For most people October is the season of brilliant blue skies, golden trees, and crisp gusts of wind. Every four years, however, for the passionate foot soldiers of presidential campaigns, it means something else: door-to-door canvassing in New Hampshire.
Why do hundreds of people from Massachusetts head north every weekend into the hills of the “Live Free or Die” state? Because, very simply, the decisions of its citizens sometimes decide the future of the country. We already know that New Hampshire’s role in the primaries makes it an essential first spot for anyone seeking to become president. But what some people forget is that it is often the critical last stop as well.
In 2000, for example, Al Gore lost the state by about 7,000 votes. If he had carried it, he would not have needed those extra 537 votes in Florida. Under those circumstances, there would have been no recount, no hanging chads, no Supreme Court decision, no George W. Bush, and no war in Iraq.
After Labor Day, when Barack Obama was comfortably ahead, it seemed that New Hampshire was going to turn blue, as it did in 2008. But now it is swinging back to its conservative roots, which it did in the 2010 mid-term election. And so it is again necessary to court New Hampshire voters one-by-one, at their front doors.
We have been doing this as a family for four presidential elections. Our 14-year-old daughter Katie started her run as a 2-year-old asleep in a stroller at Al Gore’s headquarters in Manchester. Over the course of the years, we have walked down streets in all kinds of neighborhoods: carefully concealed trailer parks, clusters of McMansions, poorly lit apartment buildings, and prim colonials.
When you ring a doorbell, you never quite know what is going to happen. Sometimes people are delighted to see you and eager to discuss politics. Some look from their yard work and bristle as soon as you start up their walks.
Once I came upon a women straight out of a Depression era photograph, exhausted, emaciated, with two children gathered at her knees, a 6-week-old baby in her arms, and an expression of sadness that I have never forgotten. Another woman told me she was too stupid to follow the news, so she let her husband decide. I tried to inspire her with the story of Susan B. Anthony’s 65 year campaign to earn women the vote. A retired Navy captain invited me onto his porch for a long discussion of his anxieties about national security.
On one occasion in 2004, after listening to my pitch for John Kerry, a spandex-clad homeowner was indignant. “I just cannot believe that our wonderful president has to waste so much of his precious time on this stupid election,” she said. No sale. (I should have known I was in trouble when she introduced me to her dog Reagan.)
Today the technology is so precise that campaigns can select the exact people they want volunteers to speak to. Recently our family was asked to visit homes that had voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but did not cast ballots at all in 2010. They needed to be reminded gently how critical it was for them to turn out again this time. The visits were thus relatively easy, except for the man who chewed me out for waking his baby (at that point screaming in the background) by ringing the doorbell.
Though climate change has made it a hard year for apples and maple syrup, there are still many reasons to spend part of an afternoon strolling through New Hampshire communities. The small encounters at voters’ front doors represent the essence of democracy; and when added up, they may determine the fate of the world.