Early on Sunday morning, two unmarked vans headed east out of a Target parking lot in St. Louis, bound for Western Kentucky with 12 passengers. No, we weren’t being abducted, nor were we on some top-secret surveillance mission. We were a motley group of volunteers trying to seal the deal for Senator Obama by spending the only rain-free Sunday in recent memory canvassing in Paducah, KY. I had made several of these trips to Iowa on behalf of John Edwards in the summer, fall, and winter (diaried here, here, and here), but this would be my first, and hopefully last, trip out of the state for Obama.
The story, along with a few pics, is below the fold.
We all assembled in the aforementioned parking lot by 7:00 Sunday morning:
At least one Republican was lurking in our midst:
The advantage of travelling early on a Sunday morning? No traffic! We got on the road, and quickly got out of town:
The time flew by in the car. Although none of us had previously met, us volunteers began sharing our backgrounds and the usual political gossip. I shared my deep dark secret that I was (gasp) an Edwards supporter until he dropped out, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. As I found out later, I wasn’t the only volunteer who had come over from a different candidate.
The woman sitting behind me was a creative writing professor who first leaned Obama’s way when she read Dreams of My Father. She saw him as a rare politician who could actually write. She had also recently visited Kenya, and hoped that a President Obama might be able to do something about the strife there. She had some rough experiences canvassing for Obama in southern Indiana, and hoped that this trip would be better:
Sheila was full of laughs, and as it turned out, seemed to have the exact same Republican co-workers I did, or at least they had all the same arguments against Obama. I blame talk radio.
You might have noticed strange blue framework in the background of that last picture. It’s this bridge, a completely metal bridge painted blue:
It’s always fun for an acrophobe like myself to be able to look through the bottom of the bridge that I’m driving across. Yikes!
But I digress. We soon reached Paducah, where the gas prices are just as bad as in St. Louis.
The Obama HQ was in a lovely old home that had been turned into a law office some years back:
The office was rather empty, save for a few staffers who quickly distributed the walk packets and ran us through Canvassing 101. They also explained an extra wrinkle they had added to get around the fact that we were starting our canvas on a Sunday morning in the Bible Belt. Usually when you canvas, you only go once to each house on your list, talking to the people who you find, and leaving literature on the doors of the people who aren’t home. But in this case, we put door hangers and brochures on the first run through, figuring most people were either at church or were sinners who were sleeping off a wild Saturday night. On a second walk through the same list in the afternoon, we were to knock on every door where the lit had disappeared.
Finally, in case we despaired that Kentucky was “Clinton Country”, they pointed out that John Edwards was actually the favorite in Western Kentucky, and we should feel free to point out his recent endorsement of Obama to undecided voters. Looking at that lovely map of a couple of weeks ago that showed Obama’s relative strength county-by-county, you can see that the area surrounding Western Kentucky does not particularly favor Obama. Still, anything we could do to bring a few delegates over would be a key step toward getting Obama the nomination.
I was paired up with Jen, a first time canvasser from St. Louis. She was wearing a Little Rock marathon T-shirt, so I wasn’t particularly worried about her getting tired or footsore, and she was polite and well-spoken. We walked to the spot on our map that marked the beginning, and started our canvas. As we soon discovered, we had walked past lots of the homes on our list when we walked down from HQ. Worse, after finishing our first long street, we found out that it had two different names, so we had actually missed most of our houses on the street because they were on a sheet under a different street name.
Fortunately, Jen is way more organized than me, and got us back on track with minimal delay. Jen told me her own deep dark secret – she was a former Hillary supporter. She said she had lived in the Illinois media market in eastern Iowa when Obama was running for US Senate, so she had heard most of the attack ads against him, enough not to buy into the hype. And she liked Hillary and wanted a woman president. But early this year, she didn’t really like the way the Clintons were campaigning, and when Obama addressed the Wright controversy with his famous speech, she was won over for good.
The area where we canvassed was a mostly working class African American neighborhood, and almost everyone we ran into supported Barack. Most people were indeed at church when we made our first round, but when we went by for the second time, the literature was off the door – a signal for us to knock. I identified only one Hillary supporter, and we saw a couple of Hillary signs on corners. But the Obama signs were so abundant that HQ had run out (a woman came in to ask just as we were leaving for our canvas.) This guy improvised:
So our major task was not really to persuade or even identify voters. It was to make sure they knew when and where to vote. A lot of people we talked to were for Barack, but they didn’t know that the primary was this Tuesday. Others weren’t sure where they were supposed to vote, or they “knew”, but they were way off. It was easy enough just to point at their polling location, since the entire precinct we walked would be voting in the only high-rise apartment building in the area – the Jackson House:
The neighborhood was definitely interesting – a mix of older homes built in the 1940s and ’50s, and newer ones built in the ’70s and 80’s. This home had a pay phone on the side of it for some reason. There was no ready explanation, as the house was located near a dead end in a quiet neighborhood:
Not too far, there was an older district with many buildings left over from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like this lovely old church:
And this home:
Finishing our canvas in short order, mostly thanks to the newbie, we made it back to HQ thinking our work was done. But the previously quiet office had transformed into a bustling turnstile of volunteers, phone bankers, and staffers. The locals had drifted in after church or after a late morning start. Many had traveled from out of state, including the leader of the Illinois State Senate. I’m not sure what his name was – he introduced himself as “Denzel Washington”. 😉 We tallied up our walk list, had a bottle of water, and started right away on a phone bank. Volunteers ran in and out picking up and dropping off walk lists, swapping stories from the day, and furiously calling through the lists of people we wouldn’t be able to canvas in the outlying areas.
I certainly won’t guarantee that Obama will win Kentucky, or even come close. What I do know is that the Obama staffers believe that the tide has turned in their favor over the last few weeks in the area, and despite a furious push by the Clinton campaign, with visits recently from Bill and Hillary in the area, Obama will probably hold his own. Ironically, the delegates that puts Obama over the top of the majority of pledged delegates could come from the votes of the people whose doors we knocked on Sunday.