what i learned going door to door for obama in ypsilanti township

I spent this afternoon walking around Ypsilanti Township, knocking on doors, registering voters, and talking with folks about Barack Obama. For the most part, it was an unbelievably positive experience. (I would recommend it to anyone.) There were, of course, some conversations that didn’t go as well as I would have liked, but, on the whole, I’m glad that I did it, and I fully anticipate doing more of it in the coming month.

I don’t enjoy going door to door. Truth be told, I don’t like people. If not for George Bush, I wouldn’t be engaging you right now, though this blog. Without George Bush, it’s likely that I would have made my way through life as an adult without ever having engaged a stranger in conversation. I guess I should be thankful, in some bizarre way, that he came along and forced me out of my shell.

It’s amazing what people are capable of when they think their children are being put in danger. I’ve read about people lifting cars up off of infants. I started talking to people.

As someone who deals with anxiety issues, it’s never easy, but the more you do it, the better it goes.

Now, I want to tell you about three people. They’re all people I met in Ypsi Township today. And, they’re all people I plan to go back and speak with again. If, based on what I tell you, you have thoughts as to how I might want to direct our future conversations, please leave a comment.

The man who is voting for McCain, but doing so regretfully… This is a big, friendly, white guy — probably about 50. He was working in his garage, when his wife led me back to meet him. He shook my hand and we chatted for about ten minutes. He came across as extremely thoughtful. He acknowledged that the last eight years have not been good ones for the United States or for Michigan, and he wants change, but he can’t bring himself to vote for Obama.

He says that he grew up in a family of Democrats, but that, as a man of faith, he’s felt more aligned with the Republicans. He says that he wished there were more political parties, or that Ron Paul was electable. He says that he’d like to vote against McCain, but that he can’t. When asked specifically why, he said, “embryonic stem cell research.” I shared with him my understanding that Barack Obama is a man of faith with deeply held beliefs, but decided not to pursue the subject of stem cell research, how the embryos used would be destroyed regardless, and how the research could lead to incredible scientific discoveries. I told him that I respected his position, that I could see the decision weighed heavily on his mind, and that I hoped he could, in the coming weeks, reconsider his decision.

The elderly woman that is still tentatively leaning toward Obama, in spite of her friend that keeps telling her how horrible he is… This woman is very old and frail. She was outside sweeping her sidewalk when I walked up and introduced myself. I asked if she needed to request an absentee ballot, and she told me that she already had, but that she didn’t think it had come yet. We chatted for a moment about the state of the world, and I told her, if she wasn’t already planning to vote for Obama, I’d like to tell her why I think he’d make a better President than John McCain. She said that she didn’t want to see a continuation of the last 8 years, and that she was leaning toward Obama. And that’s when her friend, who came across like Bill O’Reilly in drag, came around the corner to join us.

Everything we discussed from then on, the friend would chime in to blame the Democrats. The credit crisis, we were informed, was the fault of Bill Clinton, who had wanted all the poor to have homes. And the fact that Bush hadn’t done anything worth a damn while in office was the fault of the Democrats in Congress, who stopped him at every turn. I conceded that the financial meltdown was the fault of both parties, and the lobbyists who pull their strings, but pointed out that it didn’t just happen because the poor were being given mortgages. I mentioned, for instance, that a large percentage of people loosing their homes were gainfully employed, but, due to astronomical healthcare costs, couldn’t afford to keep their homes. And I reminded her that, for the first 6 years of Bush’s Presidency, he had a Republican Congress. At that point, she changed the subject to Obama’s radical black Reverend and how he preached the gospel of, “God Damn America.” The elderly woman said, “But I thought Obama condemned what he said,” which caused the other woman to throw her hands up and say, “You just wait until he’s in White House.” And, this friend was certain that the election was going to be stolen by the Democrats in Ohio. She said that they’d tried to steal it last time, but that the Republicans had stopped them. I mentioned the illegality of the Republican methods used in Ohio, and offered to send her information, but she wouldn’t hear anything of it.

