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Blank Canvass

By Tim Hayes

Having driven past this little enclave a million times – and that’s an exaggeration, but not that far from reality, actually – I found myself there at last, standing next to a friend, who rapped on the faded, splintered screen door of the rusted trailer home, perched along a muddy bank of the Allegheny River.

Emerging from the dark center of the living room and into the light of the outer porch strode what could only be described as one of the largest, toughest, meanest looking dudes I had ever seen.  Clad in the classic muscle T-shirt, bulging chest and arms in full view, with close-cropped hair and a set of eyes permanently dialed to “pissed off,” he looked at the two of us and said, “What?”

In my mind, the overriding thought was, Back away slowly, and get back to the car before this guy lifts a shotgun, blasts us to pieces, and tosses our bloody chunks in the river.  The perfect crime.

But instead, my friend launched into his well-rehearsed patter.

“Hi, we’re here canvassing for our candidate for Congress…blah, blah, blah…can he count on your vote this November?”

To which this mountain-with-eyeballs simply snorted, “No.”

Okaaaaay, the voice in my head whispered.  This is the part where we cut our losses and skedaddle out of here, right?

“We understand,” my friend said.  “Could we leave you this flyer anyway?  You might like to learn more about our candidate.”

The supremely ripped trailer-dweller opened the screen door, took the brochure, and said, “Yeah, okay.  Thanks.”

Well, you could have knocked me over with a hanging chad.  Welcome to my baptism into the wild, wacky, wonderful world of political canvassing.  A sociologist’s bonanza of unexpected reactions, unanticipated rewards, and unbelievable exhaustion.

The day began in a local resident’s basement game room, converted to command central, where about a dozen seasoned veterans of the canvassing wars – and the lone rookie, yours truly – gathered.  Each person received a manila folder containing his or her “turf” to be covered that afternoon, a carefully compiled listing of individuals by street clusters.

As a newbie to this process, I got paired with my friend and neighbor, who had been canvassing for various candidates for more than 30 years.  A real pro.

The sophistication and specificity of the information disseminated at the launch meeting impressed me greatly.  The turf listings contained names of identified individuals, by gender, age, and party affiliation.  I learned as we walked our turf over the next three hours that at this point in the campaign, the goal was to plumb these particular voters because they were still in the “attainable” category.  As things get closer to Election Day, the targets would sharpen to those voters with the greatest likelihood of supporting the candidate, to guarantee that they actually get to the polls and cast their ballots.

But while all of that strategic stuff sounds great, the tough tactical work still had to be done, moving door-to-door, pamphlets in hand, riding the Shoe Leather Express.

Our turf listing offered a striking dichotomy of income levels and housing options.  We had the riverbank trailer park mentioned earlier, along with a set of century-old brick row houses also in the river valley.  Conversely, we also had a high-income gated community perched on a clifftop high above the river that looked directly down at the valley below.  A Tale of Two Turfs, as it were.

As my friend and I rode from one section of the turf to the next, I asked whether he could anticipate the reactions of people based on where they lived or what their standard of living might be.  He said, “Watch and learn.”

By the end of the afternoon, I had done plenty of both.  And the answer came through loud and clear – there is precious little way to safely predict for whom a person might vote.  There may be hints and educated guesses.  There may be clear declarations for or against, when you’re standing face-to-face.  But in the end it’s still up to the crazy, fickle, occasionally illogical human mind.

My friend explained it like this.  We had information about our candidate.  We were working to convey highlights about him within the 60 seconds somebody answering the door would give us.  Each person could accept that information or not, could engage us in conversation or not, slam the door in our face or not.  But that’s not the end of the engagement.

In politics, there’s always that intangible spark, that unexplainable element.  A candidate or an incumbent either catches the zeitgeist, riding a wave of impressions, perceptions, and assumptions, or not.  It’s more of an art than a science, although to ignore the science would be folly.

Over our three hours together, we walked right into tiny front yards guarded by pit bulls, climbed innumerable stairs to reach doorbells, handed out lots of literature, had some friendly conversations and few clipped ones, and covered quite a lot of ground, literally.  Sixty houses in all.

I made the comment to my friend that we got just as much exercise and spent as much time canvassing together, as we would have done playing a round of golf – and saved ourselves a ton of money in the process.  If Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled,” then canvassing would certainly be “a good walk rewarded.”

In these unique political times, regardless of your stance or which candidates you might support, I encourage you to get personally involved at the local level.  That’s where you can help to create energy, excitement, and change.  After my initiation into door-to-door canvassing, I came home, had something to eat, and promptly crashed, falling dead asleep for two hours.

But exhaustion never felt so good.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes