Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Door To Door For Obama In The Wild West

Nevada is a swing state; California is blue. During the presidential elections it's a regular thing for Californians to go to Nevada to campaign on behalf of their chosen candidate. I spent six hours on Saturday knocking on doors in a subdivision in South Reno assessing people's support for President Barack Obama, and, where appropriate, attempting to convince them to vote for him. Below is a log of my experience. I knocked on about forty doors but only talked to about 18 people. In the spaces of time between log entries, I was just covering ground and leaving literature for people who were not home.

6:25 Was picked up at home in Nevada City (no relation), California by my friend Max in his white Subaru wagon. His friend Erika, who I was meeting for the first time, was asleep in the back seat. Max and I launched into a debate about whether I loved Obama or merely liked him, a debate which ended with my saying if I loved him I would probably know that and which also, somehow, managed to take up the entire two-hour trip.

8:25 On the outskirts of Reno we pulled into a 7-11 so Max could cue up his directions. In the 7-11 window was a giant poster informing customers they could get coffee in an "I support Romney" or an "I support Obama" paper cup. "I feel like that's not real," I said, and Max, who is 12 years younger than me but somehow the authority figure in our relationship said, "It is."

8:50 We arrived at the headquarters of the Reno Obama campaign, in a small, ugly office building next to an aesthetician's office. If you've ever been in a local campaign office, they are all the same: dropped ceilings, brown carpet, plastic buckets full of candy and a white paper tray of sweaty Costco croissants. There was a life-sized paper cut-out of Obama, surrounded by photos of people hugging it. We were signed in by a pretty, long-haired woman whom I will call Holly. Holly had perhaps never laughed or gotten angry in her life. Because beyond a crisp efficiency she was almost completely devoid of personality, I could place her age in a window no narrower than somewhere between 22 and 31.

9:30 More people streamed in, gay men and their straight women friends from San Francisco, all wet-haired and bragging about their ironic vacation in Reno and their un-ironic hangovers. Lots of sixty-year-old women from the Bay Area, some men in their sixties in bad shorts. Holly appeared again, filling me with both confidence and a little bit of hostility, and told everyone to sit down and listen to her: "Please hold your questions until the end." (It was obvious to me that when friends asked her what the worst part of her job was she would say, "Oh, the volunteers. Oh, completely.") Holly gave basic instructions: Do not bash Romney. Do not talk about how Obama can help the country—talk about how Obama can help them. "Remember, people here think they are living in the Wild West." She repeated the phrase 'Wild West' several times. She instructed us on how to say 'Nevada,' with a flat second 'a': Nev-add-uh. "Not Ne-VAH da," she stressed. She ordered us to say it. "Nev-ADD-uh," we chorused obediently. She went through all the things we were supposed mark on our sheets. There were a lot. We were supposed to mark how into Obama they are, one being strong yes, five being strong no, and so on. We also were supposed to see if they will sign a card to vote early, which allowed the office an excuse to contact people again. If we discussed issues with them (having canvassed before I have found that less of this happens than you might think) we were to mark their concerns, and a list of issues was provided: Economy: Jobs, Economy: Wall Street Reform, Healthcare, Education, National Security, Veterans, Energy, and Other. Then we were supposed to ask if they would want to volunteer. Finally, you were supposed to ask if they liked someone named Shelley Berkley who is a Democrat running for Something in Nevada.

A woman raised her hand. "I think it would be very nice to just let people know that we have come all the way from San Francisco to talk to them." Everyone burst out laughing.

10:00 My canvassing partner, Cristina, who I picked because she was pretty and had a brand new Audi, grew up in Michigan and lived in Truckee. She was a consultant, married for 14 years with two kids, and she told me she agreed with Republicans about some economic stuff but thought they were horrible with social issues. Also, her father was an autoworker. Before long she used the word 'fuck' casually in a sentence and I decided it would be safe to show her something resembling my real personality.

10:15 The neighborhood we arrived in was a mixture of 70s ranches and 90s mini-McMansions. The newer houses had atriums and big center staircases. The older ones had log fences. The landscaping was artificial and the sky was so blue. At certain angles the neighborhood reminded me of the one in my brother's Lionel train set. Some people's lawns were well maintained, some less, but everyone's truck was big and really shiny. A weird thing: There was a ton of horseshit in the street, piles and piles of it. I did see one horse, tied up to a tree on someone's lawn, and I wondered, in a vague freeform way, how it could have produced so much shit.

