Concord, New Hampshire, Thursday, Jan. 3, 8:30 a.m., 4°F
It’s hard to believe we actually get votes and elect presidents this way—standing on street corners waving signs and yelling, driving miles and walking miles and missing three dozen people, talking to a dozen more who aren’t even slightly interested just so we can talk to one or two people who might possibly, with a lot more coaxing and contact, be persuaded to vote our way.
It is, after all, the way they really want to vote, the candidate so many say they agree with, but no, they’re going to vote for (fill in name here). We have a hard time understanding that. We’re frustrated about it and talk about it all the time; we come up with responses but no resolution.
We’re a small, underfunded campaign and there are only eleven of us for this town and the towns around it. We’re vastly outnumbered and months late getting to each person and neighborhood. So how come we’re so excited about doing it?
I left my house at 2 a.m. yesterday to get a plane to New Hampshire, via Chicago. I’ve only flown three other times since 2001. Before that I had a job that involved charter flights—lots of room and personal attention and few rules. So to me flying is misery now, compounded by my views on living in a police state.
But the train cost three times as much—a reminder of why I’m supporting the candidate I am. What’s old hat to many is new and annoying to me—seats too close for a laptop or stretch (I’m 5’10”, a statistically average man), too many people to climb over to bother getting up. The seats are perfectly sized to be absolute—well, I was going to say torture, but what’s coming makes me pause.
I have a choice—sit up straight and let my head loll around hurting my neck as I doze and wake, or hurt my lower back by scrunching down so the seat supports my head. I go back and forth so both hurt half as much. When I’m not amusing myself with that I read—The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.
The first chapter is about how the CIA perverted electroshock, an already perverse method of “therapy,” into torture. With the help of a few psychologists they combined it with all the familiar abuses we’ve been hearing about into a scientific program to break people. Two of the chief techniques are sleep deprivation and stress positions, so I am in an appropriate state to read this. No hallucinations yet but everything about this trip feels a little unreal to me already.
Friday, Jan. 4, 11°F
Couldn’t get to my stored winter clothes so before canvassing the first night I bought a hat and gloves. Now when I get smiles talking to people, I can’t decide if it’s the funny hat, the hat hair, ice on my beard fellow volunteers call my Mountain Man look, or sheer delight in the democratic process. No, I’m not being sarcastic.
People—most people—in New Hampshire seem to love this: being first, the “retail politics” of the state, not the media blitzkrieg but the door-to-door neighbor-to-neighbor Norman Rockwell-Frank Capra extraordinary ordinariness of it. Most of them even seem to love us, funny-sounding southern flatlander radicals from California, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey who have come here because we believe in the process, believe our candidate deserves a hearing, and want to help him get it.
We hold that belief in the way that a child holds the belief early Christmas morning that s/he actually will get the pony. That is, we believe in the potential of the process, even though it’s knocked us down and kicked us senseless more times than we can count. We hope that a better-than-expected vote here will lead to coverage which will lead to money which will lead to votes in the next primary and so on, the underdog insurgent everybody agrees with but nobody votes for.
The hope is held through the week, immovable at first, then rising and falling in response to 12-hour days in the cold, caffeine, blood sugar, excitement from supporters and wannabe supporters “I really like your guy, but he can’t win. I’m voting for __________.” We show people the poll graph—76 percent of the people in our party agree with him most, out of all the candidates running, on the issues.
The People are unmoved; the circular logic of ‘nobody will vote for him because he can’t win because nobody will vote for him’ is unassailable. Trying to avoid antagonizing, and because he is ‘ the peace candidate’ after all, we restrain our impulses to beat people with our signs and clipboards.
As we go on, the hope dips lower and lower between the highs, and the highs and high fives are predicated on less and less—one yes instead of ten in a neighborhood, jokes and encouragement among ourselves, the rare media mention of our candidate or an actual issue, a meal that’s not pizza.
We’re frustrated that we weren’t here six months ago, by the disorganization of the campaign, by the overwhelming odds we face out in the streets, in the media, and at people’s doorways. “Yeah, I love your guy on the issues. I think he’s the best candidate. But I’m voting for ____________.”
Saturday, Jan. 5, 21°F
So many people are not home when we canvas we’ve been looking forward to getting out on the weekend. Saturday, 40 minutes into a 45 minute drive to Hooksett, neighborhoods divvied up, enthusiasm high again, the phone rings. It’s campaign headquarters; we go back to Concord and then Manchester (via Hooksett) for a spouse’s forum.
There’s Elizabeth Kucinich—who yes, is gorgeous—and Whitney Gravel. Fifty people are in the audience; maybe 30, I learn as the week goes on, are my candidate’s volunteers and interns. All the other spouses declined or cancelled.
At least we’re inside. And Elizabeth is smart, informed and articulate—besides, you know, that other thing. The two almost agree on almost everything; all is cordial and civilized. We have lunch in a booth next to Chris (Hardball) Matthews. The televisionless among us (me) have to be told that.
The congressman has been excluded from the Democratic debate outside Manchester tonight, so we go, he goes, all the volunteers in the state go, and in the medieval/post-Apocalyptic scene, with snow and camera lights and steam rising in the darkness and a dozen different chants going without a pause for hours, we march around chanting “Let him debate!” until we can’t. He does some TV interviews, they have the debates without him, we chant some more and then go home. I write, then read a bit more.
Klein is talking now about parallels between personal and political shock—neoconservative economics that have destroyed so many countries and the mutually reinforcing military and torture policies pioneered here in the U.S., where they are also now being applied. I’m reminded again why I’m in New Hampshire.
Sunday, Jan. 6, 25°F
Frustrated desire to actually recruit votes is making some of the volunteers manic. The phone rings: the congressman, his wife and Viggo (Aragorn) Mortensen are coming to Concord. We have four hours to make flyers, distribute them, notify the local media, get two hundred people there, and by the way, clean the office—a jumble of snack food, campaign literature, computer cables and winter clothes. We look outside, see only people carrying Hillary and Obama signs.
We fan out, we drive to all the video stores in and near town: three chain stores and one little VHS-only independent. I’m reminded again why I’m here. All goes well; “Gondorians for the Congressman” and all the usual signs and balloons on the walls. As the sun sets and cold settles, we go out to canvas. The primary is two days off; people are turning off lights when they see us coming.
The last two days are more of the same: canvassing; corners; events; rising temperature no longer a factor. Almost everyone’s mind is made up.
We become aware we’re fishing for an ever-tinier segment of the small primary electorate for one party in a small atypical state. The first primary hasn’t even been held and the decision is made already—has been for months, in fact. The miracle we’re hoping for—the pony, is beginning to seem impossible even to us. Is this really how we choose presidents? And the answer, it seems to us, is no.
The candidates are sorted early into ‘supported by corporate money’ and ‘not’; only a vanishingly narrow range of views is heard, and the longer the race and the polls go-on the narrower it gets. The news is about who has more money and who’s ahead in the polls (that ole devil, circular logic again) broken up by the occasional furor over the most foolish and trivial matters possible. Haircuts. Tears.
It reminds me of an argument I had once about painting a room. It took five minutes to eliminate all colors but one. And then hours to choose between cream, ivory, eggshell, ecru or beige. Turns out it wasn’t about the paint. We broke up and I painted the room her choice—yellowish-ivory. Sunny mornings it was nice.
Tuesday, Jan. 8, the day of the primary
We scattered to polling places and stood with signs. I gave up handing out literature—too late and too … profane? ... for this place this day. So I just handed out copies of the Constitution. It was why I was here, after all. And Walt, the guy standing next to me, holding a sign promoting alternative energy. The local Congresswoman left and the sun went down.
Walt’s wife, sitting in a wheelchair next to him, didn’t speak to me the whole time he and I talked—an hour, I’d guess. She has MS and dementia; he had given up his job and benefits and impoverished them both to take care of her. Just one of her medications costs $3,000 a month, he said.
The house was next; he didn’t know how they were going to live. Across the street were enormous signs for one of the other, tax-cutting candidates. “ I hope this never happens to any of them,” he said. “But you know it would change their tune about government.”
“I like your guy, though,” he said. I offered a Constitution to someone walking toward the poll; she shook her head and kept going. Who refuses a Constitution? I thought.
“You going to vote for him?” I asked, feeling stupid and regretful, simultaneously collapsing and bracing for it. “No, I voted for _______. Your guy can’t win.”