In the end, I was able to find some common ground by saying, “I think we can all agree that the folks in Washington haven’t been looking out for the best interests of the middle class. Whoever gets elected, we need to stay on him, and demand better. We need to organize our communities, stay informed, and hold our elected officials accountable.” They wholeheartedly agreed. “And,” I said, “I personally think we’ve got a better chance with Barack Obama than with John McCain, who seems to agree with George Bush on just about everything, from the economy, which he said just a few weeks ago was “fundamentally strong,” to the war in Iraq. I don’t think we can afford four more years of the same.” We said our goodbyes, and I left another absentee ballot application with the woman whose home it was, telling her that, regardless of who she wanted to support, I could come back later to pick it up later, if she’d fill it out.

I don’t know how much sway the younger, bullying friend had, but my sense was that the older woman would sooner not vote than stand up to the woman who brought her groceries.

The young African American woman who’s leaning toward McCain… It doesn’t surprise me at all when I meet women who aren’t supporting of Palin, but, for some reason, I can’t seem to have the same open-mindedness when it comes to black folks who don’t support Obama. With Palin, after all, it makes some sense on a logical level. She doesn’t support a woman’s right to choose. Hell, she even charged women in Alaska for the kits used by physicians after incidents of rape. I can’t, on the other hand, think of anything that Obama’s done to alienate the African American community. I don’t believe he’s sought to charge them, for instance, for reporting hate crimes. And, even if he weren’t the ideal candidate in their eyes, the guy on the other side of the ticket surely isn’t any better. But that’s the beauty of America. People can vote however they like, even if it might not make sense to me.

So, after she told me that, if she voted, she’d probably vote for McCain, we chatted. She told me that she’d voted for Bush in the last two elections. And, when I asked if she’d been pleased with his performance, she said, “No.” I said, “Well, maybe it’s time to try something new, and give someone else a try.” She agreed. I suggested that maybe someone with a background working in struggling communities like ours might be a good choice, and she nodded. I asked what issues mattered most to her, and she said that she didn’t feel qualified to vote, as she wasn’t really up to speed on what the issues were. I told her that I could sympathize — that we’re all having a hard time just keeping food on the table and the lights on. I asked her, however, to try to make some time to watch the remaining debates and keep an open mind. She said that she would. And, I added, “If you cared enough about the country to get registered, and to vote in the last two elections, don’t stop now.”

I got the sense that she wanted to vote for Obama, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Maybe it was abortion. She didn’t say. But, the sense that I got was that she knew that she’d been wrong to vote for Bush previously, and now, rather than admit it, and change parties, she just wouldn’t vote. When I go back, I think I’m going to tell her that just because she votes for a Democrat this time, it doesn’t mean that she can’t vote against them next time.

I had dozens of good conversations, but these were the three that really stuck with me. These were the ones where I think I could have said something to make a difference, but just couldn’t find the right words. These three people all wanted to vote for Obama, but just couldn’t quite make the leap. I suspect the same thing is happening all around the United States at this very moment. The one big thing I learned is that no one is enthusiastic about McCain – even people with signs in their yards.

The most discouraging part of going door to door in the Township wasn’t the McCain supporters. It was the number of houses that had been foreclosed on, the number of houses that are fenced off, and the number of people who I could see peaking through their windows suspiciously at me. There’s a very real sense of fear out there in the community. Maybe it’s justified to some extent, but I can’t imagine that the isolation is good for one’s soul. I wonder if we could ever have an optimistic society where people aren’t motivated primarily by fear. If we could turn that corner, I think that Democrats might start winning.

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  1. Mark H.
    Posted October 5, 2008 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Mark, thank you for this thoughtful account of the door to door work. It’s a snapshot of democracy in action. The foreclosed home stories are a national disgrace, and they’re gonna get worse, i fear.

