexes. Other than the striking Red Rock Canyon backdrop, Enterprise looks like many suburban neighborhoods across the country, but what struck me immediately was that people of many ages and ethnicities were living on the same blocks. It didn’t seem polarized in the least. My first assignment was an apartment complex. I could walk in but had to park across the street in a shopping center. It was organized in blocks of four apartments with two downstairs and two upstairs, so this assignment required a lot of stair-climbing. It was also hard to figure out the pattern of addresses. It felt invasive knocking on apartment doors that don’t have doorbells. Not many people were home. It was midday on a Thursday, and I imagine most were at work. In the afternoon, I canvassed a neighborhood of houses which was easier. Thursday and Friday were the last days for Early Voting, so we were urging people to go do that. I spoke to a few people who appreciated the reminder, and I helped them find their polling place.
Thursday night, I attended a rally at UNLV headlined by Bill Clinton and Steve Aoki. As I waited on line to get in, I saw two Trump supporters. They were waving Trump flags and had bandanas covering their noses and mouths. They were asking people in line if they had already voted. Most said they had. They were mostly UNLV students, and UNLV had an early voting location on campus. Nobody wanted to engage in conversation with the protestors. “We have open borders. Immigrants are bringing in all kinds of diseases like bubonic plague,” one of them said.
The rally was in the basketball arena. It bugged me that the young crowd was more excited about Steve Aoki than Bill Clinton, but then I realized they would have been toddlers when he was president. The rally kicked off with an appearance from Ruben Kihuen, a candidate for the House of Representatives. He talked about coming over from Mexico as a child, and how his mother had been a housekeeper at the MGM Grand for over twenty years. He talked about how moved his parents had been when he took them to vote, and they were able to vote for their son for congress. I got emotional — that was the American Dream to me. Catherine Cortez-Masto spoke again, with the same talking points from the day before. I found her a bit robotic, but I liked her message. When Bill Clinton came out, I felt in awe. I was only about twenty feet from him. He spoke for only about ten minutes, passing along Hillary’s message and saying that perhaps he would try DJing like Steve Aoki after he was done being “a foot soldier for Hillary.” He still has a lot of charm. He seemed more vibrant in person than he did on TV during the convention. Bill introduced Steve, and they shook hands. Then Steve hit the decks. I don’t generally get into DJ music, but he remixed a lot of familiar hits and really put on a show. The crowd danced and waved their “Love Trumps Hate” and “Nevada Together” signs. Two of the lead staff people from the Hillary campaign office got caked (Aoki’s signature move of throwing cakes at people) and they took it with good humor.
On Friday, I canvassed as part of a trio with a Planned Parenthood staff member who had flown in from Washginton, DC and a writer from Los Angeles who had been volunteering for a week. We hit 200 houses, as we were able to fan out. We did get thwarted by a gated complex with cameras everywhere. Handing out campaign literature isn’t soliciting, but some HOAs still ban it. We were able to convince some people to vote that day by reminding them it was the last day of early voting. I encountered a few people of varying ethnicities who told me they wouldn’t be voting for Hillary, or wouldn’t vote for either candidate. One said he would be voting on other issues but would not vote for a presidential candidate. My attempts to have a conversation about it were generally shut down, although I do think I persuaded a few people. We were supposed to be polite and not confrontational. We were there to provide information, answer questions, and remind people every vote mattered.
It was my last night at Sam’s Town, so I played some blackjack but I found myself so tired from the walking, that I couldn’t really concentrate. My calves were hurting from all the stair climbing from the day before. I was in bed before midnight every night I was in Las Vegas — very atypical! I got excited by Twitter reports that night that showed long lines at some early voting locations, including a market in a heavily Latino area that had to stay open until almost midnight to accommodate everyone in line. This was the situation that would lead Trump to file a baseless lawsuit on election day, falsely accusing the polling place of letting people vote who had not been in line at 7:00 PM when the polls were due to close. The campaign office confirmed that early voting reflected a very high turnout of registered democrats, which certainly boded well for Hillary and the other democrats on the ticket, although they did not get actual voting results.
On Saturday, more busloads from Los Angeles arrived. I got to the office after the first busload had been dispatched, so I ended up going out solo. By now, I was being treated as a regular and given larger packets with more houses. We were given new literature — door hangers about Cortez-Masto, fliers that mentioned all the Democrats on the ballot, and reminders about election day since early voting was over. Being on my own again, I felt a little lonely. The sameness of the neighborhoods was getting to me. I approached a house where two pre-teen girls sat in the back of a pickup truck and when I asked if their mom was home, one told me, “We’re voting for Trump.” Then just down the street, I saw a house with a Notre Dame flag and a Trump sign. I’m from St. Louis and went to college at Notre Dame. My late uncle was a priest on the Notre Dame faculty and very liberal. The sisters who taught me in high school helped me learn about social justice issues: Cesar Chavez, “silence means consent,” the Catholic Worker movement. They helped change me from a young Republican (who almost made phone calls for Bob Dole but chickened out) to a Democrat. I know many Catholics primarily vote for anti-abortion candidates, as my late parents had done, but I just couldn’t understand how Christians and Catholics could overlook the fact this candidate represents nothing else about Christianity: he lies constantly, spews racist and misogynist rhetoric, has committed adultery, worships money above all other things, has shown no record of service to others, promises to take away healthcare from 20 million. Again, I felt like a frayed knot and fought back tears. It was taking a lot of energy not just for walking miles in the sun but also to summon the nerve to ring all the doorbells, not knowing who might be behind them. A few doors were slammed on me but nobody screamed at me. It seemed like if there was only one house on my list for a given block, it would be the house at the very end of the block, and then nobody would answer the door.
