Knocking on Doors in Iowa: It’s Bigger Than Bernie or Warren

I’m riding an emotional roller coaster out here. Talking to real voters at their doors grounds me.

McNair Scott Jan 21, 2020

Wednesday, Jan. 15
If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA — It’s 5 degrees and sunny. Crisp and sharp. It feels good to walk, and knock, and talk. So far all the news about the progressive infighting hasn’t come up in the conversations I’m having at the doors. Is it just a Twitter-bubble battle? 

The mix of anger, frustration versus the overwhelming desire for a unified movement that has been warring in my head all week is beginning to fade into the background. It’s late afternoon, and most people are still not home from work. I crack open storm doors and leave flyers with caucus info wedged inside of them. The sun goes down. I’m in a low-income, multi-racial working-class neighborhood. A family’s exiting their car. They’re all Bernie supporters who invite me in from the cold while they fill out their commitment-to-caucus cards. They don’t give a single fuck about the Bernie-Warren drama. Not one. It doesn’t come up. It’s a relief. I collect three commitment cards. 

‘I’m with your guy,’ he says, putting out his cigarette in a pile of butts as he reaches for a commitment card.

Out here knocking on doors for Bernie Sanders, I’ve let myself feel more than I usually allow. I feel the stakes of this race. I allow myself to hope in the face of so much suffering, greed and suicidal social inertia. The scary thing about letting yourself hope, is that it’s just a bad bet. You’re setting yourself up to fall. There is so much work to be done, and so little time. 

It’s the hottest decade on record, Australia’s burning, Indonesia’s flooding, ocean hot spots are killing a million birds just like that, mass migration from the Global South is increasing societal tensions that help fuel facism. Terrifying tipping points are a matter of time. For real doom and gloom. The climate crisis is here. 

Still, hope is rising up in me. I’m feeling sanguine. My favorite word. I’m taking solace in Bernie’s increasing popularity, in the movement formations endorsing him daily. It feels like we are all surging. It’s a movement moment in the United States. For the first time, candidates can compete without taking the money that makes them puppets and liars. An electoral revolution is possible. Scalable crowdfunding technology and Bernie made this real in 2016. Now, the fight to remake the Democratic Party is on. 

And the thing is, it’s not just Bernie this time. There’s also Elizebeth Warren. A true anti-corruption warrior. Two progressive choices to upend the status quo. Combine their poll numbers and it’s a clear shot to the top. 

Two weeks ago, I met my first Warren supporter at her door. We were both excited and supportive. Her house was an explosion of baby toys. She invited me in from the cold. She’s a Warren precinct captain responsible for rallying her troops on caucus night. But she loves Bernie too. He’s her strong second. We talk about the polls, who’s attracting which demographic. We talk about the need for unity and wonder who will back who and when. 

This of course, was before things turned ugly. 

The Warren’s camp is angry at Bernie’s door-knocking talking points. Then, a day before this month’s nationally televised debate, CNN publishes claims by anonymous sources close to Warren who accuse Bernie of saying in 2018 that a woman can’t be president. This plays out through the debate and then a hot mic keeps the story going another day. 

If a movement moment is defined by the crystallization of many different struggles into a cohesive unified front, what’s the opposite? 

This is demoralizing. What a wildly cynical move. From a campaign perspective, I understand going hard. But from a movement perspective, I don’t get it. This fight has to be bigger than a campaign. How are we going to win against Wall Street Democrats and beat Trump if we act like this? 

Like so many of us dedicated to this fight, I can’t stop reading and talking about the controversy. I need to get away from my phone. Away from the punditry. What’s the saying? The best antidote to despair is action. It’s a relief to be knocking doors. Its grounding. Back on the street, I knock again.  “Come in!” 

Ha, yeah, I’m not gonna do that. I shout through the door, “I came from New York to talk to you about Bernie Sanders.” 

“Yeah, I said come in,” he says. I step inside. “I’m with your guy,” he says, putting out his cigarette in a pile of butts as he reaches for the commit card. 

So far in my experience, the more working-class the neighborhood, the more people are ready to turn out for Bernie. This turf with two story rows of small, one-bedroom apartments is a golden vein of support. Doors open, lighting the dark. I witness, for just a few minutes at a time, dozens of lives. Older folk, alone in the glow of their 60-inch television. Toddlers tipping around beige wall-to-wall carpeting. A young couple sitting down to dinner at a small kitchen table. In an hour, with no persuasion, I collect seven caucus cards. My best day yet.

