Calling Ohio Voters

I tried another few hours of phone-banking today, this time at a Carpenters’ Union local in downtown Oakland. A little different from yesterday: The voters were called were in Ohio; Cincinnati to be exact. Right away, Also, the operation was a little more professional. Instead of depending on volunteers with their own cellphones and paper lists of registered voters, the heart of today’s operation was a bank of PCs running some call center software that ran you through a series of dialing and contact screens. The big goal was to find Kerry voters who needed help getting to the polls, though the message was “please get out and vote.”

The automation was a little disconcerting at first, because every time you end one call, the software placed a new one automatically. The screen you saw as the phone on the other end rang showed who you were calling, their age, their precinct, and included a record of whether they had been called before. The most important thing to get clued into was the voter’s name — wanted to make sure that if someone answered, I had figured out how to pronounce it or how I would fake it. I couldn’t trust myself to try names s like “Jungkunz” — an actual Ohio voter name — on the fly.

I probably started calling people around 2:30 p.m. Pacific time — so 5:30 and early dinner time for people in Cincinnati. I was encouraged after talking to some Florida voters yesterday, but still a little apprehensive. To me, Cincinnati is Republican territory, and I wasn’t clear whether we were calling registered Democrats or just everyone in a certain group of precincts.

The very first guy I got on the line said he was going to vote but wasn’t sure who he’d be voting for. “Probably Bush,” he offered. “I can’t stand Kerry’s wife.” I’ve heard speculation about whether Theresa Heinz Kerry has made a negative impression, but I was nonplussed. I hadn’t anticipated someone seriously citing her as a reason not to vote for her husband.

“I just don’t like the way she talks to people,” the Cincinnati voter said. “She’s not one of us.”

“Not one of us?”

“Not one of us little people,” he said.

“Well,” I said. I hesitated, because you just know the last thing you want to do, if you believe people are keeping any little corner of their mind open, is to antagonize them. “Well, you know, George Bush isn’t really one of the little people, either. He comes from a pretty wealthy family,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s true. But I think I’d rather have him living next door to me than what’s-her-name,” the Cincinnati voter said.

“Yeah, you’re probably right. If you’re thinking about who’d be better to have come over to a barbecue, Bush would probably be more fun,” I said. I didn’t add what I hope the guy would plug in himself — that this whole thing is more like having a barbecue guest who burns your house down and then tells you he did it for your own safety. But he responded, “Well, that’s right, he’d be better at a barbecue.” I said good night and signed off.

Out of 80 or 100 calls I made today, about half of them wound up with me leaving an answering machine message. I just hoped my encouragements to get out and vote weren’t going to Bush households. Of the ones where a live person answered, a handful of the targeted voters were out or couldn’t come to the phone. About two-thirds of the rest said they’d be voting for Kerry. No one needed a ride. I got one young-sounding guy on the phone who said, “No problem! I’ll be out bright and early ’cause I don’t have to work tomorrow. And I’ve got four friends who have never voted before. I made them all register, and I’m picking them all up and taking them to the polls.” Hearing that, after listening to the man complain about the prospective first lady, I found myself pumping one fist as I thanked the guy for everything he’d done.

Kerry voters generally would, as soon as they heard why I was calling, come right out and say who they were voting for. Some said they’re tired of all the campaign phone calls. “It’s nice to get a real person instead of a recording for once,” one man said. The non-Kerry voters were more circumspect — if I really wanted to know whether they were voting for Kerry, I’d have to ask point blank, at which point I’d be told it was none of my business or that the voter would rather not talk about it, thanks, goodbye. But I got one 74-year-old woman who told me she was going to be working the polls and snapped, “I’m definitely not voting for Kerry.” I said — how California of me — she sounded angry about it. She was. She said she hated the fact Kerry had emphasized his Vietnam record. “I’d like to know what he’s done in the last 20 years, not what he did 35 years ago. You change so much in that time you’re just not the same person. Who gets to talk about what they did 35 years ago to explain themselves? What I want to know is what he will do.” She was worked up, but I did offer that I, the Kerry-Edwards volunteer, had never been particularly happy with Kerry’s reliance on his Vietnam service as one of pillar of his campaign. And I added that I agreed that I was more interested in what was going to happen in the next four years, especially about the mess in Iraq. The poll worker told me she was worried about that, too, “but Kerry isn’t the one to fix it.” She wound up apologizing for “blowing off steam,” told me she had been getting a lot of Democratic phone calls — none from Republicans — and that she was just a little fed up. “I’m hoping and praying we do the right thing,” she said. Me too, I told her.

The guy I spent the most time talking with was named Joe. He told me he was voting, but hadn’t figured out for which candidate yet. I asked him whether he had any questions or anything about the election he wanted to talk about. He said, “I sure wish that they’d take care of people here before they go all over the world helping people.” Joe said he’s 44, with four kids. He’s on Social Security disability because he contracted a chronic lung disease while working as a drywall installer. It took him four years to get his Social Security payments, which he said come to $950 a month — barely enough to cover his $940 a month house payment. He said he felt like Kerry would do better for people like him than Bush has, “but then there’s the abortion thing.” He talked himself through that, saying that even though he’s against abortion, he does see choice as a matter of individual rights and added, “What are you going to do about a 15-year-old who gets raped and is forced to have the baby? That just messes her up for life.”

I didn’t say much, really. Just listened: He said Ohio has lost 250,000 jobs this year and asked who’s doing anything about it? He was angry about jobs going overseas; about Mexicans and Arabs, who he believes can come to the United States and work all they want and not pay taxes. He said he’s concerned about the prospect for younger relatives who have gone to college and gotten advanced degrees. “And you know what they’re doing now? They’re working on car lots.” After 20 minutes, he’d pretty much talked himself around to voting for Kerry. “Yeah, I’m going to do it,” he said. “If the right guy doesn’t win, people are going to start fires. They’re going to start riots.”

Will any of the talk make a difference? I mean, will it get Kerry elected? I really have no idea. Part of me feels that a lot of people who have felt unengaged sense something is terribly wrong with Bush’s presidency and want to do something to change it; that a lot of these people actually are encouraged to act by hearing from other people on the phone. And part of me believes that people have just made up their minds and the whole effort is a wash. I guess we’ll have a better idea tomorrow.

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