Swinging the Vote, One Door at a Time
by Benjamin Dangl
Each afternoon, just outside Philadelphia, Penn, dozens
of America Coming Together canvassers in matching blue T-shirts spill out
of minivans into the hot, suburban sun. Armed with anti-Bush pamphlets, voter
registration cards and Palm Pilots with the names of undecided voters, they
scour the neighborhood trying to swing the vote their way, one door at a time.
America Coming Together (ACT) is one of the many organizations
working to mobilize progressive voters and convince undecided folks to vote
against Bush this November. In an effort to influence the election, thousands
of people have been gravitating toward battleground states and many of them
have been canvassing through such organizations as ACT.
Along with a group of grassroots enthusiasts from all
walks of life, I was caught up in the migration to swing states this summer
and I eventually found myself canvassing for ACT in Philadelphia. With nearly
1,500 canvassers employed around the country, this organization has become
one of the largest voter contact programs in the US. It is operating in all
seventeen swing states, has registered hundreds of thousands of new voters
and has pledged to reach 17 million voters by Election Day.
Here in Pennsylvania, the organization’s plan
is to change voters’ minds a few at a time. Personal discussions about
the issues most important to voters are emphasized, highlighting the harmful
policies of the Bush administration. Such a strategy translates into long,
hot hours spent making as much face-to-face contact with undecided voters
The canvassers I worked with had signed on for a variety
of reasons. One was a union member who had traveled from northern New York
to work in a swing state. Another was a woman whose mother had died because
she could not afford proper medical attention through her health care plan.
Others were students and recent college grads. Some canvassers hadn’t
been involved in political campaigns since McGovern ran for president in 1972;
others were just looking for a part-time summer job before they left for college
in the fall.
From the youth canvassers, there were similarities in
their criticisms of the Bush administration. Most complained of rising tuition
costs, a horrible job outlook, an enormous national debt, a lack of health
insurance and a fear of being drafted to fight in a war they did not believe
in. For many, it was their first time involved in a political campaign. We
were a ragtag group of concerned citizens of different ages, ethnicities and
political orientations, unified by our outrage at the Bush administration.
What motivated many of us through the long afternoons and weeks of relatively
low salaries was the big payoff we hoped would come in the end, with a new
The ACT headquarters was air conditioned, crowded and
humming with activity from early morning until late at night. It was full
of tables heaving with piles of fliers, maps and voter registration cards.
The photocopier chugged away incessantly and the constant ringing of cell
phones pounded at the air. Tired-eyed organizers stared into computer screens,
gave directions to lost canvassers over the phone. People were constantly
bumping into one another in the tiny space, conducting job interviews in the
lobby, and having impromptu conferences in the hallways. It was an office
bordering on chaos, the typical chaos of a campaign office.
The bustle would hit a crescendo at around 3 PM each
afternoon when the canvassing teams piled into the ACT minivans and headed
into the suburban stratosphere. Often, I found the houses looked the same:
well-kept lawns, picket fences, shiny vinyl siding and anxious dogs. This
slice of the American dream didn’t look like a battleground, but it
was behind these fences, in the minds of these swing voters, where much of
this election was being decided.
Our first challenge was persuading voters to talk to
a complete stranger about politics after a long day at work. The discussion
often took place as the he or she was cooking dinner, holding back the barking
dog, and keeping one eye on the kids. At other times, the “potential
swing voter” turned out to be a staunch Republican and spoke passionately
about Bush’s wonderful foreign policy. Still others were thrilled to
hear what we had to say. Some offered us juice or cookies. Once I was even
given a copy of the Constitution and advised to read it cover to cover.
It was a sweaty endeavor and more often than not, we’d
find ourselves knocking on empty doors. When someone was home, we’d
try to get an idea of the voter’s concerns. Then we dug into our facts
and figures to show how the Bush administration has handled those concerns.
We’d discuss the some 97,000 jobs lost in Pennsylvania under the Bush
administration, the $140 million cut from state schools, and the 49% rise
in health care premiums there over the last four years.
While criticizing Bush, we also tried to encourage socially
conscious voters to volunteer with ACT, talk to neighbors about Bush’s
policies and organize meetings to help elect progressive candidates in all
levels of government.
This initial voter contact is one part of ACT’s
multi-step process, which is designed to influence and educate, and to give
voters some of the facts that don’t make it onto the major TV networks.
By Election Day, swing voters in ACT’s database will have received various
pamphlets and emails regarding the Bush administration’s policies while
those leaning towards Kerry will have been urgently reminded to go to the
polls in November.
Each evening, as we headed back through the congested
traffic into central Philadelphia, we’d tally up our results. I’d
usually find that I’d handed out dozens of ACT fliers, registered a
few voters, and had handfuls of conversations about Bush’s track record
in PA. Aside from the occasional scrape on my leg from an angry dog, I’d
often go home with a fresh sun burn and sore feet.
I also often wondered how it would all add up in November.
As of my writing this, polls conducted by The Pittsburg Tribune-Review, and
ABC News report that Bush has a 1-3 percent lead over Kerry in Pennsylvania.
Although the official presidential campaigns, and mainstream media coverage,
will no doubt continue to influence voters, much may still depend on groups
like ACT and their canvassers who believe that this is an election no one
should be sitting out.
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