As the Barack Obama campaign canvassed door-to-door this past weekend in scores of communities across the country, a snapshot of a campaign fueled by an unique mix of a non-confrontational style, a message of hope and sometimes unwitting amateurishness emerges.
This mid-fall freeze-frame also paints a picture of a Democratic electorate significantly more ambivalent and undecided than recent polls indicated and perhaps less motivated by the war in Iraq and more by domestic issues than previously suggested.
The portrait of the Obama campaign operating at ground level among national Democratic voters is a product of a new type of citizen journalism. In an unprecedented effort of campaign reporting, nearly two dozen Off The Bus correspondents monitored Obama Canvass for Change events in fourteen cities in nine crucial states during the past 48 hours and contributed to this report from venues as disparate as Keene, NH, Des Moines and Dubuque, and Minneapolis; Studio City, Corte Madera, Berkeley, Sacramento, Koreatown - Los Angeles, and Altadena, CA; from Boise, Brooklyn and Ballard; from Manhattan, KS, Memphis and Charlotte, NC. (To see all of our campaign monitor reports click here.)
Despite neighborhood and regional differences, and although the levels of sophistication and competency among the individual campaign events varied, our correspondents found several common themes, the most striking of which is to what degree Democrats still declare themselves undecided.
It's abundantly clear that, less than four months before the onslaught of decisive primaries and caucuses, many Democratic voters have just not made up their minds. "Of those that would speak to us, almost all were undecided," reports correspondent Phoebe Love who followed the Obama canvass through Ballard, Washington. She is echoed by contributor Ethan Hova in Studio City, a middle-class Democratic suburban stronghold in Los Angeles: "The vast majority of voters were very much undecided and expressed reluctance to engage in debate without conducting research on their own." Daniel Macht, following the Obama campaign in Brooklyn, New York noted the same hesitation: "They were all undecided, save one Edwards supporter." Perhaps most importantly, correspondent Beverly Davis reports from Des Moines, "Smith [ an Obama volunteer] knocks on Dan Arply's door and launches into his opening rap but Arply soon interrupts by saying, 'Thanks for stopping by, but I haven't decided on supporting anyone yet.' Arply is a typical Iowan."
It's difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions from such anecdotal material but it might suggest that the slew of recent polls giving Hillary Clinton a commanding lead in the race for the nomination may be of limited utility. Correspondent Hova found widespread indifference toward Clinton as he went door-to-door with the Obama canvassers: "This was a fairly affluent suburb north of Los Angeles and I was really surprised not to find a single Hillary supporter in the neighborhood."
It's possible that numerous Democrats who have declared for Clinton to a pollster are like the shopper who hoists a likely candidate from the pumpkin bin inside the supermarket door. Maybe a keeper, maybe not, for there's the possibility of a better find further along in produce.
Balancing this good news for Obama is the likelihood that the centerpiece of Saturday's Canvass, retelling the story of Obama's opposition to the War in Iraq, was a bust. Kelly Nuxoll reports from the Left Coast of Berkeley, "The war seemed nominally an issue, but social issues, health care . . . also came up a lot." Nominally an issue--in Berkeley? Christine Escobar in Dubuque: "Only viewed one 25 year old woman responding to the war message." Deborah Phelan in Corte Madera in liberal Northern California found similar responses: "People were very much tired of talking about the Iraq war." Ditto for Daniel Macht in Brooklyn: "All said the war wasn't the only issue they cared about."
If the war is less and less a campaign issue for ordinary Americans in California and New York (and who would have predicted this?), then what is the mindset of the less liberal Democratic voter in the heartland? From what I saw of the canvass in Memphis, not a single person cared about Barack Obama's position vis-à-vis anybody else on the Iraq War.
Instead, health care reform seemed to top the priority list for Democratic voters contacted by the Obama canvassers. Correspondent Davis in Des Moines reports: "Arply tells Smith that he likes Obama and that he's concerned about health care." Contributot Saba Kennedy in Charlotte, NC: "...healthcare was a BIG issue." Clinton, Edwards and Obama have all put forward health insurance plans modest enough in scope to seem, at least on first glance, to be possibilities. Therefore, it's not surprising that grassroots Democratic voters are beginning to shift their attention from the war to a more hopeful subject.
This past weekend's national Canvass for Change like all things Obama, carried with it an aura of transformation. As contributor Deborah Plummer found, "Obama has sparked a light in young people." Reporting from Manhattan, KS, she goes on to say, "So, 20 volunteers [at the canvass] for Obama seems a lot to me. I went to KSU for over 20 years and never met over 10 liberals/progressives the entire time and to think there could be a rising tide of 20 potential liberals/progressives who will be spanning out to Manhattan households spreading Obama's philosophy is awesome...." Laura Martin in a very red-tinged Boise found a similar glitter: "Idaho hasn't sent a Democrat to the White House since Lyndon B. Johnson, but I do believe come Super Tuesday 2008, Idaho is going blue for Obama."
Countering some this Obama magic, however, is a growing frustration among his volunteers that he is not moving up in the polls. Ethan Hova from Studio City again: "We encountered several households of fervent Obama supporters and their mood could be summed up as frustrated. They seemed mostly concerned about his perceived lack of traction in the polls...." But the grassroots volunteers slog on. As Deborah Phelan reports from Corte Madera, "Volunteer Sandy Grant laughs about the big Barack Obama supporter she talked to who showed up later to register to vote at the booth. 'Look at us, so excited about one teenager when there are millions of people across America who have to register.' Everybody nods. They're all thinking the same thing. One vote at a time."
(Indeed, Deborah Phalen and I found such contrasting pictures of the Obama campaign in Northern California and Tennessee respectivively that I will detail the differences in an upcoming report).
There were also some moments of unintended humor and general weirdness that punctuated the weekend canvass. One older street vendor in Brooklyn yelled "Take a bath!" at one earnest Obama supporter passing out flyers to passersby. At other events, the organizers sometimes outnumbered the canvassers, reminding some newbie volunteers that effective politics is really about the art of building coalitions. Make sure and read all of our ground level reports assembled in the last 48 hours by clicking here.
Off The Bus campaign monitors (Jason Barnett (Theuptake.org), Al Cannistraro, Sheila Condit, Beverly Davis, Christine Escobar, Mayhill Fowler, Richard Greenwood, Ethan Hova, Saba Kennedy, Noah Kunin (Thuptake.org), Phoebe Love, Daniel Macht, Kim Mack, Laura Martin, Kelly Nuxoll, Deborah Phelan, Deborah Plummer, and Jeremy Thompson) contributed to this report. If you'd like to work wtih us on future campaign reports, join our OffTheBus Campaign Monitors team.