Archive: The 2008 Campaign, Part II: The Campaign Eats Everything In Its Path

In 2008, I went to Denver to work for the Obama campaign. Below is the second of two reports that I sent to California, describing the experience.

Fellow Citizens —

Colorado revels in an unexpected grace. It is an article of faith hereabouts that the first snow falls on Halloween, but we’re on the 30th, and high summer caresses the land.  The trees have turned, the lowland palette is yellow aspen and fading orange oaks, but the temp is a balmy mid-70s and the breeze feels like 900-thread thrice-washed Egyptian cotton on your skin.

I spent Tuesday in Five Points.  The routine is established – go by the office, chat a bit, grab a canvass packet and hit the streets.  As we get closer to E-Day, you can feel the energy rising. The best stop of the day was the last.  When an older African-American man answered the door, I thought it was a lock.  Instead, and he read me the riot act. “Don’t you have anything better to do?  You don’t see me flying to California to knock on your door.”    Or this exchange:

William P:  “I might vote for Obama, but only because he’s black.”

Me:  “By the logic, I should vote for McCain, since I’m white.”

William P: “That’s not it. I want Obama to win so that six months from now, the black community will see how a black Democrat will screw them just as bad as the white ones do.”

Oh, we had a time, volleying back and forth on abortion, Israel and Bill Clinton as the sun went down.  These are the good moments, canvassing, when an unexpected or lively encounter brightens up what has already become routine.  And there are the times that you actually help, too, sorting out a ballot that would not have otherwise been cast.  Beyond that, there is a lot of walking along sidewalks covered in fallen leaves which, for an ex-Michigan boy, feels like home.


Chapter 1:   Focusing

Colorado Springs is known mainly for the Air Force Academy, but it was also a cradle of the Christian Identity Movement. The FBI once referred to them as “the nation’s most dangerous hate group” for their belief that that non-Caucasian peoples did not have souls.  Currently, it is home to 21-year-old Kristi Burton, who put Prop 48 on the Colorado state ballot, affirming that personhood begins at conception. Similar bills were proposed in four other states, but only in Colorado did it receive enough signatures to make the ballot. In the latest polls, it is failing 51 to 36, but you never can tell.  With this history in mind, it was starting to feel like an expedition to the Mystery Spot with Bibles and sharpshooters.

Jacob and I rolled down Hwy 25 in my silver econo-rental, mountains to the sides, valley foliage straight out of the Hudson River School. We were almost there when we spotted the road sign: Focus On The Family Welcome Center. Moments later, we roll into a low-slung office park overlooking a mall.  Pull up next to a red Honda with a “Palin Power” bumper sticker.  Enemy territory, at last.

So, these two Jewish liberals from San Francisco walk up to a Christian Conservative headquarters and…  No alarms, no divine retribution, nada.  Three well-fed androids at battle stations behind a reception desk with stamped-on smiles.  A friendly greeting, an invitation to walk around, so we walk.  Their center is like an upscale Midwest furniture store without much furniture in it.  Or, perhaps, a cheap replica of a Library Of Congress exhibit, given all the faux marble (it’s real at the LoC) and Founding-Father-With-A-Quill-Pen lettering on their wall posters. Their design runs toward the straightforward and distinguished – timelines, maps with pins, rows of framed oil paintings. Nothing extreme, nothing overtly ticky-tacky.  Even the models of people-before-birth were not extreme enough to make you want to return with a megaphone, or a fire extinguisher.

Out the window, a fine view of the range across the valley.  They offer free refreshments, but neither of us were that easy.  We took some pictures, loitered, looked at the white people.  Their bookshop is loaded with titles like “Faith-Based Family Finances”, and all the ceramic figurines and greeting cards you can shake a cross at.   Given such a completely Irony-Free Zone, what more can one say about the FOTF crew?  “Obsessive amounts of grooming?” suggests my local host Finn, who knows.


Chapter 2:  The Springs

The first Obama office we encountered in Colorado Springs was run by Margaret, a volunteer from Cupertino, CA.  We canvassed a prosperous area on the north side of town.  Jacob was well-received and shored up support in a few households.  My side of the precinct was feistier.