    Your account of the pro-McCain Black woman reminds me of a story that the late Rev. Iberius Hacker – a white radical community organizer in the Appalachian neigbhorhoods of Chicago — told me circa 1980. It’s probably a made up story, but a good one nonetheless: Iberius said that in 1970 or ’71 he and Ralph Abernathy (Dr. King’s closest friend and sucessor as head of the SCLC after King’s murder) were talking someplace in Atlanta and observed a number of Black men in expensive suits walking by, and Abernathy said “The Movement’s success made their success possible, but they don’t know it, and some of them are becoming Republicans. They’re just selfish or contrarian, or both and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Since around 1960, between 8 and 9 of 10 Black voters have gone Democratic. Some will vote for McCain just because everyone else is voting for Obama. The urge not to conform or be part of a pack is not an altogether bad thing. But the woman you meet today is, I am sure, part of a demographically insignificant grouping – pro-McCain Blacks — and maybe she was just covering up for beng unregistered or uninterested or both.

    A Black woman who my mother worked with on the nightshift at the VA used to tease my mother – a dyed in the wool Democrat, an anti-racist white southerner – that “I am voting for Ronald Reagan, Judy, I go with the winners.” She maintained that claim for over a year, from before Reagan was elected to long after he was in the White House, before breaking down and telling my mother that of course she hated Reagan and voted against him; but she couldn’t resist provoking my mother into a righteous attack on Reagan and all his evils.

    My point? Don’t worry about the stray contrarian you encountered tonight. And thanks for doing your bit for reclaiming America.

  2. Posted October 5, 2008 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Fetuses are much further along than embryos. No one proposes stem cell research on fetuses. As for embryonic, it’s far from clear whether McCain would actually oppose it were he elected.

    As for the old lady, perhaps a reminder that it’s a secret ballot, and she’s accountable to no one but her conscience, would be helpful.

  3. Brackache
    Posted October 5, 2008 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    I don’t vote for someone because they share a similar shade of skin color to mine. Why should anyone? I don’t get it.

  4. Dan
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    Just remember, if you succeed in putting Nobabma in the White House, this is the list of friends he will be bringing with him:

    William Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, Father Michael Flager, Tony Rezko, Lewis Farrakhan

    Did you discuss this going door to door?

  5. Chelsea
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    I’m with Ace on the old lady thing: Tell her she can vote for whomever she wants. True friendships can survive political differences. (At least, that’s been the case for me.)

    But now you might need to re-convince *me:* What’s this about Obama and Farrakhan?

  6. mark
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Absolutely right. I meant embryonic stem cell. I’ll change it… And, yes, Brackache, I agree that it’s silly to think that someone would vote for a person just because of his of her skin color. I certainly won’t be voting for McCain just because I’m an angry old white man given to fits of rage.

  7. Brackache
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    That’s migraine brain seeds for ya. I saw on a movie once where Jack Nicholson had a similar problem, so he drilled a hole in his forehead and covered the hole up with a picture of an eye so the spirits wouldn’t be able to find their way back in. Seemed to work okay.

  8. Posted October 6, 2008 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I think the last part was a bit of a reach. I don’t answer the door to anyone with a clipboard out of fear. It’s usually a combination of not being in the mood for a debate and saving them from the 80 pound dog.

  9. Guesty McGuesterson
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Just a quick weigh-in on McCain and Obama’s record re: stem cell research.

    Both candidates voted in favor of HR 810 / S5, a bipartisan effort passed twice in the US house and senate (and vetoed by Bush twice) for embryonic stem cell research.
    Both McCain and Obama voted YES.
    So there’s no difference between the candidates there.

    That said, please vote YES on Prop 2.

  10. Oliva
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Despite McCain’s past yes votes on embryonic stem cell research legislation, he has apparently changed his position during the presidential campaign (this from one of many recent news stories describing his present position):

    Republican presidential nominee John McCain would criminalize a promising branch of stem cell research, according to a statement issued by the candidate’s campaign. Though such legislation would probably not survive Congress, he might extend President Bush’s much-criticized limitation of embryonic stem cell research.

    “I read the statement as a bad omen for stem cell research under a McCain administration,” said George Daley, a leukemia researcher at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

    . . .In his statement, McCain at first claimed to support ESC research. However, he said “clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress” — a qualification that disturbed many scientists and bioethicists with its ambiguity.

    McCain also took a harder line than the Bush administration with somatic cell nuclear transfer, better known as therapeutic cloning — a cutting-edge process that could some day provide personalized embryonic stem cell therapies. Though currently legal, McCain would outlaw the technique.

