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Canvassing in the Keystone State: A Story of Success, Slammed Doors and Swag

Bwogger Carolyn Ruvkun tagged along with the Columbia University Democrats on their annual campaign trip. Recapturing Columbia’s activist past, the dedicated Dems knocked on 50,000 doors, made the local news and almost got arrested. So open a cool can of Keystone, kids, we’re heading to the Keystone state!

Early on the Friday morning of Fall break, the Dems assembled at the sundial, grabbed their bags and bagels, and squished into silver vans. They left for Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District to campaign for the incumbent, Patrick Murphy, against his Republican opponent and (spoiler alert!) eventual winner, Mike Fitzpatrick. PA-8 serves the contested Bucks County, which has historically swung between the two congressional candidates. Fitzpatrick represented the district for one term before Murphy unseated him in 2006. Their 2006 race was the nation’s second most competitive, drawing a whopping 57% turnout. Murphy prevailed by a slim margin of 1518 votes. But 2010 presented very different circumstances for a district battered by the recession. An Iraq veteran who championed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Murphy proved a worthy candidate for the Dems’ support. The fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat faced Fitzpatrick, an extremely conservative Republican. Plus, Murphy’s campaign agreed to finance our lovely (read: ciggie-stained) rooms at the Days Inn, conveniently located by a real Amish Market.

Though briefly delayed by a fight in the Days Inn parking lot, the Dems got fired up on Saturday morning with the Cupid Shuffle, then headed to their “staging location,” the local campaign headquarters. Murphy organizers presented us “turf” —long lists of names, routes and addresses —for canvassing. We were instructed to knock on the doors of these registered Democrats and remind them to vote. Sounds simple, but what a spectacle.

Blasting Pretty Boy Swag, we sped through the sleepy suburbs of Bucks County in our silver vans lovingly named the Sketch-mobiles. (The Dems know how to make an appearance; a Columbia Democrat speaks at a noticeably higher decibel level than an average person). My van spent most of the weekend canvassing in freakishly uniform upper-middle class neighborhoods that resembled the set of American Beauty. But those “little boxes” held true gems; we met some crazy characters. Some were excited about our endeavors. One eager middle-aged dad in a strapping sweater vest offered me and my canvassing partner soda, and urged us to “kick some ass!” Others accused us of being “fucking naïve” socialists. Overall, the friendly folks outnumbered the sassy and downright rude. I talked to Bucks County residents about their Halloween decorations, the origins of their last names and their colorful mezuzahs. Also, apparently people think it’s okay to answer their doors wearing only boxers.

When one elderly man opened the door, his enormous Collie escaped to the front yard. “I’ll vote for Murphy,” he grinned, “but only if you bring my dog back.” He disappeared into his house, and I ran around his yard like a maniac trying to tame the wild beast.  The next night, my canvassing buddy and I visited a house hosting a pre-teen’s party. When we rang the doorbell, a bubbly blonde woman motioned for us to come in. We awkwardly loitered by her front door until she realized we weren’t invited. “Actually we’re volunteers for Patrick Murphy,” my canvassing partner explained apologetically. “Come on in anyway! We just made some mozzarella sticks!” responded the woman, who we quickly realized was totally wasted. Her daughter gave us some major ‘tude, but we still got fed. “I have to tell you girls, I’m not voting for Patrick Murphy,” revealed out host/hero. “See, Republicans can be nice too!”

When no one answered the door, we posted sticky flyers urging the resident to vote Democratic. Oddly, many Democratic supporters thought we were campaigning for the other guys; a crimson stripe at the top of the sticky prominently featured the uneasy faces of Sarah Palin and George Bush. In between their two photos read: “If you don’t vote…they win.” Never mind that neither George Bush nor Sarah Palin was running in this election… Granted, a GOP-controlled Congress meant their policies would win, but it was frustrating to see nuanced political ideas reduced to bite-sized issues and rivalries.

