Canvassing for Obama in Pittsburgh

So I flew to Pittsburgh to send Nov 3 and 4 volunteering for Obama, as volunteering here in CA seems a bit pointless, and I thought I’d describe some of the more interesting parts of the experience:

First of all, what was I doing? Well, mostly I was canvassing as part of the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) operation. That means that I had a list of people who were believed to be Obama supporters, and I went around and did my darnedest to make sure they actually went to the polls and pulled the lever. This means in particular that I was NOT trying to convince people to choose Obama over McCain, nor was I generally knocking on doors randomly without any idea of who would be answering. On Nov. 3 we did passes of actually knocking on doors, asking if people would be voting (and trying to get them to say to us, face to face, that they would in fact be voting, the theory being that they would then feel a commitment), making sure they knew their polling place, asking if they needed rides to the polls, and answering any questions they had. We also went around hanging flyers on doorknobs urging them to vote for Obama and providing all the above information. On Nov. 4, we did an early morning pass hanging more flyers telling people to vote TODAY, then we did 3 passes asking if they had actually voted, and again if there was anything we could do to help. (Of course, most people were at work during the 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. passes.) Once someone confirmed that they had, in fact, voted, we would cross them off the list so the next team going out to cover the same “turf” wouldn’t bother them. If they said “yes, I’m going to vote” we basically didn’t believe them, and came back later on to check.

The bane of our existence was apartment buildings. When everyone lives in a house, you have nice discrete addresses. You knock on a door. You talk to a person. There’s a doorknob to hang things on. When a bunch of people live in an apartment building, you generally can’t get in and knock on the individual doors. Instead, you’re stuck with this huge array of doorbells, no way to tell who really lives there, no single doorknob to hang things on, etc. Furthermore, since apartment buildings tend to be much more transient, you often have multiple names for the same place with no way to tell if they are roommates, or if some are obsolete, or if they’re all obsolete.
Our home base of operations was 3 houses belonging to dedicated Obama fans that were conveniently right next to each other. One was the main HQ, so all the sorting of packets and training of canvassers and so forth took place in the living room. Next door, another guy’s house was open, with a living room full of food and drinks for canvassers. And then across the street was another house where all the phone banking was going on. So that’s three people who basically opened their houses to any random person who walked by and claimed to be an Obama supporter for 10+ hours every day for a lot of days in a row. That’s dedication for you. And these were all incredibly friendly and welcoming people – the whole atmosphere was incredibly warm and excited. (I did visit two other local Obama HQs, and neither one was nearly as nice… one was a big community center, and one was set up on someone’s front lawn, but without anywhere near as nice an atmosphere.)
I really only had one negative experience (aside from ending up with very very sore feet): So I was doing a GOTV pass on election day, and I had just had a bunch of addresses in a row that were apartment buildings. Many of these buildings have an outside door that you open and go in, and then you’re in a little lobby with a bunch of bells to ring, and a locked inner door. So I come to another address, and it’s a big square 3-or-4-story building with two front doors with different addresses, and I had 3 different people living there. In other words, it seemed exactly like an apartment building. So I walk up, and the main building door is open. So I look in and see what looks like a very nice sitting area, with sofas and stuff. So I think to myself that it must be some sort of very high class apartment complex, or maybe some kind of assisted living place for seniors or something. So I walk in, looking for a front desk or a directory or something… and this woman comes up to me and says “what do you want? You shouldn’t just walk into someone’s house”. Oops. And then she said she was voting for McCain, although hopefully that wasn’t just because of me. Anyhow, I can only imagine her telling all her friends about how extraordinarily rude and pushy Obama volunteers are. Knocking on doors of strangers is awkward enough. Walking into their houses uninvited is much, much worse.
As for the high point, well, aside from the general camaraderie of being there, and of course the excitement of ACTUALLY WINNING, a few things stick out:
-I only had one person who needed a ride to the polls, which was when I was doing a few shifts of phone banking (basically, doing the same thing as canvassing, but over the phone). It was an elderly-sounding woman with a very distinct name, something like “Cookie Pims”. So I reported her to the canvassing people, who managed the rides. Then the next couple of times I wandered over there I got an update on her status… “we’ve contacted Cookie Pims… we’ve sent a car for Cookie Pims… Cookie Pims has voted”. It was very satisfying, as most of the time you never really know whether all your knocking on doors and hanging-of-flyers actually accomplishes something. Certainly, I never actually talked to someone who said “oh, wow, thanks for reminding me, I had no idea today was eelction day”.
-The last canvassing run on election day itself was at 5 p.m. (Polls closed at 8). For this shift, I partnered up (for the first time) with my cousin, who I was staying with, and whose presence in Pittsburgh was what catalyzed me to be there in the first place. So we did our run and came back, and it turned out there were not quite enough volunteers, so we got another run to do. So we did that one too (actually we had one other person working with us who took part of it), and came back, and they had yet one more little bit of a turf to do, which the previous people doing the 5 p.m. shift hadn’t quite finished. So we headed out one more time, with flashlights, feeling very much like canvassing superstars. On this very last trip (something like 3 blocks along one street) we first encountered someone who was so excited that she had voted for Obama that she had to jump up and down giddily and clap her hands in excitement. Later, we had a prosperous-looking house which our sheet said had 4 voters in it, all with the last name “Burgess”. So we knock on the door, and it’s answered by a very well dressed man. We ask if we can speak to “XXX Burgess, or YYY Burgess, or ZZZ Burgess, or WWW Burgess”. He looks puzzled, and looks back into the house and says “hey, are there any Burgesses here? Anyone named Burgess?”. So we thought maybe our info was bad or something, but then it turns out he was just kidding, and we were in fact speaking to the president pro tem of the Pittsburgh City Council. So he shook our hands enthusiastically, and asked if we had any up to date information (which we of course did not), and he said that his sources said that Obama was winning PA by 5. Which of course was off by more than a factor of 2.
So then we went back to HQ, and were about to leave when the pizza showed up! So we had pizza, then went back to my cousin’s house and watched the returns. The rest is, quite literally, history.

