Iowa – Canvassing
Perfect Storm HQ
Locust Street, Des Moines, IA
I am exhausted, and all I did today was walk. My team was assigned two parts of a precinct in Ankeny; we barely finished half of one. It’s not a matter of inexperience or lack of skills. It’s just too damn cold to think.
Our high today was about 8, but the wind chill took that down to thirty below testicle-shrinking. It was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life, so cold it hurt. The inside of my head froze every time I breathed through my scarf. The cold cut through my layers, making impossible to think. When I started, I was really in mood to knock on doors and ask people if they were going to caucus. But now, I know we’re doomed. Even I wouldn’t go unless there was some way I could get from house to car to caucus site without ever having to expose myself to the wind.
The problem is that Iowa has no windbreaks. It’s just flat from one end to the other. Yes, there may be some gentle, rolling hills, but all that does is give the wind something to play with as it blasts down from the Arctic and into my shorts. The wind probably goes just a bit faster because it knows it’s not going to run into any trees, and the ones it does find are barren of leaves and pose no threat.
All the same, we weren’t in the mood to let the weather beat us. Despite the cold, my team just went and got to it.
Everyone seemed to have a “get to it” attitude. It started the minute I got off the plane and found the guy holding the Dean For America sign. Michael, who looked like he was 21 and was probably 17, had been here for a month and was full of piss and vinegar. We roared off in a rented van to downtown Des Moines, where Dean staffers had taken over two adjacent buildings on Locust Street. Kerry’s HQ was two blocks west; Edwards’s was two north. Gephardt’s was in West Des Moines. If it had been warmer, we could have launched water balloons at each other.
HQ called this weekend the Perfect Storm, as all of us out-of-staters descended on Iowa with the hurricane force to knock the other candidates out of the water. Granted, everyone died at the end of The Perfect Storm, but no one wanted to be the first to mention it. We were too excited. 3,500 Dean supporters were supposed to show up to do the most unglamorous part of elections: canvassing.
A canvas works like this: you’re given a list of registered voters in an area, and you go to as many of them as possible, asking if they’re planning on to going to caucus and who they’re planning on supporting. The idea is to identify the people who are Dean supporters and make it as easy as possible for them to get to caucus. You offer them rides, tell them about child care, pass on literature about how the caucus works, everything short of dragging them out into the cold. Anyone who’s enthusiastic about going is sheer gold to a campaign, and you court them until caucus is done.
You also find out who’s going for someone else and how firm they lean. Say you talk to someone who says he likes Dean and Kerry and isn’t quite sure which one he’ll support. If you think this guy will be receptive to a pitch, you give it. You find out what he likes about Kerry, what concerns him, and then you point out that, no, Dean feels the same way about national defense, Dean’s got a stronger position on healthcare, Dean much prefers milk chocolate over dark. If you can sell, you do.
If, however, you talk with someone who doesn’t seem like they’re gonna tilt your way, you thank them for your time and move on. It’s more productive to find ten supporters than to convert one voter, or so we’ve been told again and again. Canvassers need to move, need to mark off their data, need to get it back to HQ. Bam. Knock on the door, talk with the people, drop some lit, leave a door hanger saying where their caucus will be held, move on. Repeat until out of addresses or energy or both.
So, let’s set the scene: I leap out of the shuttle, tired but charged up, and hustle into the volunteer HQ. We volunteers were called Storm Chasers, which certainly sounded better than The Doomed Crew From The Perfect Storm. After checking in, I got a wrist band that gave me clearance to wander HQ, a credential that gave me permission to look at everyone’s chests when I’d forgotten their names, and a bright orange watch cap that made me look like a traffic cone. It was a hell of a sight to see a room full of orange caps, all warming up over coffee and donuts.
There were also people running around in yellow and red caps. Yellow was for staffers and interns, the people who ran the show but were still unpaid volunteers. The red caps were the paid staffers, the press secretaries, the communications people.
We immediately forgot names and focused on the colors: if you had a problem, you found a yellow cap or were told to talk to a yellow. If you saw a red, which was rare, you usually asked how things were going. All of us oranges milled around until the yellows herded newcomers into training. If you’d come on your own, like I had, you just asked people to join their canvass group. A team would form around whomever had a car or who had checked out a van for the day. Someone would navigate and divvy up the walk sheets, the lists of voters whom we’d be canvassing.
By pure luck, I hooked up with a group from California. By even weirder luck, I’d met two of them before. Mark was at an organizing meeting I’d gone to at UCLA, and Carol was someone I’d called back in December about precinct work in Santa Monica. With them was Rosie, whose husband was head of the California Trial Lawyers Association, and therefore an Edwards fundraiser. Rosie couldn’t give money, but she figured she could contribute by coming to Iowa. Last in our group was Phoebe, who was from North Carolina and had glommed on with us after training. Mark had the car, so we got our walk sheets, a mountain of lit, and we headed out into the biting wind.
Ankeny is a middle-class bedroom community north of Des Moines. It’s the kind of place where retired machinists and young insurance people live. I had a feeling these weren’t our people, and that suspicion was confirmed as we drove the neighborhood and saw a smattering of Edwards signs. Nothing for Gephardt, a handful of Kerry signs, and one or two Dean signs. This was not going to be a good day, and it didn’t help that the wind had picked up and threatened to tear our faces off.