10:25 We decided to do the first place together. It was really more 80s than 70s or 90s. Their enormous truck was white, and on the driver's side, in red, was printed the name and address of a construction business. The 56-year-old male occupant was a registered Republican, his wife, 53, was a Democrat. He answered the door, in a red one-pocket T-shirt and thick black glasses, his left hand on top of his brush cut. He smiled but a shadow passed over his eyes as he saw our buttons. "I'm voting for Romney," he said. We checked him as a five. Before we could ask about his wife, he said, "I changed her views, so she is too."

The process seeming pretty straightforward, we separated. Cristina took one side of the street, I took the other. For the rest of the day, we barely crossed paths, even though we were walking in the exact same small area. When we did see each other, we would burst out laughing and admit that for at least a few minutes of our separation we had entertained the fear that the other had been abducted.

11:00 There were weird yellow ropes prohibiting access to people’s lawns and homes in general, and I had no idea what they were there for. The first few times I didn’t cross them, but finally I did. At this house, I was expecting to find a 55-year-old Republican woman, but a man answered. He had bright blue eyes and was bald and in his early 40s. He looks like he's had a very hard life, and when he told me he was a born-again Christian I knew I was right. I found him vaguely attractive in a niche porn way, and I thought it was kind of kinky that his wife was so much older than he. "I don't know who I'm voting for," he said, but then he started talking about how he hated Romney. "Every time I think about Bain Capital, I get really mad." I knew we weren't supposed to tell people our opinions, but I decided to do it anyway. "Well," I said, "The way I see it is that Obama is a politician and he's not perfect but he's trying. And I think Romney is just a serious asshole. And I could think about it more than that, but why bother." The guy looked relived. He said, "Come to think of it, my daughter's whole health insurance situation has gotten a lot easier because of the new laws, and that's easier on me." "Exactly," I said. "Hey, I really think Obama's just a little bit of a better guy." He told me he's going to vote for Obama, and filled out a pledge card saying he'd vote early. When he took out his ID, I saw we were exactly the same age, and we laughed about how fast time goes. Then he thanked me for coming to talk about the issues with him. This was the longest conversation I would have all day, and the only person I would convince of anything.

11:25 A bald man with liver spots in a printed polyester button-front shirt and Dacron pants opened the door, and I told him I was looking for the resident, who, according to my information, was a 29-year-old registered Democrat. "She's not here," he said. "Ok," I said, "Do you mind telling me who you're voting for?" "Well, who are you for?" he asked. I was wearing a saucer-size Obama button. "Obama," I said, and he said, "Then I'm for the other guy," and closed the door.

11:30 I looked through the windows of a very large white modern house and saw abstract art and plants. The woman, a 57-year-old registered Democrat, answered. She was in hospital scrubs, dykey but straight, like Nurse Jackie. She was instantly friendly, to the point where I felt comfortable saying, "There's no chance your husband is the famous gay playwright?" since they both have the same name and were roughly the same age, and she laughed and said that in fact he was not but wasn't that funny, yes, people always asked her husband that. The gay playwright's namesake, twenty years older than his wife, appeared. He was big but not fat, with white hair. "I'm from Oklahoma," he said, "All my friends from high school are crazy and racist and they hate Obama, but I'm still friends with them on Facebook. Well. I don't think in 20 years the Republican Party is going to exist. Oh, and all the women in the neighborhood who say they're voting for Romney? They’re lying."

As I left, the woman said, "Did you see the horses?"

"I saw one horse," I said, "That horse?"

"Oh no," she said, "There are 18 wild horses that run through here. That’s what the ropes are for. We love the horses. We don’t have ropes. You'll see them."

12:15 I approached an older ranch style house with decent rose bushes but a scrubby lawn. According to my records two registered Democrats, a married couple in their 60s, lived there. The man who came to the door answered to the name on my list. "You're with Obama?” He shook his head and frowned. “I don't even want to talk to you."

12:25 A teenage girl came to the door and almost immediately an enormous lab tried to barrel his way through her legs.
"My mom says it's not a good time right now."
"Can you ask her if she's decided how she's voting?"
"Who is she with?" the mother yelled.
"Obama," I said.
"Obama," the girl said.
"Then I'm voting for Obama," the woman yelled.
I couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic or not. According to my list, she was a 48-year-old Democrat. I marked her as a 2.

