At Four Barrel Coffee Shop on Valencia Street, I order a tall liberal soy latte before getting to work calling voters across Colorado, Florida and Wisconsin. It’s raining outside, an ugly grey day. Inside, I’m sitting beside Kat, with long blond hair wearing a Catholic college sweatshirt who tells each person she speaks to, “I’m a high school volunteer for the Obama campaign.” She claims people are nicer to her that way. And she really is in High School.
But in comparison with a couple of weeks ago the mood on the ground of the Obama volunteer center is cheerier, more euphoric. “You tell them me and my whole family is voting for Obama, in fact we already did. Every one of us. If my daughter could vote, she’d a voted for him too,” says a woman from Colorado.
“I’m voting for him. Don’t worry. I know it’s Tuesday. I know where to go and I won’t forget” says another.
A flier on my clipboard reads, “One in 25 people will stay at home on Election Day unless you call and remind them to get out the vote.” Yet, the biggest complaints come from people who’ve been pestered too many times. “I think I might have lost a couple of people who were tired of phone calls,” says a tall, bald guy sitting across from me at the table. One woman tells me she’s been called twenty times, but she’s still voting for Obama. And another woman, from Wisconsin, gives me the phone equivalent of a hand pumping handshake, “I’m just glad you’re an Obama person. We’ve gotten ten of those McCain Palin calls in just the last couple weeks.” After I hang up, it occurs to me she’s probably talking about robocalls.
It’s funny to be calling people from a coffee shop with four animal heads on the wall and a pair of antlers. The kind of place you can imagine Palin ordering a brew, if it weren’t also located in the city of sin and fornication, San Francisco, where sales of a former favorite Chilean wine, Palin Syrah, have plummeted since she joined the Republican ticket. In the back volunteers sprawl at folding tables and squeeze beside bicycle wheels and use old ironing boards to hold their clipboards while they make calls. Jeremiah Wright’s name pops up in a phone conversation across the table. “I’ve been a Catholic all of my life, and this is the most important election of our lifetimes,” the Obama volunteer tries to talk the voter down.
In 2004, Harper’s magazine writer Wells Tower infiltrated the Bush campaign’s “shock troops” organization in Florida in a piece called “Bird Dogging the Bush Vote.” He had hoped to observe election fraud, but instead only observed a guy named Larry stealing some anti-Bush pamphlets from voters’ doors. Tower writes, “The flyer traffics in facts and arguments, which in their essential nature as facts, as arguments, carry about as much weight in the matterless void in which this election has been unfolding as a sprig of Florida crabgrass drifting through outer space.”
Which could be a description of this year’s election, where despite taking public financing, McCain and Palin have been heartily fundraising for their joint McCain-Palin Victory 2008 committee for funding robocalls and last minute attack ads in swing states. With the right wing portrait of a terrorist loving, baby killing, muslim, socialist black dude with an America-hating pastor, an "illegal alien aunt who defied deporation order; dirty tricks", an anti-christ who is going to raise taxes on Joe the unlicensed plumber who recently acquired a country music contract, and, when he is not occupied by the rest of that list, cause the death of Israel, Obama truly is emerging as the most terrifying candidate this side of William Jefferson Clinton that any Republican has ever dreamed up.
Although the Obama campaign may go down in history as putting together one of the most amazing ground games on record, our lists of Florida voters, rumor has it, were compiled in the 1980’s. Not promising. Instead of relying on reaching the names on my list, I use a broad brush to test anyone who picks up. “Are you planning to vote on Tuesday? Are you supporting Obama in this election?” My bluetooth is broken, so I rotate my cell phone back and forth between my ears when they start to get too warm. “Brain cancer for change,” I think as I work my way to the bottom of another sheet.
Toward the end of the night, a coordinator informs us that at the peak, 95 volunteers worked simultaneously, breaking a previous record of 50, and altogether 290 volunteers made a stunning 15,000 phone calls from the Four Barrel locale alone.
“Who do you want me to vote for,” an older woman asks methrough the strained connection of my cellphone. “I want you to vote for whoever you want to vote for,” I enunciate carefully, and loudly. “Of course it would be great if it was Barack Obama.” “Obama? Barack Obama? Oh, you got it. Obama. Me and him we’re both voting for Obama then. You sound like a nice person.” Is this how democracy supposed to be? This easily influenced? The nice voice of a stranger on the phone is worth two votes or more? Although I suppose relying on a flesh and blood voice beats taking election advice from a machine generated tape recording. Facts, as arguments, carry about as much weight in the matterless void in which this election has been unfolding as a sprig of Florida crabgrass drifting through outer space.At the end of the night I’ve made 113 calls and left messages on machines where I could. If one in 25 voters gets to the polls because of my call, that’s four and a half voters that wouldn’t vote but for my help. I could swear as I put on my coat and get out my umbrella to go back out into the sturm und drang that a moose’s head on the wall winks fleetingly as I walk past.