We sorted through the sheets and split them up among the two parts of the precinct we’d be walking. We tried our best to organize them, but were stymied by imperfect maps. The southern and central parts of our map were the older parts of the precinct, and all the streets were lined up in a grid. The northern part was much newer, probably built in the 90s. The lots were big, which meant a lot of space between houses, and the streets meandered, which meant we didn’t know where the hell a lot of places were. Streets would be cut off by people’s yards, making it difficult to canvass in straight lines. And the wind had not abated.
We started hitting the houses, and we found our gut feelings were right: people were now going to be supporting Edwards and Kerry over Dean. The previous few weeks had seen a lot of attack ads between Dean and Gephardt, and they’d turned voters off from both camps. Edwards had taken the high route, pledging to stay positive and focus only on his message. Kerry had been able to take the high road, too, as some of Dean’s ads were not only cutting into Gephardt, but into Kerry and Edwards as well.
We left a lot of door hangers. We marked down a lot of sheets as not going or not leaning. We talked with some very kind people who weren’t going to come to our side, but were impressed that we were out in the cold. One guy was downright pleasant as he said, no, he’s going for Edwards, but he likes Dean all right, even though his union had told him to go with Gephardt, but it’d still be Edwards. We thanked him for his time and hit the next house.
After three hours of this, we were tired and hungry and freezing. Even Phoebe, who was actually born and raised in Iowa and, therefore, used to this kind of weather, admitted it was bad outside. We went to a nearby Village Inn, a local version of Denny’s, and ordered up chili and pie. We stood out in our orange hats and Deanaphrenalia, and got some mild hostility from the other customers. No one spit on us, but I could hear conversation die down at the tables near ours as we sat and shed our coats. We were strangers from some freaky place that wasn’t Iowa, and we weren’t welcome.
We looked over our map and saw we’d only covered a quarter of the precinct. The sun was going to go down in a few hours, and, even though HQ said to stay out until 8pm or we were out of houses, we knew that we’d be done by sunset. It’s one thing to knock on doors from late morning ’til late afternoon; it’s another to interrupt someone’s dinner.
We figured the better thing to do would be to find houses where there were a bunch of Democrats, rather than hit the ones that were singles or mixed with independents. Most of those houses were in the southern part of the district, so we paid our tab and headed off, but not without making a stop for vital supplies. Rosie had been very clear that she would not be able to last without brandy in her system, and asked the waiter where we could procure some booze. The Hy-Vee, a local grocery chain, would do the trick. We sped over, Rosie leapt out, and came back with her treasure a few minutes later. I prayed we wouldn’t get pulled over and get nailed for an open container, and Mark’s tendency to park underneath NO PARKING signs and swerve to the other side of the street wouldn’t help.
Our luck didn’t pick up on the south side of Ankeny. We found more people who weren’t home, more who weren’t going, more who weren’t going to support Dean. Morale was sinking, too, until we drove past one house that had a Dean sign on the lawn. As we parked to go over our next street, the owner of the house came outside and waved and cheered. We leapt out of the car to say hi, and we pulled out cameras to get shots of us with our new friend around his lawn sign. He said he was glad to see us, and, yes, he was going to caucus and bringing family and friends. We thanked him for freezing with us and hustled back to the car, marking down houses that had Gephardt and Edwards signs in front.
By now the sun was down, so we decided to call it a day. We looked at our work; we’d hit a quarter of the two hundred pages HQ had given us. The picture those pages painted was not a good one: Dean was not going to do well in Ankeny. We sped back to HQ and dumped off our walk sheets and leftover lit. The yellow hat behind the counter said that there was phone banking going on next door and that they needed bodies. I, however, was too damn tired to interrupt someone’s dinner. I needed some of my own.
I also had to get my housing sorted out; I was supposed to be staying at a winterized scout camp outside of Ames, but the first yellow hat I talked with that morning said, “We’ll have a shuttle for you at the end of the day. Get out and canvass.” Now the yellows were saying, “No, we should have shipped you to Ames first and had you canvass out there.” I was ready to say that unless they had a time machine, that wouldn’t do me much good, but the yellow hat vanished to answer someone else’s question.
I was starting to find one of the problems with our organization: too many privates, too green sergeants, and not enough captains and majors. It was like going into battle with a command staff that’d just gone through basic with the regular grunts, had a few extra classes, and were told to lead the troops. I finally found a yellow hat who told me what I needed to hear: “Go and get dinner, then come back and we’ll switch your housing to someplace near here.”
“Where should I go?” I asked.
“Do ya like Vietnamese?”
I was shocked and surprised to hear that. I’d expect nothing but chop houses. “Hell, yes,” I answered. “I could use some pho right now.”
“Then just go two blocks east and three north. You’ll find the Vietnamese place right across the street from the Kim And Go.”
I was too hungry to make the obvious joke, and too tired to think of what the obvious joke was. I bundled up, kicked open the door, and headed outside to dinner.