Our compulsive canvassing even bothered Democrats. “Yes I’ll vote for Patrick Murphy, just please get that sticky off my door,” snapped one woman as she slammed her door in my face. Another voter was so frustrated by the constant calling and canvassing she switched sides. “Is this a joke?” she asked. Two campaigners had already knocked on her door, and several others had called her house. “Murphy annoyed me so much, I voted for Fitzpatrick.” Still, the campaign organizers stressed that every time we knocked on someone’s door, the voter was 20% more likely to go to the polls. I wondered how much the voters really cared, how informed they were. But who am I to evaluate who qualifies as an educated voter?

Among the apathetic, some were still passionately partial.  Campaign organizers asked the Dems in one van to post Murphy signs around Bucks County. Soon, a woman in a white Escalade started stealthily trailing them and snapping photos. Moments later a police squad surrounded the van. Officers asked the Dems to step outside with their hands above their head and proceeded to search the van for allegedly stolen Fitzpatrick signs. “Bristol, Pa., cops nab van crammed with Murphy-Fitzpatrick sign switchers,” read the local newspaper’s completely biased headline. For the record, the Dems weren’t actually violating criminal law: rather than stealing Fitzpatrick signs, they stuck the Patrick Murphy signs directly in front of and behind his opponent’s. Crafty!

Sure, the Dems may have almost gotten arrested, eaten cold pizza for four straight days, and walked several miles in the cold, but the campaign trip was a genuinely exciting opportunity to engage in the political process. As the bright sun filtered through a canopy of colorful Fall trees, the Dems sprinted from one house to another. Eager and energetic, they’re truly invested in the success of their candidates and country. At the “Democrats Group Therapy Session” the day after the disappointing election results, the Dems danced to Party in the USA.

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  • I mean seriousla you guys.... says:

    @I mean seriousla you guys.... too many words. words words words. How I hate to read words. Jesus Christ you guys.

    1. ... says:

      @... haterz gon’ hate.

  • fail says:

    @fail liberals suck. click thumbs down on this if you’re a democrat and really insecure about yourself

    1. ... says:

      @... I see what you did there.

    2. person says:

      @person Maybe I’m too much in the habit of being self deprecating, but I read this as a shout-out to other Democrats who are insecure about themselves and want to show it.

      You probably didn’t mean it like that, but as an insecure Democrat I just wanted to know that although I vote you down, it is not for the reasons you imagine.

  • Toomsday says:

    @Toomsday State of independence has gone red. Not much of a success for the dems…

    1. interesting. says:

      @interesting. Interesting how outspoken the Republicans are in victory, and how silent in defeat. Nary a single Republican could be found here in ’08, and now the Democrats are cowering for the most part as well. Don’t be complacent about public opinion, and don’t derive your pride from it– your heart will sink one day as well if you do. Speak your convictions and keep your pride when spurned as well, friend.

      1. interesting. says:

        @interesting. (I say this as someone who was more than a little happy about what happened in Pennsylvania, by the way).

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous spec’s story was better

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous the sign thing is scummy

  • boohoo says:

    @boohoo This story seems quite tame. Try canvassing in NYCHA buildings in East Harlem for a month, by yourself, and then tell me about your experience…

  • i am a columbia dem says:

    @i am a columbia dem and i loved this article.

    1. Thanks says:

      @Thanks so much for writing this, Carolyn! So glad Bwog sent you our way :)

  • Er... says:

    @Er... “canvassing partner”? as in, the reporter canvassed for the democratic candidate? ethics fail, bwog.

    1. right says:

      @right because media never encourages participants in events to write accounts of their experiences? bwog isn’t the fucking associated press.

  • For real? says:

    @For real? If you’re going to go an canvass, don’t put pictures of yourself on facebook STEALING EVERYTHING THAT ISN’T NAILED DOWN from a Dunkin’ Donuts. You know who you are.

  • Stephen says:

    @Stephen Great story, Carolyn!

  • Meh says:

    @Meh Idealistic Young Democrats are boring. Two wings of one business party.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous i <3 Carolyn.

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