More News:

November 07, 2016

I put myself through canvassing bootcamp (in Philly) and emerged a stronger American

Opinion 2016 Presidential Race
11072016_KB_vanHorn_self Photo courtesy/KB VanHorn

Me, sad and alone in the rain in God-knows-where Bucks County.

I recently moved to Philadelphia. In September, I responded to an ad on craigslist that said WORK ON THE ELECTION: FULL AND PART TIME JOBS TO ELECT HILLARY CLINTON and I heard back right away. The next day I took the train into the city for an interview and was hired on the spot. Nevermind that the hourly pay was less than half that of my last job; I was dusting off my ego and going back to work.

That first week was HELL. I totally bombed at my first door in front of my trainer and 3 other trainees. I had the rap down pat when we practiced in the car but when my first door opened to a suspicious and unfriendly lady, my voice quivered and I sputtered a random assortment of the words I had memorized and she looked at me like I was an idiot and said curtly, “I’m voting for Trump and I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” and shut the door. Afterward, my trainer told me he bombed just as bad his first time too, but it gets better.

And it did. My next door was much easier and with every door I knocked on after that I got a little better with my delivery. Still, I couldn’t help but think to myself,

How the hell did I get here, wandering around some random suburb outside Philadelphia knocking on strangers’ doors? I miss my old job leading an after school program in our neighborhood. I miss my old life in Seattle. WHO AM I out here shilling for Hillary when I really wanted Bernie Sanders to be our President? But… (here’s the part where I give myself a pep talk)… I definitely don’t want Donald Trump to lead our country and I don’t want to look back on November 9th and say I didn’t do anything to stop him from winning the election. Also, I need to make some money and put something recent on my resume. I need to be out in the world getting to know my new city. This is not something I’m going to do forever, it’s just for 6 weeks. I can do this.

The next few times I canvassed were in the pouring rain, so I had a lot of thoughts like that. One well-meaning man asked me as I stood there like a wet dog dripping on his porch, “Why in the world would you agree to do a job like this? I would never want to do what you’re doing.” but he answered my questions anyway and wished me luck. To make matters worse, there were tablet glitches and grouchy houses and I completely ruined two pairs of shoes. There were miscommunications with field managers and drivers that resulted in delays in getting picked where I found myself alone in the dark and rain in some town I forget the name of, questioning all the choices I made in life that brought me to this time and place.

But interspersed with those moments were some great conversations and those are what kept me from quitting. One pleasant conversation with a kind person had the power to erase the memory of numerous unfriendly faces. Occasionally someone would tell me, “Thank you for doing this.” and I was encouraged to keep at it.

Canvassing gets a bad rap. It’s true, people usually don’t appreciate random strangers coming up to their door just to talk to them. I discovered though that sometimes people don’t mind; they’re willing to share their opinions with you and happy to engage in a brief conversation about this election. It’s THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISION facing our country right now and people are nervous. Sometimes it helps to articulate these feelings and connect with like-minded citizens. In fact, studies on canvassing have shown that face-to-face interactions can have a lasting effect on an individual’s feelings about and willingness to vote for a candidate.

Our questions were designed to be brief and straightforward. After introducing myself and identifying the independent, non-profit environmental organization I was representing, I asked, “If the election was today, would you vote for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or are you undecided?”

After the person stated their choice I then asked, “Are you firm on that decision, or could you change your mind?”

If they stated they were firm on their decision for Trump or a 3rd party candidate, I skipped to the quick disclaimer message where I restated the organization’s name and added that we were not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee, then smiled and wished them a good day and moved on. It wasn’t our mission to persuade the unpersuadable or try to pick a fight.

If they stated they were firm or leaning Hillary, I revealed that’s who our organization believes would be the best president, too. I mentioned other candidates in Pennsylvania who we supported, like Katie McGinty and gave them lit to read. Lastly, I talked about the importance of voting, encouraged them to get to the polls on November 8th, and told them where their polling station was. There was a script I followed for the most part but sometimes the other person would steer the conversation in other directions. I enjoyed those conversations most of all and got adept at steering them back to the main issue — getting out to vote on November 8th.

By my 2nd week of canvassing the weather improved and I had the rap down pat and I started to feel more excitement than dread as I headed out into the field. I enjoyed seeing all the different types of neighborhoods that people live in and all their autumn decorations. One day I’d be assigned to a neighborhood of mansions with their own personal lakes and excessively long driveways. The next day I’d find myself in a retirement community trailer park. One day I’d be among newly built condos, then next day I’d be in an historic neighborhood with Victorian houses dating back to the civil war. I never knew what kind of face would be revealed when I knocked on a door — a friendly one? a suspicious one? one with bloodshot eyes and slurred words? an exhausted mom? a lonely senior citizen? a party in full swing? a jumping, barking dog? a kitten that darts out and climbs up a tree that I then spent 10 minutes helping to rescue? I saw all of these.