    The new stance is an abrupt reversal for the Arizona senator. As recently as 2007, McCain appeared to favor embryonic stem cell research more strongly than most of the Republican party, especially its most religiously conservative members. “I believe that we need to fund this,” he said during a presidential candidates’ debate in May 2007.

    Since then, he’s become steadily cagier in his support, courting Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, an ardent opponent of all ESC research, and avoiding discussion of ESCs in favor of alternative cell types. Those familiar with the debate interpreted McCain’s latest platform, which framed his support in the language of research opponents, as a signal that President Bush’s research-limiting policies may continue.

    “He cannot be trusted to be a supporter of embryonic stem cell research,” said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan. “He is moving toward a straight pro-life stance and this sort of answer can only be read as such.”

    . . . Under President Bush’s policy, SCNT is denied federal funding, but still legal. McCain would make it “a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes.”

    “I am researching SCNT and so would be considered a criminal if McCain gets his way,” said the Harvard researcher Daley. “It’s a sad society that starts criminalizing legitimate science.”

    Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology, noted that the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Medical Association all support SCNT. McCain “would fine and/or imprison scientists for this work,” said Lanza.

    from 16 Sept. 2008

  11. Brackache
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    If Conservatives are stupid enough to fall for McCain’s phoney 11th hour suck-up attempts, they deserve what they get. Especially after 8 years of finding out Bush was not the small government Conservative he made himself out to be.

  12. Posted October 6, 2008 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    “If Conservatives are stupid enough to fall for McCain’s phoney 11th hour suck-up attempts, they deserve what they get. Especially after 8 years of finding out Bush was not the small government Conservative he made himself out to be.”

    11th hour suck up? Obama flip flops more than anyone.

    All these radical friends of his and then all of a sudden “Oh gee…I don’t like them anymore!” But I’m sure you don’t want to discuss any of that. Also why are you libs always comparing McCain with Bush? You never mention the last impeached democrat whore that was the laughing stock of America. I sure don’t want another 8 years of that.

  13. Posted October 6, 2008 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    At least McCain doesn’t associate with domestic terrorist that target their own country.

  14. Ed
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Dude, you crack me up. I expect this nonsense from the rest of the yahoos, but I thought you knew better.

  15. Posted October 6, 2008 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    It was a joke on the crap that Sarah Palin was spewing this weekend.

  16. EoS
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 2:53 pm | Permalink


    Somatic cell nuclear transfer is the technique that produces clones – both therapeutic and reproductive. If the result of SCNT is allowed to grow in a petri dish for 2-3 days it can be implanted in a woman’s womb to develop for 9 months and a baby is born. Or, after 2-3 days in the petri dish, it can be torn apart to isolate embryonic stem cells.

    Adult stem cells are the most promising for therapeutic treatments. Many of the leading stem cell researchers have stated this and are focusing all their efforts using adult cells.

    Proposal 2 will be on the state-wide November ballot and if passed, would allow unrestricted scientific experimentation on living human embryos. Proposal 2 would free human embryo researchers from any state oversight, potentially turning research in Michigan into a Nazi-like plethora of human genetic experimentation.

    Embryos shouldn’t be created for research purposes. Human life is too valuable to be toyed with in a scientist’s test tube. Adult stem cells provide therapeutic treatments. Embryonic stem cells provide a substrate for scientists to manipulate and potentially destroy mankind’s gene pool.

    Vote NO ON PROP 2!

  17. babyeater
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Kill more babies!!! Vote YES on Proposition 2!!

  18. Brackache
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m a lib who won’t point out Obama’s faults, Dan?

    You ain’t from around here, are ya?

    I assert that these two politicians are different only on the surface. They have different rhetoric to whip up their different target audiences, but both share the same basic philosophy of big interventionist Government that has brought this economic disaster on us (evidenced by their both voting for the bailout). Furthermore, neither will be able to save us from this economic avalanche that that bad philosophy and delusion has created.

    Therefore, I’m convinced that this is one of the least important Presidential elections in history.

