A dog started barking inside when I knocked on the door, the desultory, half-assed bark of an animal who doesn’t really feel alarmed. Somebody’s probably home, I thought. But after half a minute or so, I wasn’t sure. I started to peel off one of the door-hangers I was carrying, and then, sure enough, I heard a fumbling at the latch.
The door opened a couple of feet to reveal a pretty, freckled, sleepy-looking woman in her 20s, dressed in a long T-shirt, with curly blond hair and a stud in her nose. I had clearly just woken her up. The apartment behind her was in darkness; the dark-colored, medium-size dog crowded behind her legs, curious.
“Hello,” I said. “Are you …” I read the name from my list.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Great, well, I’m Mark, and I’m volunteering for the Arizona Democratic Party, and we’re here in the neighborhood today talking to registered Democrats, reminding you to vote early. You’re a registered Democrat, right?”
“Have you received your ballot?”
“Great, and have you voted yet?”
“Not yet, hon. I’m not sure if I’m going to vote. I don’t really believe in the process.”
Her voice was quiet and flat. She didn’t even seem particularly annoyed at the interruption of her afternoon, just massively, affectlessly uninterested.
“Well, we’d sure like to encourage you to vote early, and to vote for Hillary Clinton and the other Democratic candidates.” I handed her the door-hanger.
“Okay, hon. Thanks for coming by.”
Her door closed, and I descended the stairway from her apartment, back into the heat of a late October Sunday in Phoenix. I jotted down the disappointing results of my visit on my sheet, then looked around at the baffling, unhelpful signs on the surrounding buildings, trying to figure out the most efficient route to the next apartment.
When I said, “We’re here in the neighborhood today,” I had been using the editorial “we.” At least in this enormous, labyrinthine complex of shabby apartments, it was just me. I had been there for most of an hour, and the sleepy young woman with the nose stud was only the second person I had found at home. The first, a middle-aged lady, had claimed she was not the person I asked for. I didn’t doubt her. The sprawling complex was divided into two sets of apartments with the same set of number-and-letter sequences. I was never sure, as I knocked, if I was at the right 128-A or 202-C, and the geographical division of the two sections had no logic that I could grasp. I was sweaty — sweatier than usual, that is — my legs ached, and I was tired of carrying around this stack of door hangers.
This was the penultimate weekend before Election Day. For months, I had carried a seriously bad feeling that Donald Trump could be elected president. I had written a longish essay, directed less at Trump enthusiasts than at those who were reluctant, at one level or another, to vote for Hillary Clinton, and I had donated a (very) few bucks to Clinton’s campaign.
But none of this felt like enough.
My career as a political activist has been neither extensive nor triumphant. I have a dim memory of spending some time in the Washington, D.C. campaign offices of Michael Dukakis in 1988. I think I distributed buttons or something.
In 2006, I did some speechwriting for a Democratic Congressional candidate in Riverside County, California. This was the midterm election of George W. Bush’s second term, the year that the Democrats recaptured both houses of Congress. But my guy was decisively defeated by Republican incumbent Mary Bono.
Then in 2010, when my former New Times colleague John Dougherty ran a quixotic campaign here in Arizona for John McCain’s Senate seat, I e-mailed him (at the request of his campaign manager) with some pointers on public speaking. He graciously acknowledged these; whether he tried to put them into practice I don’t know. In any case, he finished third in the Democratic primary.
You’d think I might have taken the hint, and helped by not trying to help. But no, I decided to get off my ass and away from my keyboard and take part in the famous Democratic ground game, the one Mitt Romney had disdained to play in 2012, and that Donald Trump’s campaign was likewise ignoring.
Through one of the innumerable wheedling mass e-mails I received every day, I’d arranged to go canvassing, trying to persuade Democrats in my part of town to fill out the early ballot they’d received. I went to the local contact person’s home, and she’d given me a map, a sheet with a script — from which I was encouraged to depart if I wanted to add in personal anecdotes about why I supported the Democrats — several sheets of names and addresses of registered Democrats, and a sheaf of flyers to hang on the knob when nobody answered the Halloween-decorated doors.
This had proven the most common result, so far. I had spent the previous afternoon, Saturday, wandering around this place as well. Hardly anyone seemed to be at home, and of those who were, several claimed, like the lady, not to be the person I was looking for. Maybe a half-dozen people had confessed to being, or being related too, the person listed on my sheet.
Over both days, a couple of these folks told me, without much passion, that they would be voting for Hillary Clinton. An elderly African-American man told me that he already had, and shook my hand hard, thanking me for my efforts so vehemently that it made me feel sheepish. A younger African-American man, according to his T-shirt a military veteran, had expressed concern at my flushed, unhealthy appearance and insisted I drink a bottle of water from his fridge.
Despite these kindnesses, the experience was the most disheartening, futile-feeling attempt at civic participation in which I had ever engaged (not, I admit, that this is saying much). I saw singles and young couples of all races — skinny, tatted-up, perplexed-looking young men and overweight, addled young women corralling small children. There were also plenty of sallow, haggard, nicotine-stained seniors, looking like they’d washed up in this vast dreary compound after financially disappointing careers.
No one was angry or unfriendly. A number of people even thanked me, in an obligatory sort of way. And a preteen girl out in front of her apartment took a break from pestering her older brother to tell me a pretty good joke as I passed: “Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom?” (Sorry, but you’ll have to keep reading if you want the answer.)
But no one seemed very concerned about the presidential race, one way or the other. Though the complex wasn’t a slum, the people I saw there, both those that came to the door and their passing neighbors, nonetheless looked to me like the sort of folks that would be very directly and adversely affected by a Democratic loss, even in a normal election year.