12:45 I ran into Cristina, whose day was turning out to be more surreal than mine. One guy listened thoughtfully to her points and as she was talking requested literature. As she continued to talk he slowly and carefully ripped the literature to shreds and let the pieces fall on the floor between them. Another guy pushed himself out from under the hood of the car he was working on and told her he would vote for Obama if she told him what happened to the cars turned in to the cash for clunkers program. She took his number and said, "If I call you and tell you what happened, you'll really vote for Obama?" "Swear to God," he said. "You tell me what happened to those cars and I'll vote for your guy." We decided it was time to eat.

1:15 Lunch. Cristina and I went to a Fatburger in a huge, brand new mall. While waiting in line we agreed that our lives were indeed better than they were four years ago and was that a coincidence or not and it seemed like people we knew were doing better but most of the people we knew were educated-ish and we didn't know how it was for everyone. We sat down to wait, and the woman sitting behind us had a fit when her food came out late. "Fuck these fuckers," she screamed. She was quiet for a minute, and then, suddenly, she smacked the wall right near me so hard that I gasped. "I want to smash the food in their fucking faces," she screamed. With her was a four-year-old child, who whimpered, "Mommy, you're scaring me." “Yeah,” I said, “You’re scaring me too.” We moved.

2:30 I approached an older white brick ranch and knocked on a screen door. It said a single woman lived there, a 77-year-old Democrat. The door opened and she hovered behind the screen. All I could see was a white puff of hair and large glasses, and that she was wearing what she would call slacks. "I'm not telling you anything," she said, before I even spoke. "It's a secret."

2:55 Another white brick house, its residents listed as a couple in their late 60s. He was a Republican, she, a Democrat. A large man in overalls answered the door. "I'm a five," he said and disappeared. A woman took his place. She was wearing a nightgown, and looked pale and dizzy. "I'm an Obama volunteer, so he knows the drill,” she said, in a voice that was tired but somehow cheerful. "I was walking last weekend, but I'm sick as a dog right now. I wish I was out there with you today, dear. Put me down as a one, and like Bob said, he’s a five."

3:17 A woman answered the door, in scrubs but not crisp ones, the teddy bear kind. "I love Obama," she said. "Everyone in this house loves him." A 58-year-old man was the only person I had listed at the address. I asked if he was an Obama supporter. "Oh,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Not him.”

3:47 A man, 56, a registered Republican, answered the door at a newer ranch house. There was an enormous, glossy black dualie in the freshly paved driveway. He was tall and thin, he looked like he smoked L&M longs. He smiled condescendingly but he was not unlikeable. "Well, I'm not voting for Obama, I'll tell you that, but I might not vote for Romney either." He looked delighted with himself, which was somewhat charming. "Can I ask you for a huge favor?" I said, "Can I get some water?" "If I give it to you will you promise not to vote for Obama?" he asked. A woman about ten years younger came out. She was in workout clothes, wearing an iPod and laughing. "I'm voting for Obama," she said. "We're totally going to win. Don't even listen to him." The guy held the water out. Then he pulled it back. We all laughed. He handed me the water.

3:57 Cristina found me. A guy had cornered her and said, "You go back to your people and you tell them to put food on our table and gas in our SUVs and then maybe we'll pay for your abortions." We decided to do the last few houses together.

4:10 The last house’s only listed resident was a 58-year-old male, a registered Democrat. He opened the door long enough for us to see his tie-dye shirt and an enormous rainbow flag, and to get a whiff of marijuana. "I'm for Obama," he said without provocation, and at that moment, through the plate glass window in the enormous living room behind him, I saw eighteen wild horses go thundering past. No, that didn’t happen. What I mean is, that’s what it felt like to be done.

Related: How To Bully Children

Sarah Miller is the author of Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl, which are for teens but adults can read on the beach. She lives in Nevada City, CA. Top photo by davidd.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

laurel (#4,035)

Wild horses couldn't drag me to knock on people's doors. I'm a terrible lefty.

I enjoyed this a lot.

hman (#53)

@laurel I canvassed in Bristol, PA for the first time on Sunday. I'm way better talking to/being berated by people on the phone.

laurel (#4,035)

@hman: You are a better h(u)man than I. Was anyone super mean to you?

