We can refresh FiveThirtyEight.com, tweet about the latest polls, and argue about who won which debate until the cows come home. But it’s on the streets of towns like Leesburg, Virginia where this election will be decided.
Here’s why: there are undecided voters. Lots of them. They didn’t watch the debates or weren’t swayed by them. They change the channel when political ads come on TV. These are cross-pressured voters who have not made up their minds. And the only way to reach them is at the doors, one-on-one, human being-to-human being.
I went out canvassing with Giordano “Gio” Hardy-Gerena, a Field Manager with Working America. Our task was to identify Obama and Kaine supporters on the winding roads of the Leesburg suburbs. A tribute to Working America’s data operation, we still talked to undecided and leaners on both sides, even on streets where Obama and Romney signs covered their neighbors’ lawns.
“Whenever one of those political ads comes on, I just change the channel,” one man told us on his front porch. Still, when we talked to him, he was interested in talking about the issues, and in comparing the candidates.
Between work, children, and other commitments, many folks in Leesburg just hadn’t had time to consider the election. It’s a fact that Beltway media and politicos scoff at — but ignoring it, or mocking it, or even worse, minimizing the numbers, doesn’t win elections. Not everyone has the time or firehose-exposure to media and politics. One woman with four kids running around her front hall apologized as Gio began his rap: “I’m sorry, it’s homework time.”
Even among voters who had been following the race, support for either candidate was far from solidified. “I’m just tired of the partisanship,” a fifty-something life-long Republican sighed. His job is tied to defense contracting, and like many in the area he’s not too pleased with talk of sequestration. We pointed out George Allen’s record in the Senate, where he racked up the debt that put us in our current fiscal position.
“My wife is probably voting for Kaine,” he said. “Reaching across the aisle right here at home!” I joked, “showing those politicians a good example.” We then were able to talk about Kaine’s bipartisan work as governor, versus Allen’s “my way or the highway” approach in the Bush years.
He was far from the only split-ticket home, which broke all stereotypes: women for Allen and Romney, men for Obama and Kaine, people of color voting straight ticket for the GOP, and pro-lifers strongly considering third-party candidates. This state – and let’s face it this country – doesn’t abide simple political stereotypes.
One of our longer and more frustrating conversations was with a man in a lower-income area of Leesburg, who we will call Jonathan. “I used to live in a big house, drive a nice car…I lost everything because of those thieves on Wall Street,” he said. We tried every angle with him – “you sound like an Obama supporter,” I suggested. We pointed out Wall Street reform, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and pointed out Mitt Romney’s many Wall Street entanglements. But Jonathan wouldn’t commit. In the end, he told us that he’d flip a coin in the voting booth to choose between two “bad choices.”
So what’s the takeaway? TV ads and mailers aren’t going to win the commonwealth of Virginia for Obama and Kaine – nor their opponents for that matter. And while our one-on-one conversations turned many undecided voters into leaners, we need a special ingredient for folks like Jonathan: personal stories.
Involving personal stories into the rap at the door is something Virginia Field Director Dan O’Malley stressed to our organizers in the afternoon briefing. “Instead of just saying that George Allen will end Medicare as we know it, talk about a parent, relative, or someone in your life who relies on those benefits,” he said. And many of them do have those experiences to share—it propels the work they do. “I started talking about how hard it was for me to get healthcare and it really changed the conversation,” said Sarah, a canvasser fresh out of college.
Maybe that tactic didn’t get Jonathan to budge away from his “coin-flip” stance. But in those areas where ads, debates, and 24-hour coverage haven’t made a difference, making the election personal in old school, one-on-one interactions is the only tool in our toolbox that can succeed where Karl Rove’s millions have failed.