Yet to the very real possibility that Donald Trump could be elected president, most showed only a polite, distracted disinterest. At least two other young women told me, with no hostility, that there was no difference between the candidates. No one seemed to disagree with the idea that Trump was a terrible choice for president, but no one seemed to think it had any great bearing on their lives. I might have been talking to them about an election happening in Sri Lanka, or perhaps, about a fictional election happening on a TV show.
At one point I wandered between two buildings at the far south end of the complex, looked across the alley they faced, and saw the back of my own house. I hadn’t realized the apartments extended that far. I had often wondered about the people whose arguments and laughter trickled over the wall while I sat in my backyard.
Now, I’d met them. But I didn’t understand them.
Late in the following week, the guy from the Arizona Democratic Party called me. Would I be willing to go out again? I said I would.
This time the contact lady gave me a map of a neighborhood of single-family homes. My neighborhood, as it turned out. It was the weekend before the election, so it was too late to vote early; now, my job was to get people to say they would show up at the polls Tuesday and vote the old-fashioned way.
I parked on a street a few blocks from my house, within walking distance of two registered Dems, according to my sheet. Amazingly, the first guy was at home, shirtless, puttering around his garage. He accepted the little flyer with the address of the polling place — a nearby elementary school — with thanks but no other comment.
Across the street and a few houses down, I approached the address of my second target on that block. There was a New England Patriots bumper sticker on the minivan in the driveway. A good Massachusetts liberal, I stereotypically decided. The screen door was closed, but the inner door was open. I rang the doorbell.
Instantly a pack of tiny dogs, four at least, charged at the screen and began rioting. More slowly, a stout Anglo woman of about my age shambled in from the back yard, where she seemed to be grilling, and approached the door.
“Hi, I’m sorry to disturb you,” I said over the canine din. “I’m volunteering with the Arizona Democratic Party.” I read her name from the sheet.
“And you’re registered to vote, right?”
“No,” she said. “I’m a felon. We both are. So we can’t vote.”
Then she added, “Thank God.”
Again, no difference between the candidates, I thought as I headed back down her driveway. Not having to choose between them was an occasion for thankfulness, even thankfulness for being a felon.
This proved not to be a typical encounter, however. The second weekend’s task was a little less depressing. The folks in the single-family houses were, to begin with, more frequently at home, or at any rate more willing to answer the door. They also seemed more engaged, warmer, more aware of the stakes in the matter.
But just around the corner from my house, I walked up a driveway where a couple of souped-up, expensive-looking cars were parked, and a small group of young Latino-looking guys were discussing them in Spanish in the open garage. The first name of the person listed on my sheet for this address was “Jesus,” and the last name sounded Asian.
“Yeah, that’s me,” said a slight guy of around 25 who looked, indeed, like he might be of both Asian and Latino descent.
“Great, hi, I’m volunteering with the Arizona Democratic Party. You’re a registered voter, right?”
“Have you voted yet?”
“Will we have your support next Tuesday?”
“Nah, I don’t think so. I don’t see any difference between the candidates.”
OK, here was my big moment — to campaign, to persuade, to state my position.
What I was thinking was: Really, Jesus? No shit? You don’t see the slightest difference between the candidates? No difference at all? What I said was something like:
“Well, I can’t agree. I realize that Hillary Clinton isn’t a perfect candidate, but I think she’s vastly preferable to Trump.”
“Yeah,” said one of the other guys, with a chuckle. Jesus just shrugged. I handed him a flyer, asked him to reconsider, and headed for my truck.
The experience left me without the slightest sense that I gained Hillary Clinton so much as one vote beyond my own. About the best I can hope for is that I didn’t actually lose her any votes, didn’t turn anybody who was planning to vote for her off so badly that they changed their mind. I’m not even sure of that.
As I write these words, Donald Trump has been president of the United States for less than a month. I’m trying to think of what lessons, if any, I might draw from my couple of weekends as Clinton volunteer.
Well, first of all, let me say that activists who do this sort of tiring, unrewarding, dispiriting work — who devote weeks and months and for that matter years to doing it, and not, like me, just a few hours, mostly to stave off guilt — are heroic, as far as I’m concerned.
Having said that, I’m wondering if maybe the ground game isn’t what it used to be. In an astoundingly short time, social-media outlets have radically changed the way millions and millions of people in our society (including me) interact with each other. It appears that the old retail-politics model of “looking the voters in the eye, shaking their hands, and asking them for their vote” has become, in the space of just a few years, unnecessary, even quaint. In a few more years, it may seem as obsolete as the whistle-stop speech. And it appears that Trump and his campaign instinctively understood this to a degree that the Clinton campaign didn’t.
Finally, the biggest impression I got was: the progressive cause isn’t getting through to young people, or at least not to working-class young people. The ones I talked to were registered Democrats, but many of them seemed to see their party as a big, monolithic, impersonal social force with roughly the same level of concern for them (none at all, in their mind) as the opposing party.
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If I’m right that this is their impression — and I grant that it’s risky to speculate based on the tiny sample size of folks I met — then I sure hope that it’s unfair. Maybe their youth, and the fact that they came of age over eight years without a Republican White House, leads them to see the likes of reproductive rights, marriage equality, or even access to health care, if they think about them at all, as givens. If so, then they, and all of us, may be about to learn that these are, rather, hard-won social victories that can quickly be taken away without a party — even a compromised, corrupt, minimally progressive party — to defend them.
Anyway, this is my best shot at a few tentative conclusions, for whatever they may be worth.
Oh, yeah, that’s right, I owe you a punchline: Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom?
Because the P is silent.