But whenever I felt down, it seemed I’d have an interaction that would propel me onward, such as the time I talked to a mom whose son was on my list and she assured me he had sent in his ballot from college and was excited to be voting for Hillary in the first election where he was of age to vote. Or the time I approached a tough-looking man who was installing a fountain in his yard (bringing water to the desert!). He had a big pick-up truck, and I wondered if I had the right house. It was a woman’s name on my list at that address. He stopped his work and went inside and got his eighteen-year-old daughter out of bed to come out and speak with me, saying it was almost noon and she should be up anyway. I spoke with her and she was very passionate about her support of Hillary and the other democrats on the ticket. She even agreed to come volunteer! Back in the office, as I tallied the results of the day’s door-knocking, I met a lovely retired couple from Canada who were phone-banking. They live part of the year in Las Vegas and they wanted to volunteer. The man even wanted to donate money but that’s not allowed for foreign citizens. Again, I found myself getting teary-eyed, on an emotional roller coaster. I checked into the Hard Rock Hotel, one of the places I usually stay and a move that would shorten my commute. I was happy to get a free upgrade to a nicer room. Saturday night in Las Vegas, and I was again in bed before midnight — drained and nervous. I drifted off to sleep reading post after post in the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group, feeling positive because so many men and women were posting about what voting for Hillary meant to them. I shared their hope.
On Sunday, I canvassed in the morning, and more people were home. Some told me they’d be voting for Hillary. One person yelled at me for interrupting her while she was watching football. She slammed the door before I could tell her I’d sold my Rams tickets to be at her doorstep! Other than the door slam, I felt good about the morning as I appreciated the increased human contact. I took a break to drive to a community college in North Las Vegas for a Bernie Sanders rally. The Trump protester who had invoked bubonic plague at the UNLV rally was back, and this time he was there to tell us “Bernie is a commie.” The rally was held in a courtyard and attended by a mix of people of different ages and ethnicities. America Ferrara and Amber Tamblyn kicked things off, representing Hillary who was campaigning elsewhere. Amber said she and her husband David Cross had been huge Bernie supporters but would be voting for Hillary, and she said if anyone thinks Bernie is being bullied into campaigning for Hillary, then they haven’t looked at Bernie’s record of following his principles. Catherine Cortez-Masto again got to take the stage and introduce Bernie. Bernie spoke for thirty minutes, hitting his usual talking points and imploring supporters to vote for Hillary, mentioning some of his campaign issues that she had adopted as her own. I like Bernie but I had supported Hillary throughout the primaries, as I have always admired her and I thought he would be too radical to appeal in a general election. But I was really impressed by his passion and ideas when I saw him speak in person. A friend from Los Angeles flew in and met me at the Bernie rally, and we went back and canvassed until it got dark, feeling the Bern!
On Monday, we canvassed as a duo. We began the final packets. Each address was going to get three passes. If we didn’t speak to the voter, someone would go back, even if we spoke to another resident of the house who told us that voter would be voting, had mailed in a ballot, etc. Maybe it’s annoying, and some did voice their annoyance, but at least they can feel the Democratic Party thinks each vote matters. We were there to offer information and rides or whatever they needed in order to vote. There were tons of volunteers, as more had poured in from Los Angeles. And we were pretty sure we were going to be OK as the Latino turnout for early voting had been so high. I started to wonder if more of the Los Angeles volunteers should have been diverted to Arizona or other states that might be in play. I wondered if we were oversaturated in Nevada. Most of the people I spoke to said they would vote Hillary. We had simplified pitches: (1) are you voting for Hillary on Tuesday? (2) do you know where your polling place is? (3) will you vote for the Democrats down the ticket? Monday afternoon, my boyfriend arrived and joined us as our driver. We got things done faster but were now challenged by daylight savings time which gave us one less hour of daylight. We didn’t want to creep people out (or get creeped out) knocking on doors in the dark. We ran into one Trump canvasser, who told us we should move on because everyone on that particular street was voting Trump (we didn’t listen). I never saw any Republican literature on any of the doors, and he was the only canvasser I saw the whole week.
I decided to start Election Day by attending a rally at the Culinary Union. They had announced they would have a mariachi band perform as they sent union members out to canvass at 6:00 AM. It was inspiring to see about 300 union members show up, be divided into teams and get ready to hit the streets. Union leaders and a priest gave rousing speeches. “You’re going to make history today at the door with that person who has never voted you can convince to vote,” said one of the union leaders. I went back to the hotel and rested a bit and then headed to the campaign office, where there were many volunteers gathered. There was plenty of work to do for all who showed up. Our trio ran like a well-oiled machine, and we got through two packets, doing the third pass. More people were home than usual, and some told us they’d voted that day already or were going to be voting later. I rang a doorbell and a woman called to me from the upstairs bathroom window. She was on the toilet but wanted to shout out that she had voted for Hillary. We went to another apartment complex with lots of stairs. As the sun fell, we tallied up our final packet and turned it in. We found out the office had only received a few tickets to the Democrats party at the Aria hotel, and they were going to full timers. No matter — we would try to find a way in or manage to get into one of the smaller parties happening in the same hotel.
We began the night with happy hour at the Hard Rock. The numbers were starting to come in, and they weren’t looking good, including Florida. We were worried, but we pressed on and went to the Aria. We managed to gain access to a party in one of the suites, but by the time we got there, the numbers were dour. Nobody was celebrating. Some were crying. It was hard to be there, hard to watch. My friend was hungry, so we walked over to the Cosmo. We had to pass over a bridge and see a giant screen across the Strip playing the election results. A man on the bridge was singing karaoke to “Happy.” It all felt grotesque. Any buzz I had from earlier in the night had worn off. I couldn’t eat, so I had a boozy milkshake. It didn’t even taste good. We drove back to the Hard Rock, and I fell asleep at 10:30 PM. I knew there was still a slim chance, but I also knew that no matter how it ended up, the fact that at least 50 million people had voted for him made me feel like my country had left me. My boyfriend stayed up all night watching the returns, but I collapsed into fitful sleep, with a combination of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. Some people respond to stress and trauma by falling asleep. Others get insomnia.
I woke up at 5:00 AM to the confirmation that Trump had won and I found myself having trouble breathing, nearly a panic attack. I felt nauseous and my heart hurt. I recognized the feeling because I’d felt it before: grief. I left the hotel room to have coffee with my friend and take her to the airport. My boyfriend and I were going to stay one more night. We had assumed we would be partying on Tuesday night and recovering on Wednesday. I really wanted nothing more than to drive back to Los Angeles and be with friends, but I also felt like I didn’t want to get out of bed. Back in the hotel room, I watched a replay of Hillary’s concession speech and during the part where she talked about her hopes for little girls, I just lost it. I had the big ugly cry I’d needed to have since the previous night. My boyfriend held me and told me to just let it out. Was I happy when George W. Bush won? No. But I didn’t cry. I didn’t have trouble breathing. I grew up Republican and I knew that men like the Bushes, McCain, and Romney were men of character, even if I didn’t agree with most of their views. Trump has no moral core, is completely unfit for the job, and has unleashed dangerous racist rhetoric. Racist incidents done in his name were already happening, especially in schools, before the election. Now that faction of his voters would be emboldened.
We decided to go to a show, to try to force ourselves out of the hotel room. I chose “Wayne Newton: Up Close and Personal.” I figured a trip to the past might distract us from the present, and I had enjoyed seeing him at the Stardust many years ago. It was probably not the best choice. At 74, Wayne doesn’t sing much anymore, so most of the show involved him answering audience questions and telling his life story. Much of the story was interesting to me, as someone who loves Las Vegas and its history. Someone asked him: “Who’s your favorite president?” He said it was Reagan and they showed photos of him with Reagan. The audience — mostly elderly and white — cheered. Later he talked about the Rat Pack and commented on how political correctness had ruined so much good humor, telling some anecdote about Sammy being teased about the NAACP. Again the crowd laughed and applauded. The nausea rose in me again. There are so many other ways to get laughs that don’t involve racial insults. Normally, we play a lot of blackjack in Las Vegas, and we like meeting people at the table. This time, I didn’t want to play. I couldn’t stand the thought that I might be sitting next to someone who might be celebrating the election result. Las Vegas, with its fun imperative, seemed like the worst place we could be.
As I drove home the next day, I thought about the whole experience. I had received texts and Facebook notes from friends to thank me for my efforts in Nevada and ask how I was holding up. I didn’t feel my efforts were in vain. I learned the ground game in Nevada helped. Hillary won the state. Catherine Cortez-Masto and Ruben Kihuen were elected. But I wondered if there had been more volunteers mobilizing in other swing states, could we have made a difference there? Mainly, I wished I’d acted earlier. I wasn’t working — I could have given more time. I was lulled by the polls and by a sense that America wouldn’t choose such an unqualified, unfit candidate. I thought more conservatives would heed the reservations of John Kasich, Barbara Bush, John McCain, George Will. But I was wrong.
I was proud to spend a week as a foot soldier for Hillary and thrilled by the opportunities to see Hillary, Bill and Bernie speak. This work was grueling at times but it got me out of my comfort zone, gave me an appreciation for a well-organized campaign and helped me find people who inspired and educated me — both my fellow volunteers as well as the many people who opened their doors and connected with me. Across the country, thousands of volunteers did what I did and many did much, much more. I know that I will volunteer again for the midterm election and I hope many of you will join me. Fight on!