At one house, I was looking for a 44-year old, but an older gent (his father?) answered the door:  “I’m not going to vote for any muslim.”  (Me: He’s not a Muslim.) “I’m definitely not voting for anyone who won’t salute the flag.” (Me: I salute the flag and I’m voting for him.)  [Door closes..  Screen door shakes]

At another house, a retired man walked around from the side, long bushy mustache, chewing tobacco and spitting into the bushes. “John McCain was in Viet Nam. I was there. Not a prisoner, but I was there. It sticks in memory, I tell you.”   (Me: I agree. We chat some more. Then –  ” I get $600/month from Social Security to keep up the house, food, and put gas in my truck.  It’s hard, I tell you.  How do you pronounce his name again? He’ll probably get my vote.  I just don’t want that Hillary to get in.”  (Me: Not much chance of that, any more.) “Well, good.”

A sign nailed to a tree in a front yard:  To the Arsonists that STOLE My Signs You are a Thief, Trespasser and bigot. OBAMA 08!

It certainly did not look like a cauldron of conservatism, or much else…   Nice homes, trees, toys left on lawns and furniture left on porches without fear of being stolen. Other parts of town, Margaret later told me, were much different – angry dogs behind chain link fences and peeling paint. But our precinct was quite pleasant.  We checked back in before sundown, then relocated to the main office to make calls.  Tucked into an old Jiffy Lube, the phone bank occupies the area behind the roll-up doors where the oil-change bays used to be.  The inside concrete wall was freshly painted with the  campaign motto in five-foot letters:  RESPECT   EMPOWER   INCLUDE.  As always, a well-organized hive of activity.  Signs on the walls indicate where to put call lists, canvass lists, data sheets, etc.  Plenty of stickers, brochures, posters and yard signs for distribution.  Palettes of them, practically.  There’ll be plenty of souvenirs, and new landfill mass, once this thing is over.

Gets me to thinking – I’ve worked a number of campaigns and never seen one so awash in pictures.  During the Kerry campaign, we had plenty of stickers, but when was any so image-intensive?  Obama offices are plastered with his face, his eyes gaze out from photos, drawings, sketches, and the ubiquitous tri-color posters. Baroque churches, with saints squeezed into every corner like the commuter car on the LIRR, come close for the sheer amount of imagery, but this…  it’s a little creepy to think about. So I don’t think about it. I make calls.  My list is sorted for age-61-and-over, so most do not answer and I feel sorry for the ones that do.  Some of the numbers for the very aged are no longer in service and I silently offer a moment of sympathy.  As we leave, the Field Organizer flips to yet another page and sees that it was marked “Daytime Calls Only”.  Oops.  Jacob and I eye a biker bar called Benny’s on the way to the highway, speculating that there might be some votes to be won inside, but it is late and we still have an hour’s drive back to Denver.  Regretfully, we give it a pass.


Chapter 3:   Backlash

Conventional campaign wisdom holds that there is no such thing as “too much”.  More is always better, especially since nobody know what works.  “Throw enough shit against the wall and some of it will stick,” my old boss in DC used to say.  Restraint is usually not the problem, since there are never enough resources – financial, staff, volunteer, time – to go around.  Then came Obama.  This may be the first campaign in history to have the resources to overdo it.  It’s not just the money – if anyone ever adds up the staff+volunteer hours, not only will McCain be outworked 50:1, but it’ll dwarf the productive hours of most US industrial enterprises.

But blowback is built-in.  How many times have I heard: “Your people have been to my door four times already!  Why do you keep coming here?”   Or one woman who wailed over the phone: “Please stop calling here. Please!”  We have codes that we can enter to indicate that the person should not be called again, but are they actually observed?  Most volunteers have doubts.  Also, how often is the database updated, compared to the frequency that the lists are printed?  There is certainly an interval, which means that a voter who has been assured that they will be put on the no-contact list could be contacted two more times before the update reaches the edges of the operation.