I did GOTV Obama canvassing on Election Day, too. I didn’t have too many houses, but it took me 4 hours to complete because they were scattered all over the county’s back roads. (It was a gorgeous day to be out driving around.)

I went to a house that had a male name on the roster, but when I pulled up, there was a woman in the yard. I asked if Mr. Soandso was available, and she said, “No, he’s on his way right now to Iraq.” I almost cried. I don’t know why it got to me so much, but it did.

How do you figure if somebody is a Obama supporter? I mean if they voted in the democratic primary or beloeng to the ACLU or something its obvious, but otherwise how do you tell?


As I was only there for the GOTV effort, I’m not sure. I think that earlier there was a larger list of all registered voters in the area, and people went door to door trying to convince people to support Obama, and marking down what happened. Or something along those lines.

Did you hear the (possibly apocryphal) “we’re voting for the n****er” story? It was alleged to have occurred in Western PA, I think. Any truth to it?
(I’ll repeat the story if anybody wants to hear it)

Nobody came to our house and knocked on our door (though we did get a flyer on our doorknob on 11/3). But I got quite a few phone calls. You might have talked to me on the phone if you were doing that.

What neighborhood(s) of Pittsburgh were you in?

Putting on the doorknob flyers that you can still vote if you have unpaid bills, taxes, or parking tickets was a good move. I know the scum who try to suppress turnout sometimes try to intimidate those people out of voting.

Nothing remotely like that happened to me, although I suspect that Pittsburgh and rural western PA are very different animals. The nastiest thing I heard about was that someone called a whole bunch of people who’d signed up to volunteer for Obama and told them (incorrectly) that their shifts were no longer needed.

I was in Point Breeze, North Point Breeze, Homewood and Shadyside. I think that we didn’t do GOTV stuff on people who, via public record, we knew always voted in the past. We focussed our efforts on first time voters, or people who sometimes had not voted.

I did GOTV in Toledo, and my most satisfying moment of the day was when i asked for so-and-so, and his girlfriend said he wasn’t registered. I told her (and him) that since he was on my list, it meant he was in fact registered to vote. They left the house together immediately to go vote (for Obama).

To answer the question as to how we knew if they supported Obama or McCain: In my case, I was doing labor-to-labor. So the Obama campaign pulled all of the union households out of their database, and gave those names to the unions. We spent three weeks, knocking on union household doors, asking people if they supported Obama or McCain.

We spent very little actually time persuading our members and their families to vote Obama, although if someone was “undecided,” we had fliers with information, and we would spend a little time telling them how Obama was the better choice for working families.

Anyway, on election day, we went back to GOTV for the households that previously ID’d as “Obama.”

We know. We look at voting history, take into account demographics, and look at other things you wouldn’t think of, such as magazine subscriptions. Of course, the people that had already voted were off the list, so we didn’t have to go after them again.

I did some of this for the Texas primary/caucus. It was kinda fun. Only had one bad instance where someone yelled at us to get the hell off his property. I stood out at the polling location with info about the caucus. Many people weren’t aware of the caucus. It was neat, then, to see them show up at the caucus that evening.

To think that I had a very small part in helping him get elected. It pleases me to no end.

I think that is the lesson future campaigns will take from this. The power of the people. In four years, I bet everyone will have an operation like Obama’s. I am cautiously optimistic about what it means for our system. I worry that it will increase partisanship, but I like the idea of these candidates working at the most basic of levels to gain national office.

As a Pittsburgh suburbanite who received a phone call with an offer for a ride to the polls as well as two hangers on my mailbox, I thank you and your fellow volunteers. A coworker of mine was off from last Wednesday until yesterday to help staff the Penn Hills Obama office. She’s very tired today.

I live in a rather “red” suburb, but as my husband put it, “we cancelled out the next door neighbors!”