This piece was great. "…picked up at home in Nevada City (no relation), California" made me giggle.

hman (#53)

@laurel No one was mean to our face – just some smirks with an, "Um, no thanks." But I'm sticking to phones.

hockeymom (#143)

Great post…and will make me rethink my borderline rudeness to people who have the guts to knock on our door.

Ophelia (#75,576)

@hockeymom I'm polite to anyone who isn't evangelizing.

HereKitty (#2,713)

Well done, Sarah Miller! This is making me want to cross the state line into New Hampshire and knock on doors for Obama … but not by myself.

Sarah, I also canvassed for Obama last weekend in Reno, and my experience was vastly different from your own. The people I met were almost uniformly considerate, or at least politely tolerant of the uninvited solicitation, irrespective of party affiliation. My friends each had about one 'slammed door' out of the two canvassing shifts each did, and I had none. And nothing nearly as melodramatic as ripped literature or marijuana-smoking tie-dyed hippies.

Oh, and for what it is worth, I found your criticism of 'Holly' to be unfair, and not just the off-base potshot about her personality. You and I volunteered for a single day, she moved to Reno to volunteer full-time for the campaign. It is not unreasonable that she would expect us to defer to her expertise, or take the enterprise serious for all of six hours.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Super fun, Sarah Miller. I'll be in Las Vegas soon meself and saying Nevadduh with all y'all.


In 2008, I was a field organizer in Washoe County, NV — well a tiny sliver of Reno, with Sparks filling in the rest of my turf. I'm very familiar with those weekends where we had train and deploy hundreds (yes, hundreds) of California vols in Reno/Sparks. I agree with David. Your criticism of 'Holly' was unfair; that job was demanding and required an incredible amount of patience and understanding when it came to dealing with hundreds of people, largely unfamiliar with door to door canvassing, voter registration, phone calls, etc. With that said, all of us in Northern Nevada were grateful for not only our local vols (which there were many) but also volunteers from in and around the Bay Area. I would never EVER say that our volunteers were the worst part of my job. In fact, without them — Barack Obama would not be President. Also, only 40 doors?

sarahpm (#13,702)

@AP Costigan@facebook you want to have a door off? i will go head to head with you any day of the week, lady.

MoistPup@twitter (#238,529)

@AP Costigan@facebook I just wanted you to know that I went out in (with MoveOn's canvasing operation) 2004 and (with the DNC canvassing operation) 2008. I really appreciated the local leadership. I'm actually having trouble locating 2012 final day "get out the vote" canvassing info for Reno.

sarahpm (#13,702)

i thought holly was awesome. i had nothing but respect for Holly.

maxn (#226,313)

@sarahpm I fail to see where in this you "criticize" Holly.

blueblazes (#238,044)

I thought Sarah's appraisal of Holly was absolutely fair. Strikes me that David and AP are showing off that easily affronted, politically correct, "I-can't-believe-you-would-be-so-insensitive" sensibility that makes the righties hate us lefties so much. Sarah is entitled to her opinion about Holly. The fact that she *has* an opinion and has aired it on the Internet will not hurt The Cause. First amendment, etc.

But ridiculous regional political volunteer infighting aside, what I really wonder is if, in general, the trend in the story fits the overall trend you canvassers see. Is it white men over 50 who are the most consistently, aggressively anti-Obama? (…but not necessarily pro-Romney?)

whateverlolawants (#19,108)

@blueblazes It's correct that she had the right to say it, and being a writer, I sometimes find myself describing people off of snap judgements. But her description of Holly did strike me as unfair. Maybe because I once held Holly's job. Whatever.

And in my experience with canvassing, yes, that is the most consistently aggressive and anti-Obama group — although it was a middle-aged white woman in Ohio who told me she'd "never vote for that murdering Muslim." On the other hand, she did say something like, "No offense to you girls," before she said it.

whateverlolawants (#19,108)

Although, I did have a few kooky coworkers, and some were… better with volunteers than others.

whateverlolawants (#19,108)

I did quite a bit of canvassing in 2008 and went on to work full-time for the campaign in another western swing state. This brought back a lot of memories. I had a lot of conversations like these. The guy who cornered Christina is kind of terrifying, and I never met someone that bad when going door-to-door. Thank goodness. (We did have other unpleasant encounters, but they weren't while going door-to-door.)

