How To Canvass For Obama: Toolkit, Arguments & Anecdotes


cross-posted to Jack & Jill Politics

There is one guaranteed way to end the Democratic primary, and that is for Obama to win resoundingly over Hillary Clinton. If you are a supporter, it's time for you to do more. Talk to your family and friends. Volunteer. Phonebank. Donate. Canvass. The premise of his presidency is that he's offering a voice and a seat at the table to a more active citizenry. That means you. Reading about the election and feeling good inside about your vote ain't enough.

I'm doing my part by 1) going to Texas this weekend and 2) offering this post as a set of useful tips on how to represent Obama to friends or strangers. If you're getting on a bus to Texas, Vermont, Rhode Island or Ohio, print this out, and read it along the way. Email it to your friends. Post it on your blogs. But please, do something.



Two weeks ago, I took an Amtrak train to DC's Union Station in order to volunteer for the Obama campaign in advance of the Potomac primaries. I've written about parts of that trip here and here.

What I want to do now is talk about going door to door in Fairfax County in Northern Virginia for the purposes sharing the story but also sharing the lessons. I've read a lot about this race. I've watched hours of horrible television media. I've probably written enough to fill a few books, but none of this experience quite compares to talking to a stranger in their doorway about your candidate and hearing directly from them about their concerns, their hopes and their fears. Such an activity humanizes the political process in general and the electorate in particular.

Armed with a Mini Cooper from ZipCar, GPS, signs in the window, an Obama music mix, official campaign literature and material assembled by volunteers plus maps with targeted houses provided by the campaign, fellow New Yorker Greg Ross and I spent four hours making our case.

Some quick stats:

We visited 33 houses. 18 people were not home

Of the remaining 15, here is how their support broke down before we spoke to them.

3 - undecided or would not say
2 - Republicans
8 - Obama
2 - Clinton

At the end of our canvassing, we had moved one Clinton supporter into the Obama column and gave the undecideds and GOP voters something additional to think about.

There's no way I can cover every possible scenario you might encounter when trying to convince someone to vote for Obama, but I will focus on the most valuable insights I've gained both in Virginia and in other personal interactions.

PEOPLE CARE THAT YOU SHOWED UP

I am fond of dissing the American people for not giving a damn about how their country is run, for relying on poor information and for generally being hands-off about their democracy. My canvassing, however, exposed me to something very different. The vast majority of people we encountered heard us out, asked questions and thanked us for coming. It's very easy to dismiss a candidate from the safe distance between your couch and the television or newspaper. People can hold on to prejudices and preconceived notions and are not challenged except by their own initiative. But when someone is right there in your doorway, I found that folks get down. Even people who were GOP McCain voters expressed a bit of shock and appreciation that we were there.

Greg and I made a point of dropping campaign lit in every mailbox (don't do this. it's illegal. on the doorknob is cool) in our zone, even non-targeted houses, so that people could see the effort the campaign was making in really reaching out to everyone. Many of those were strong GOP households, and many will just toss the paper. However, some will remember that this Democratic candidate bothered to stop by their house even though he had slim to no chance of winning them over.


BE OVERLY RESPECTFUL, AND LISTEN FIRST


As a volunteer for someone's campaign, you represent them. There are things I've written on this blog, among a community of people who generally agree with me, that I could and would never say to a stranger in their home. I don't know their context and quite frankly, my anger (at Clinton over race-baiting for example) could turn off someone who's unaware of the full situation. Consider how Obama himself might deal with someone, especially a hostile person, and try your best to represent that grace and savvy. Think tai chi, not boxing.

Before launching into my case, I learned to ask people what they care about. There may be no point in spouting off for several minutes on Iraq if the only thing they care about is health care. Depending on their answer, you can put together an answer that explains Obama's position, experience and contrasts with Clinton.

I also caution you not to take the bait when dealing with people who just hate Hillary, especially Republicans. We came across two strongly anti-Hillary Republicans. The first was a man who said, "I'm voting for Obama. I'll do whatever it takes to keep that bitch out of office." I mean dude was hateful. His wife said she wasn't sure who she'd vote for, and he jumped in, "Don't you dare vote for that woman." The other was a woman who said, "There's just something about her. I don't normally care about politics, but she brings out the worst in me." When I pressed her on what exactly got her so upset about Hillary, she said simply, "She's Bill's wife." In cases like these, just let it go. No need to pile on or inflame such negativity. Obama's victory need not depend on Hillary's negatives. He's a strong, and I think superior, candidate in his own right. Play up that angle as much as possible.