  19. Posted October 6, 2008 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    mark, you’re a braver man than me. I’ve been volunteering at the Obama office, but mainly doing data entry & reminder calls.

  20. js
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    “ou never mention the last impeached democrat whore that was the laughing stock of America. I sure don’t want another 8 years of that.”

    Yeah, man, those eight years of growth and prosperity were terrible. Thank God Bush restored dignity to the White House! No one laughs at him!

    Mark—Here’s the cynical answer for your folks:

    #1: Encourage him to vote for Ron Paul, or maybe don’t vote at all. That’s still one fewer for McCain, and Ron Paul has no hope. Tell him he can always write in Mickey Mouse or his own name. Sure, concede, it’d be great if he looked at Obama’s positions (helpfully direct him to Obama’s website or give him some lit), but if he can’t bring himself to, well, at least he hasn’t voted for that evil lizard.

    #2: Yeah, mention secret ballots, and encourage her to think of Obama in terms of hope for a younger generation. FDR helped in her time—he was a Dem; we need the same kind of help now—vote Dem. It’s specious logic, but it makes emotional sense. As for the neighbor, make fun of her out of earshot for being out of touch. Watch your tone, though, you want this to seem like a secret moment with your friend, the old woman, where you’re like, well, I love my neighbor Donny (or whatever your neighbor’s name is), but he’s crazy! Great guy, glad he’s not voting.

    #3: Don’t vote. Lay the rap about how you should be an informed voter and how people who aren’t informed shouldn’t vote on her, and half-heartedly give her some literature or websites where she can get informed. That subtle anti-voting message is probably the best you could do; you might also consider sending a black woman (or black man or non-black woman) to talk to her. Folks can be mighty suspicious of what a white man comes to tell them. But this is one of those times when you can talk up what you’ve done right—become educated on the issues, and imply that because you’ve done the work that being a citizen requires, you’re sure you’re doing the right thing. She hasn’t, so she should either do the work (and come out for Obama) or not bother and not vote.

    (And yes, you scattered princes of Republican virtue, these are all arguments based on emotion and fallacy, but hell, anyone who was gonna be convinced by logic already has been.)

  21. Oliva
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    “Human life is too valuable to be toyed with.”
    Taking this part of EoS’s line, and out of context, I will agree wholeheartedly–as a passionate exclamation of why it’s time to reclaim our country (to borrow from a certain NJ songster and fine American).

    Bruce Springsteen was absolutely wonderful, big loving heart. The gray clouds rolled away, leaving a quite heavenly sky and sunshine upon the stage and the smiling crowd. The Detroit papers put the crowd at 11,000.

  22. Posted October 8, 2008 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mark,
    Reading about the first encounter you listed here reminded me of an essay recently written by Y.A. author John Green which explores the reasons why faith and science could and should coexist in the eyes of the faithful and why Barack Obama, in Green’s eyes, is the better candidate for those of faith. Perhaps his insight will help you construct an approach to talking with this man.

    Best of luck and thanks for doing such important work!

  23. designated republican
    Posted October 8, 2008 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had some success with recommending Ralph Nader as a progressive alternative to Senator Obama. At least (in comparison to Ron Paul), Mr. Nader is actually on the ballot in 45 states.

  24. not one of the cool kids
    Posted October 8, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    So sick of all this stem cell, abortion, gay marriage, pot smoking BS. Lets work on making our neighborhoods, our towns and our country friendly, humanitarian places to live, and quit blowing these topics out of proportion that affect less then 2% of the population.

  25. Brackache
    Posted October 8, 2008 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Ron Paul’s not running. That might explain why he’s not on the ballot. And writing him in won’t count.

    I’m a little leery of Barr (Libertarian) and Baldwin (Constitution). Ron Paul endorsed Baldwin, in case the dozen people interested didn’t know that yet somehow. There’s a big schism in the Ron Paul supporter ranks about it (among a million other things).

    I’ll vote for one or the other as a protest vote, seeing as how they won’t win anyway, so why worry if they’re imperfect? Just to let the biopoly parties know they can kiss my ass from now on.

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