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What I’m Learning As I Canvass My Neighborhood for Bernie

Mark Haim Mar 5

COLUMBIA, Missouri–Of late, I’ve been walkin’ the streets—in my own neighborhood, mind you—but walking around and talking with folks. Some I know. Some are strangers. But I’ve knocked on all their doors and struck up some very interesting conversations along the way.

I know canvassing doesn’t fall within everyone’s comfort zone, but I’m the sort of activist who really enjoys getting out and talking with folks. And Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, the first serious, really progressive national campaign in the Democratic Party at least since Jesse Jackson’s in 1988, has this aging baby-boomer inspired and hitting the campaign trail.

While calls for a “political revolution” might seem overstated, Bernie is seeking to make dramatic changes, including taking money out of politics, breaking up the big banks and ending Wall Street’s stranglehold on our government, seriously addressing economic inequality, strengthening—not gutting—Social Security, Medicare for all, free public education through the university level, a serious program to address climate change, ending mass incarceration, recalibrating U.S. foreign policy, to make it less interventionist, and much more.

Soliciting votes for Bernie in the March 15 Missouri primary is the perfect excuse to pull me away from my laptop, get me to leave Facebook and other such cyber-distractions behind. Instead, I’m enjoying making eye contact, shaking a few neighbors’ hands, hearing their thoughts on matters of the day, while taking in the sights, and even the smells, of their abodes.

I happen to live in one of the more progressive neighborhoods of Columbia, Missouri, a somewhat left-of-center, college town enclave of 100,000-plus, in an otherwise right-of-center state. So, most of my interactions at the door have been positive. About a month ago, however, I spent a three-day weekend several hours north of home, hitting the doors as a volunteer with the campaign in Ottumwa, Iowa, in the countdown to the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Regardless the location, at most doors where I find folks home, I get an at least passable reception. Once I’ve introduced myself as a volunteer with the campaign and asked a qualifying question regarding their intention to vote, I’m able to get most folks who are planning to vote to at least reveal some of their intentions. And, interestingly, in Iowa, even just days or hours before the caucus, many were still undecided, making me feel it was good for me to be there, engaging them and sharing literature about Bernie and his platform.

Those who’ve not done this before should note that canvassing isn’t about arguing with folks one disagrees with, but rather it’s about identifying supporters, encouraging them to be sure to vote, recruiting volunteers, and attempting to persuade the undecideds. For the latter, I’ve come up with an elevator speech—with two main points—of not much more than 30 seconds. I emphasize that Bernie Sanders as a stand-up guy who’s standing up for us, the 99%, while the other candidates are compromised by the influence of big money. I rattle off a handful of examples. I then switch to the issue of electability and express my belief, based upon polls and favorability surveys, that Bernie is not just preferable but also more likely to beat Trump or whoever the GOP settles on. 

Responses vary widely, and I enjoy drawing these out. Bernie supporters are often enthusiastic. Some Democrats, more often folks 55 or older, tell me they lean toward Hillary based mostly on concerns regarding electability. This has led to productive discussions and referring people to RealClearPolitics.com. I have encountered some who tout Hillary’s experience and others who make it clear they think it’s time we have a woman as president. Many Hillary supporters tell me they are “leaning” her way, but not at all excited about her candidacy. If I sense openness to a different perspective, I’m happy to take the opportunity. But with her strong supporters, I thank them for their time, shake the dust from my shoes, and move on to more fertile dirt. Again, no arguing.

Some interactions really get me thinking, like folks who are undecided between Bernie and Trump. Believe it or not, there is some overlap in appeal, as both are outsiders who promise big change. One such voter I spoke with was a white male around 40 with only a high school diploma. He's living very modestly in an aging duplex, and sees little economic opportunity. Trump is promising prosperity, and claims that he knows how to make deals and make this country great again. That part of his message overlaps with Bernie's promise to fight for the middle class. Of course, the devil is in the details, as I explained to this voter, and Trump is planning tax cuts for billionaires, while Bernie has an economic plan that actually could work.

Overall, I’ve been heartened by the responses. While there are many disaffected folks out there, some of them thoroughly disengaged from the political process, there are many who are paying attention, and at least some who are passionate about what’s going on, and really excited to have a candidate in Bernie they can really get behind. And those supportive voters will be entered into the Sanders campaign database, building toward our Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) effort just before and on primary day.

Canvassing allows one to get their finger on the pulse of the body politic. We generally tend to travel in like-minded circles and getting out and talking with all of the folks on a block gives one a much better sense as to where we, collectively, are at. It also is a great opportunity to convey, quite personally, a sense of hope and empowerment that is so sorely needed on the left today. I’m not a Pollyanna at the door, but I do try my best to give folks a sense that, acting together, we can make a real difference, and that it’s up to all of us to do what we can.

While Sanders’ insurgent campaign is drawing thousands of volunteers around the country, its trajectory is challenging. The aim is to go from virtually zero organization, outside of Vermont, to a national campaign, with a ground game in every state, in a matter of months. We are very much the underdogs in this effort. But, it is my sincere hope, whatever the outcome of the 2016 election, that we can build upon this campaign and create a participatory organization that will become an effective vehicle for the progressive populist wing of our citizenry to build power and win elections at all levels of governance in the years ahead. And people-to-people politics is an essential part of the “political revolution,” that Bernie has instigated.

Mark Haim is a longtime peace, justice and sustainability activist based in Columbia, Missouri.

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