KNOW A LOT ABOUT YOUR CANDIDATE

I think we've all learned from Kirk Watson the danger of being unprepared to take a tough question. At a minimum, you must know all the information you're handing to these people. If it's a one pager, read it, and know it before you give it to someone. Read Obama's Blueprint For Change, and bring a copy with you for reference. In fact, I care so much that you come correct, that I've put together this Obama canvassing pack. It's got one-pagers of info (Spanish too), posters and music to blast in your car as you roll.


YOU CANNOT PLEASE EVERYONEGoing door to door you are a salesman. There are good salesmen and bad ones. A bad one will sell you something you don't need and lie about the product. A good one will know when to walk away because he knows this product isn't right for you. You will be tempted. You'll have someone on the ropes, and they'll ask you something like, "does he believe in killing babies?" You can't bend this. I've been amazed at the range of opinion among Americans and even more amazed that anyone can become president in a nation with such varied views.Liberals have accosted me for what they think is Obama's half-hearted heath care plan, meanwhile moderates or conservatives fear that he'll expand the size of government and reduce their medical choices. How can anyone please all these audiences?I won't give you my responses to questions on specific issues (although I have some good ones). There' not enough time, so I want to focus on the big picture stuff.

Here's how I make my case. Feel free to adapt it for your own needs. This is written as me talking to a voter. Stuff in parentheses are my notes to you, the blog reader.

HOW TO ANSWER THE "LACK OF EXPERIENCE" ARGUMENT

(I touched on this in an earlier post, but it bears repeating.)

I hear this a lot, and I'm happy to address it. I'm just curious, where did you get the idea that he doesn't have experience? (they always say the news. always. always.)

Have you visited his website? (they never have. ever. ever. make it easy for them...)

Here, take this one-pager. (PDF) It gives an overview of 11 issues and what Obama has done plus a summary of his plans.

(This is so important. Most folks are mad busy. They have limited time to themselves and are busy with their kids, jobs and often precarious financial situation. If you're lucky, they scan the front page of the newspaper, but mostly, they watch television, and mainstream television is quite possibly the worst medium for delivering accurate and complete information. Give them a piece of paper. There's no typing, searching or logging in. Back to building the case...)

If you really value what you call experience, you don't have a candidate. Bill Richardson represented experience to the fullest. He is a governor, served in the cabinet as energy secretary and was ambassador to the United Nations. Chris Dodd put in a lot of time as did Joe Biden. All of these people are out of the race, so let's deal with the two left on the Democratic side.

Obama has spent more time in elected office, accountable to voters, than Hillary
. She likes to claim "35 years of experience" versus him as "a first term Senator," and she says it so often you start to believe it, but he spent eight years in the Illinois legislature and three years in the US Senate. That's 11 years versus 7 in the US Senate for Hillary. Working in the state legislature is important. Legislatures must balance the budget, deal with crime, economic development and more. Hillary no doubt has been around quite a while, but she was often an observer, advisor or policy wonk. She as sat on many commissions, but rarely faced the threat of losing her job if her ideas failed.

Obama got significant things done in Illinois
. My best example is reform of the death penalty. You might recall that 13 people on death row were found to be innocent by DNA evidence. The Republican governor put a moratorium on executions. Whether you are pro- or anti-death penalty, you agree that innocent people should not be killed. A big part of innocent people ending up on death row is that their confessions are coerced by corrupt police. Chicago is notorious for police corruption. So what did Obama do? He proposed video taping all confessions in capitol cases.

  • First of all this solution demonstrates very clear analytical abilities. He didn't say let's completely get rid of the death penalty, nor did he propose to do nothing. The problem was that the governor, prosecutors and police were adamantly opposed and felt such tapings would tie the hands of the police (not a bad idea actually :)), yet Obama worked and got the bill passed unanimously. How?

  • It was that talking-to-your-enemies thing that Hillary likes to deride so much. He played poker, smoked cigars, and generally went on a diplomatic offensive and got all of his initial opponents to agree with him. (You might also talk about his work on ethics reform or children's health insurance, but I prefer the death penalty because it's such an emotional issue).



Experience goes beyond holding public office, and here is where I think Obama has unique advantages over Hillary
. He worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. It's important to understand what that means. A community organizer's first job is to listen. He went door to door, often rejected by people who thought it was a waste of time to try to change things, and he listened to what their problems were, identified common concerns and helped mobilize them to improve their situation. The spirit of his community organizing days lives on in his campaign and would also exist in his administration. Imagine the benefits of having someone with such respect for grassroots organizing sitting in the White House

Beyond his state legislative experience, he was a civil rights attorney and constitutional law professor. Given the abuses we've seen with illegal wire-tapping and imprisonment of even US citizens without charging them with a crime, wouldn't it be nice to have a president who had a deep understanding of the Constitution?