Also, when I trained volunteers, I sometimes asked them to hold their questions until the end too. If they didn't, the trainings stretched on forever and I got off-track. But I still thought they were incredible and I was so grateful to them.

I lived in Reno during the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections & one of the downsides of returning to Northern California is missing out on the excitement of Washoe County being a battleground precinct. I'm almost morbidly curious enough about Paul Ryan's supposedly super human levels of body fat percentages to wish I had the chance to catch him stump speeching up close like I did for John Edwards, Kerry, & Obama during those campaign cycles (I was too scared by the security to go see if Dick Cheney is an actual human being).

That said, I am kind of tired of the narrative for people from the Bay Area have to report about their experiences, as if Reno is the Wild West (try going door to door in Elko or Winnemucca) or some kind of backwater. Especially after some snotty comments made to me by volunteers in from San Francisco during the 2004 election. It almost makes me wish that I could read an article written by Romney campaign volunteers about going door to door in Marin County or San Francisco with some equal sentiments about their unusual cultural norms. There are some interesting stories and people happening with the campaigns in Washoe County, but this perspective really isn't it.

And yes, it is Nuh-VAH-duh, as is the same pronunciation for California's Nevada County and Nevada City.

MoistPup@twitter (#238,529)

@Mary Taylor@facebook

I did door to door work in 04 and 08. In 04 it was in the precinct across Virginia from Circus Circus. It was really fascinating, and people were for the most part friendly. In 08 I did the canvassing in Sun Valley. I didn't enjoy that as much, but that was more because I felt more isolated, and the distance between homes was much larger.

I did have on incident in 2008 where I was chased through an apartment complex by a deranged Republican, who's wife was a registered Democrat. I had knocked on their door and the son answered. I said "Hi I'm here from the Obama campaign, is your mother home?" And no sooner does the son say no then I hear an adult male voice shout "Did that F**ker say OBAMA?!" I thank the kid and walk away. I just happened to go around the corner as the father came roaring out of the apartment trying to find me. I spent the next 20 minutes hiding/fleeing from this guy waiting for the coordinator to get on the scene.

hman (#53)

Let's not fight you guys.

taigan (#11,267)

How interesting! My (white) friends went door to door for Obama in 2008 in PA, and in between meeting some really polite people, ended up hearing just about every possible slur against black people. So. I would like to go door to door, but I'm really afraid of angry people, and besides I see enough of them at my job.

Also, I didn't see what was unfair in Sarah's description of Holly. Holly may be a bit of a tight ass. She may also have been having the best day ever. Who knows? What we have is one person's impression of another. We read it, and the world kept turning. Lighten up.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

I've been doorbelling and phonebanking for the Dems and Labor since the late 90's in WA. I enjoyed this article and reading about experiences similar to my friends' and mine. Sometimes you prefer that they just slam the door in your face versus spitting at you, tearing up literature, threatening to sic dogs on you, etc. I have yet to hear any doorbellees say anything racist about Obama during this cycle, but you wouldn't believe some of the things a few of my fellow Wurshingtonians have said about "the Mexicans" stealing their jerbs, garbage like that.

That's why we gotta keep keepin' on, spreading the love and the Cash for Cars!

annejumps@twitter (#233,527)

I did door-to-door in 2008. I happened to be assigned to a suburban-rural neighborhood (metro Atlanta) I knew of because my best friend's in-laws used to live there. I'm a white woman and my door partner was an African immigrant, which was kind of a nice touch, I thought. People were generally nice. I'm pretty introverted so it was definitely not my comfort zone, but still. Also did voter registration, but many folks we talked to were already registered. Phone calling was a bit awkward too, but not bad.

anonymass (#13,682)

I've done some door-to-door in Arizona(!). Even as a native Arizonan, I still expected at the outset to be able to tell some war stories about getting spit on or violently cursed out or something, but probably the MOST hostile reaction I've had was, when I asked this woman if she was supporting Pres. Obama, "No, sorry–actually I'm not even going to say 'sorry.'" The other anti-Obamaites have just given a direct but polite-enough "no" and let me on my way. On the whole, I can say that there just might be enough people starting to get fed up with the Republicans using this state as a laboratory.

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