Frontlines For Obama: Phonebanking and Suburban Isolation In Virginia


cross-posted to Jack & Jill Politics 

These frontline experiences of mine are mad long, so I'm gonna split Sunday's Virginia canvassing into several parts. This is part 1.

I've written about my solo caucusing efforts in DC on Saturday which consisted of cruising in my Mini Cooper Zipcar and discussing Obama with family and friends. However, I was also in DC to connect with NYC volunteers who had come down to canvass in Northern Virginia. After returning from dinner Saturday, I sent a text message to Beth, our NYC leader, around 9:45pm
This is baratunde. Had a good DC day. What's the meetup plan tomorrow?

Beth got back to me at 1:40am. I was just wrapping up my conversation with "Anita."
Hi! We are going to meet at 6066 Leesburg Pike in Falls Church VA at 10am! See you there!

Sunday morning I crammed down breakfast at Kramer Books and jetted over to Virginia. I arrived at one of the two Northern Virginia offices, this one on the fourth floor of an office building. Inside, I found a room abuzz with the work of about 15 people. Quickly and unceremoniously, I was put on phone duty. There was no, "Hi, how are you? Si se puede!"

A man named Al gave me a list of about 40 names, addresses and phone numbers as well as a call script with codes to mark the person's response. I was honestly a bit annoyed and didn't think it was really worth my time to call from Virginia when I could have done that from New York or my bed that morning, but he told me they needed about 30 minutes of calling before they'd be ready to send me out canvassing.

The script went something like this.
Hi, my name is Baratunde Thurston, and I'm a volunteer with the Barack Obama campaign here in Northern Virginia. I'm calling to see if you plan to vote in this Tuesday's primary. [with the use of pauses or polite inquiry, I'd try to see if they planned to vote for Obama. If PrObama, then] Great! Well would you be interested in volunteering over the next few days? We could use help through Tuesday.

And if they were down, I'd try to sign them up right then or give them the office number or have someone call them back.

After the call, I'd mark the sheet with codes for LM (left message), NH (not home), DISCO (line disconnected - lots of those), then a numerical code indicating their support (pro Hillary, lean Hillary, undecided, lean Obama, probama, GOP). Oh, and I added an extra one: DND (do not disturb). Some people had been called multiple times or just didn't care for the calls at all. There was an Ethiopian woman working the phones next to me who got hung up on angrily at least three times.

After the 30 minutes, Greg (also from NYC and working the phones. In fact there were two Gregs, so I'll call this on "Greg X") and I met Beth in the lobby and split into two cars with two people each. (there were additional groups I never met). Greg X and Beth teamed up, and I joined forces with Greg Ross. Beth gave us what are called "turf sheets." The NYC volunteers and others had been up until 4am dividing up Fairfax county into "turfs," breaking the county down into smaller regions. We got a map of our overall turf with targeted houses on them plus sheets showing the addresses and names of the places we were supposed to hit up.

The lists are drawn from various voter databases and God knows how many sources, but it was interesting and creepy to see that in a block of 20 houses, we would only be sent to three. More on that later.

The general process was Greg R and I would look at the map and find a cluster of houses. I would program it into my GPS, and we'd park at the center of the cluster, handle five houses or so, then migrate to another cluster. Having grown up in DC proper, lived in Boston for 12 years and now residing in Manhattan, I forgot just how painfully un-walkable suburban America is.

I came face to face with the jacked up zoning and urban planning which has fed our car dependency and driven us to create a country full of community islands. The air was beautiful and the lawns just lovely, but there was something isolating about knowing that each of these houses attempted to replicate all of society's resources for each individual family. Everybody has their own yard, so there's no need of a park. Everybody has their own car (multiple) and driveway, so why bother with a sidewalk. And you know that inside, everyone has their own 40-inch flat screen television with dolby digital 6.1 surround sound.

The closest thing to a market or social center was the gas station or multiplex or fast food joint (there was downtown of course, but most people are nowhere near there). I saw actual McMansions yall! They were like the big mansions but slightly smaller, and they all had the same elements: face brick facade, two car garage, picture window above a wide front door, foyer and a massive yard.

Not every neighborhood we hit was this rich. Some were definitely more modest and others more original in terms of architecture, but what was consistent was the extreme individualism. As a small but important example, we would be walking down the street, and nearly every driveway had it's own basketball hoop. Where was the neighborhood court? How can you play as a team when everyone's practicing solo?

This level of structural social isolation bothers me. We as Americans pride ourselves on the efficiency of the free market, but there's something highly wasteful about the way our suburban neighborhoods are constructed, and considering the size of the challenges we face, especially with regard to energy, I can't help but feel that we have set a limit on our ability to change. It's not enough to convert all of our cars to hybrids. We need fewer cars, but neighborhoods don't easily allow this.

OK, enough philosophizing. If you want to know more about the history and unsustainability of suburbia, check this film: The End of Suburbia. In my next post, I'll get into the details of my door-to-door encounters. Here's a teaser.

We visited one house with a Republican couple. The husband planned to vote for Obama. I asked him why. He said, "I'll do anything to keep that bitch out of office." When his wife said she wasn't sure who she would vote for, he interjected, "Don't you dare vote for that woman!" I was just waiting for him to add, "Ms. Lewinsky."

stay tuned