Thursday, Jan. 16
The circle’s complete.

I’m recharging at Nick’s Bar and Grill. My damn iPhone battery can’t handle the cold. It dropped from 90 to 20 percent to completely dead in two minutes. But not before I could pull up the map and pinch it towards the closest shelter. I sit at the bar and demolish a greasy pile of fish and fries while the phone and an external battery charge up. A bank of TVs is silent and full of campaign ads. Tom Steyer’s over-eager face animates the screen. His ad buy is huge. He’s everywhere. Mayor Pete is also ubiquitous. In his ad, hopeful faces in slow-mo watch him tell tales of better jobs and whatever else this dude talks about. I liked him at first, but he’s just another slick politician. You can’t trust a person who takes the big money. You just can’t. That’s facts. Historical, data-based fact. 

Where’s Bernie? I have barely seen him on TV. I take a crispy bite of haddock, dripping with tartar sauce. Ummm, so good, so bad. When I look up, Bernie’s on the screen. The next one over is Yang, his clear messaging conveyed with or without sound. Big fonts pop and fade to drive it home. 

Yes, I do want $1,000 a month. Give it! Yang is a harbinger. Universal basic income, a “freedom dividend.” Whatever you want to call, it will become commonplace in the next few years. He’s the first, but won’t be the last. Smart dude. Luckily people aren’t buying the Silicon Valley tech savior thing. I look back to Bernie. His ad is just bad. Simple as that. It doesn’t translate at all without sound. Come ON. It doesn’t even look good. Fuck sakes. This is frustrating. We have to do better. 

I pay my bill and walk out the door to finish my route. Most people aren’t home tonight and I leave flyers updated with all the relevant caucus info. The highlight of the night was a steelworker, home with his infant daughter. His wife’s in bed sleeping off a cold. They were torn between Bernie and Steyer up to a few days ago when a call came through from a Bernie volunteer. Must have been a solid pitch. They decided then to go all-in with Bernie. And here I am a few days later to seal the deal, getting a commit card, making sure they know the caucus location and that they have a plan to get there on time. I come back later to put a sign in their lawn. This one feels good. The circle is complete. The campaign’s doing this right. 

My friends grab me up in the jeep and we head back to the field office. HQ. Constant Chatter. 

“Hello, I’m calling to get out the vote for Bernie Sanders. The caucus is 16 days away.”

“Hello, can we count on you to caucus for Bernie?”

“Hello, we really need help on the last days before the caucus, Feb 1 to 3. Are you available to help get out the vote? Oh great, thanks so much for jumping in. We need everyone! We’ve gone from fourth to first place because of people like you and we can take this all the way.” 

We defrost in the warmth, sharing some stories, but mostly we’re easing back from the day.  By law the calls have to stop at 9 pm. The Cedar Rapids field office team rolls out to get drinks and sing karaoke. We make a decision to put work talk on hold. The conversation goes a little deeper, more personal. This crew of strangers is starting to become familiar. 

Friday, Jan. 17
Admit that the waters around you have grown.

Okay, so the Bernie ads on TV really need work. But God damn. Did you see the “Times They Are a-Changin” ad that went up online? I saw this at the office and showed it to some friends. Today, when everyone left our rental, I watched it alone. Full attention, present, the volume up.

It’s hard for me to write about. I’ll start with the ad —  a serene cover by a young female vocalist, Lia Rose, of a Bob Dylan classic floats out of the speakers. It’s a tribute to young people fighting for a better world. Scenes of climate chaos. Scenes of solidarity, of hugs. Scenes of Erica Garner marching for justice. (Rest in power, Erica!) Bernie’s voice is intermittently spliced in asking if we will fight for someone we don’t even know, for a government of justice, decency, compassion. 

It’s overwhelming. It’s terrifying and beautiful. I’m straight-up sobbing. I knew I would. I’m getting soft out here. 

Knocking on doors, talking to people. Believing that we can win. Wanting to believe that we can win. I’ve let my guard down, and this ad, this beautiful tribute to social movements, to love, to long odds, and to the fight that animates the Sanders’ campaign hit me hard. I’m so grateful for this piece. It’s masterful. Effective. Honest. After this totally fucked week of progressive infighting, it’s a good reminder of what’s important. I’ve taken the day off to rest. Tomorrow is the weekend, and I’m ready again to crunch through snow and slide on ice to knock on doors. 

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