A heavy push in the last days is a given.  Traditional battleground states are familiar with the process, but this year more states are in play, and previously-ignored voters are now on the radar. Even in the usual states, the heavy election muscle is usually saved for the last few days due to resource limits, but Five Points has been getting it for week after week.  Another typical election trope is worrying about “peaking early”.  Obama has clearly peaked and he still has four days to go.   He’s not likely to lose anyone, but by keeping the pot boiling so fast, he’s sure annoying some folks.  Or, to put it more accurately – we are sure annoying some folks.  On the meta-level, electing Obama sure feels good.  The behavior of the two campaigns over the last few days reinforces that feeling with every newscast.  But when some resident harrumphs with irritation after I tell them why I’m on their door, I’m with them.

When they show some of the hope that Obama always talks about, when they tell me that things may finally change, I’m with them, too.

We’re not supposed to pay attention to polls, but I’ll be that I’m not the only one with Real Clear Politics bookmarked on my iphone.  Another thing we’re not supposed to talk about – Colorado is already a done deal.  An absolutely astounding two-thirds of Coloradans have already voted.  Even a declaration of war can’t save McCain now, at least not in the Rockies.  Nonetheless, the Denver Get Out The Vote effort will be thorough, well-coordinated and massive.  If it is not, strictly speaking, necessary any more, it is still a good rehearsal for… what?  Hmm.  Hmm.  Hmmmm.


Chapter 4:   We’re Not The Weirdest Anymore

Candidates for President on the 2008 California state ballot

1.  Barack Obama Democratic

2.John McCain Republican

3. Alan L. Keyes American Independent

4. Cynthia A. McKinney Green

5. Bob Barr Libertarian

6. Ralph Nader Peace and Freedom


Candidates for President on the 2008 Colorado state ballot

1. John McCain –  Republican

2.  Barack Obama –  Democrat

3.  Chuck Baldwin –  Constitution

4.  Bob Barr –  Libertarian

5.  Cynthia McKinney –  Green

6.   Jonathan E. Allen –  HeartQuake ‘08

7.   Gene C. Amondson –  Prohibition

8.   James Harris –  Socialist Workers

9.    Charles Jay –  Boston Tea

10.  Alan Keyes –  America’s Independent

11.  Gloria La Riva –  Socialism and Liberation

12.  Bradford Lyttle –  U.S. Pacifist

13.  Frank Edward McEnulty  Unaffiliated

14.  Brian Moore –  Socialist USA

15.  Ralph Nader –  Unaffiliated

16.  Thomas Robert Stevens  Objectivist

Case closed.


Chapter 5:  The Pumpkin-American Demographic

Today is Halloween.  Here in the Pro-American part of America, that still means something.

I know – out in the Bay, you’re gearing up for your black masses, your satanic rituals, your demon-consorting and your bacchanalia.  Here in the heartland, there are pumpkins on porches and scary decorations hanging into the trees.  Canvassing in the neighborhoods lets you ponder such things, and wonder…  what the hell kind of people carve pumpkins out here?  While there are a few acknowledged masterpieces, there are sizable percentages decorated with Sharpies (wtf!) and others with no sense of composition at all.  Odd shapes, ragged edges, like pumpkins you might see on spook night in the Cuckoo’s Nest, if you know what I mean.

Some chatting on the trail revealed the crux of the matter:  squirrels.  They are everywhere, and busy busy busy working this last blast of summer before Persephone heads south again.  A typical gourd is beyond them, but once the soft, tasty edges of a pumpkins interior has been revealed, it’s like the $6.95 All You Can Eat at Red Lobster.  Once they find a nice, orderly, proper christian carved pumpkin, they gnaw gnaw gnaw (hi scout!) and pretty soon it’s chaos and deformity.   Some pumpkinmakers, recalling their tragic experience of years past, go straight to the markers, cheating the squirrels out of their treat.

Another trick.  Another treat.  Another mystery solved.


The Final Chapter:   270 Electoral votes

More like 321.  After a long career, John McCain will be remembered as a loser.  A hollow suit with muddy hands.

Plenty of details to consider, though, as well as other races with reverberating national implications, state props, etc.   Election Night on Folsom Street, yo.

Democratically yours, a precinct at a time,