Every night I came home with a new story. Out of the many houses I encountered, here are a few that I’ll never forget:

• Upon overhearing me ask his mother if she would vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, a three-year-old boy flung open the door wagging his finger confidently and shouting, “NOT Donald Trump! He is a BULLY and a MEANIE and a BAD BAD MAN. We DO NOT LIKE that man!” and the mom smiled and said, “I guess you got your answer.”

• There was a fun-looking family with 3 young children where both parents took my survey. The mom answered that she was voting for Hillary and the dad smiled and said he was “Going rogue and voting for Jill Stein.” The kids proceeded to shout, “No! Daddy! No!” and began marching around him chanting, “HILL-ARY! HILL-ARY!”

• A guy voting for Gary Johnson (who was obviously inebriated but fun to talk to) told me, “You have a great spirit about you. I won’t vote for Hillary but I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.” It was the nicest thing I heard all day.

• Another Gary Johnson supporter had the most amazing elaborately gory Halloween lawn display I’ve ever seen.

• A mom of 3 children under 6 responded that she supported Hillary Clinton and her daughter looked up at me and said in her sweet little girl voice, “I don’t like Hillary because she lies and kills people!” I looked at the mom and she winced and said, “She’s been talking to her grandfather.”

• An 18-year-old girl who was babysitting two young girls proudly stated she was voting for Donald Trump and the children gasped and shouted, “No! You should vote for Hillary!” and “I’m gonna tell my mom you said that.”

• A very old and very wrinkly lady told me in a very angry tone, “I’m going to die soon, so I’m voting for Trump!”

• On a separate occasion, a wild-eyed woman followed me down her street screaming about “THAT F**ING C*** HILLARY!!” I took refuge on her neighbor’s porch where a kind lady rolled her eyes and said, “I see you’ve met Judy.”

• I also met many perfectly nice Trump supporters, I should add. I was happy to discover these people were not the violent monsters I naively feared they would be.

• One family of Trump supporters — a dad, and mom, and 18-year-old daughter all agreed to take my survey. They were very nice and when it was time for me to go they said, “That’s it? We want to keep talking to you. That was fun.”

• On four separate occasions I spoke with guys under the age of 20 who were all proudly supporting Trump… but each one admitted he missed the deadline to register to vote in time for the election.

• I spoke with many former Republicans who were either refusing to vote in this election, or voting for Hillary.

• I commiserated with several Bernie supporters still upset about his loss to Hillary in the primary election. Only a few refused to vote for her now though. None were voting for Trump.

• I spoke with one woman who was a lifelong Democrat but recently “saw the light” and was voting for Trump.

• A man supporting Hillary asked me if I was encountering a lot of Trump supporters in his neighborhood and I told him I was actually talking to more pro-Hillary people, although I noticed there were no Hillary signs in the area but lots of Trump ones. He whispered, “We don’t like to show off but we’re the REAL silent majority.”

• Of the 1,000-plus doors I knocked on, only two were opened briefly and promptly slammed in my face. This really hurt my feelings… for about 10 seconds and then I moved on.

One of my other favorite parts of canvassing was at the end of the night when my group (4–7 canvassers) was picked up and driven back to the city. I found other people’s stories equally as interesting, not just their stories of canvassing but also about their lives and other interests. The team I was assigned to on any given day was a crapshoot but I loved the comraderie of canvassing coworkers. One time, a fun field manager promised an after-work beer to the canvasser with the best stats. She asked, “Is everyone in the car at least 21?” and I realized, at 42, I’m twice that. The fact that I was probably one of the oldest canvassers working for this organization was slightly humbling, but also invigorating. I’ve seen Millennials in political action and I’m happy to report that we’re in good hands, America. They’ve made me hopeful for the future.

Also, I discovered I’ve got stamina! I can log 15 miles on my pedometer in one night, no problem (give or take a few blisters).

I also realized as a middle aged white lady I had a much easier experience in some neighborhoods than my coworkers who were young black men in their 20s or Muslim ladies wearing hijabs. I have never been called names, spat upon, had a shotgun pointed at me, or been placed in the back of a police car — all things that happened to some of my coworkers. One African-American college kid doing the exact same job I was doing told me a police officer stopped him and said that someone in the (affluent) neighborhood in which he was canvassing reported a “possible gang member in her neighborhood selling drugs.” No one ever accused me of doing that. Several canvassers quit because of this, and I don’t blame them. Still, many stayed on, and I admire their resilience and tenacity.

I’m on my last week of canvassing and am partly relieved — it’s not an easy lifestyle. I did, however lose 15 pounds. Who knew walking 12-plus miles a day several days a week could have such dramatic results? I also got to know downtown Philadelphia, the transit system, and outlying suburbs in a way few people get the chance to see. Forcing myself to go out into the world and talk to strangers about the future of our country helped to diminish the loneliness I was feeling being new to a city. I think I successfully staved off a bout of depression, which is ironic considering this election is so damn depressing. I’m coming out of this experience more hopeful than I was a month ago. Canvassing has taught me that if we simply form connections, facilitate communication, and maintain civility we can help our country come together after November 8th. I have faith that we can do this.

•  •  •

This opinion piece appeared first on and is republished with permission from the author.