In the US Senate he immediately got to work. He partnered with Republican Dick Lugar to combat proliferation of nuclear weapons (very important in these days of terrrr). He passed significant ethics legislation in the form of lobbyist reform and he passed the "Google for Government" bill which lets anyone go to USAspending.gov and see where the government is spending your money. You can go there right now, type in Halliburton and see how much money you're giving them with your tax dollars.

If you want the best example of his experience, look no further than his campaign. Remember that Obama is someone introduced to the national scene only four years ago. He had no name recognition, organization or fundraising machine. He is running against a 16-year arsenal established by both Hillary and Bill Clinton, a former president wildly popular with Democrats. Despite this lopsided battle, Obama is winning. He has more money, donors, votes, delegates, states and a wider margin of victory. He has done this under attacks that question his qualifications, patriotism, religion, and race. He has done this almost entirely without returning negative fire. You don't hear about Obama campaign workers and surrogates resigning for spreading nasty emails or having to apologize repeatedly for sexist statements. Obama is in charge of a 700-person operation, and it's performing almost flawlessly. If Hillary's 35 years of experience (and 12 year head start) are so valuable, why is she losing?

(optional item for those who have a severe distrust of any politician)

More time in the system is not necessarily a good thing. I assume that the longer and higher you are in politics, the more you become separated from the lives and concerns of the governed. You cannot help it. A bubble is built around you by advisors and staffers and lobbyists and money people, and before you know it you're wholly disconnected from "the average American." Michelle Obama put it best when she said, "we're still close to normal." It wasn't that long ago that the Obamas were paying off student loans. If longevity in politics generally means you're more corrupted then Obama is far less corrupt than Hillary.

Closer: I'm happy to discuss with you his experience versus Hillary's experience, but it's just not right to say that he doesn't have experience.

The last guy we visited in Virginia was an adamant supporter of Hillary. The first words out of his mouth were "You're at the wrong house. I'm not giving a dime to Obama." Ouch. When we asked why, he said, "He has no substance. Maybe in four or eight years I could vote for him. He needs more experience." Over the course of 10 very cold minutes, we employed the techniques above. When I asked him where he got his info, he actually said, "I see it all over the news. I read something by Joe Klein. He said Obama has no experience." When I asked if he had gone to Obama's website to verify this, he admitted he had not.

That's when I hit him with the one-pager. Slowly, the view of the world to which he had committed himself (35 years vs. No Experience) was crumbling, and he was visibly upset about it. We were forcing him to integrate new information, and that was changing his mind and possibly his vote. I'm sure he still voted for Hillary, but I'm also sure that he was shaken that day and that the "no experience" claim to which he had been subjected had lost much of its power over him.

As I said above, I could go on for a while on particular issues and how I talk about them, but it's mad late, and I'm tired. Instead, I'll offer one more suggestion that has made a significant difference in me connecting with people.

Last bit of advice.

HAVE YOUR OWN STORY

You will need to fill this in for yourself, but it's important that you have a personal story. I found that people respond most strongly to my "testimony" if you will. It goes something like this

I have rarely felt like a full member of American society and hardly ever considered myself an "American." This country has done so much dirt, not just to my people but people around the world, that I've taken some pride in distancing myself from it. Obama is the first national politician to make me feel this invested again and to make me feel like an American.

I've read both of his books, and especially in his first one, he gets America. He articulates this country's history, through his own family history, in such a compelling way that I think the book should be part of school curricula.

I think he brings unique and valuable experiences to the presidency including a respect for grassroots activism due to his community organizing, time as professor of Constitutional law, Illinois state legislator, US Senator and head of one of the most well-run presidential campaigns in memory. I also think he's run a far more positive and effective campaign than Senator Clinton.

My faith in his presidency is not merely in him as a smart, decent and exceptional person, but in his ability to galvanize the American people into doing more to reclaim their society and their government. He not only talks about this but offers to the tools to realize increased civic engagement with a revolutionary plan for government transparency and technology innovation. If you follow the money behind him, it's increasingly clear that he is backed less by corporate interests (although they still exist) and more by a massive base of ordinary citizens.

If he gets elected, it will be because of us. If his administration is successful, it will be because we picked up the tools he planted for us and used them both to hold him accountable -- what politician directly offers voters tools to hold him accountable?? -- and to better this country and collectively get about the business of solving our problems.

If we fail to do so, then so be it, and it wasn't meant to be. But I'm standing here now because I believe we can find common ground, because I believe citizens who ignore their government lock themselves out of the process at their peril and because I believe we can make a difference. In this election, we are being offered a rare opportunity to play a significant role in the way our country is run. In most elections, it's the politician who is being tested, over their knowledge, positions on issues, etc. In this election, I think we are the ones being tested.

We are the ones we've been waiting for.