WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Lessons of a Presidential Campaign Volunteer

Jan 20, 2016

I recently moved to a farm in Southeast Iowa, where I'm surrounded by corn, cows and, now, snow. That's quite a change for a former city girl. I work from home so I don't have many opportunities to get integrated into my new community. I tell myself, you want opportunities? You create them.

So, in a step to meet people—and combat cabin fever—I volunteered to work on a presidential campaign. I mean, why not? Iowa is basking in the limelight as caucus night approaches. Might as well be part of that while it lasts.

I met with the candidate’s local organizer for coffee. Hannah is a recent college graduate from New York, assigned to Iowa until just after the caucus. I let her know how I thought I could best help the campaign—host fundraisers, write press releases, house volunteers. “I will do anything but knock on doors,” I told her.

She nodded and said, “What we really, really need is canvassers.”

Hannah was so persuasive, I didn’t even argue. I was hypnotized by her toothy smile. I simply said, “Okay.” The next thing I knew I had signed up — to knock on doors.

My first day the thermometer read 26 degrees. I showed up at the campaign office in my armor of Arctic-worthy clothes and received my instructions, along with a list of houses—34 of them—and off I went.

My boyfriend, Doug, a farmer, called and said, “I’m done with my chores so I can come with you.” I thanked him profusely. Doug’s lived in the area his entire life so he knows the backroads and the people. This eased my nerves.

No one was home at the first five houses. We left behind door hangers with the caucus time and location. So far the work wasn’t too hard.

As we entered town, the houses were closer together. But that didn’t make the job easier as the wind picked up and the temperature had dropped to 17 degrees. Plus it was snowing. Finally a few people answered their doors, including an 87-year-old woman living alone. It took her a while to get to the door and when she opened it her wig was tipped slightly off center. But by god, she was ready to talk politics. “Come in,” she insisted. She was such a strong supporter of our candidate that even though she needed a walker to get around she promised to show up on caucus night.

We talked to a man who works for the public works department. We talked about his job and admired his bright kitchen cabinets, which his ex-girlfriend had painted blue and gold. “Michigan colors,” he winced. Alas, he wouldn’t be able to caucus because of his schedule but he would definitely vote for our candidate come election time.

Beth Howard, a newcomer to southeast Iowa, said she was proud of herself for going out and getting to know her new community while knocking on doors for a Presidential candidate
Credit Beth Howard

  We stopped at the house of a businessman Doug knew. When he opened the door I could see his family photos, his fluffy sofa, his spotless carpet. He listened to our introduction but didn’t invite us in. Not because he was worried about our dirty boots, but because he was clearly voting for someone else.

The shift was supposed to last three hours; we were out for six. But we were victorious. We got five people to sign “commit to caucus” cards, meaning they would physically show up caucus night.

We turned in the day’s tally sheets back at the office, received congratulatory pats on the back by the staff, and drove the 15 miles home on the now dangerously slick roads.

The next day our route was all rural. I wondered how canvassing might be different, easier, if we were in a big city where houses are several feet apart instead of several miles. I also wondered how safe it would be to do this as a woman alone. Iowa may be known for the slogan “Iowa Nice,” but out in the country one can also find a little “Breaking Bad.” So I was glad Doug offered to join me again.

I also mused at how much more pleasant it would be to canvas in summer. The morning started off at one-below-zero, which made the previous day seem balmy. This time I wore my insulated Carhartt bibs, a Christmas present from Doug. (He had the good sense to shop for me at Farm & Fleet instead of Victoria’s Secret, which I now fully appreciated.) This time we had just 13 houses.

At the first house, the man who answered the door said the woman on our list had moved to Dubuque. We tried to talk him into voting for our candidate, but he just shook his head and closed the door. It went on like this for the next few houses.

We were careful not to be pushy, and we were polite to everyone, no matter whose side they were on. We did encounter contention several times and managed to maintain our Midwest manners. Our goal was not to raise blood pressure; it was to get people involved.

Once again, we returned to the campaign office, this time with zero cards. Still, we were congratulated—for surviving the cold. Especially by Hannah. “You guys are rock stars,” she chirped. “Really. You are awesome.”

I’m sure she says that to everyone, but really, I did feel kind of awesome. I was proud of myself for getting out there. For doing something I said I didn’t want to do and doing it anyway. Even if our candidate doesn’t get elected, I can take pride in knowing I was part of something bigger than myself.

I also got to meet my neighbors, and though we don’t all share the same political leanings, I have made progress in establishing myself as part of my new community. And that community, like all communities, is a melting pot of many different people. We are all humans, and we will all continue living side by side, supporting each other, no matter who becomes our next president.

Beth Howard is the author of "Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie" and the cookbook "Miss American Pie." She blogs at www.theworldneedsmorepie.com .

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.