Yesterday, while the organisers for Alexandria made their daily allotment of phone calls to recruit and schedule volunteers they fielded a lot of questions about, and good wishes for, Hillary Clinton’s health.
This is both sweet and funny.
To be a field organiser is to be as far removed from the nerve-centre of activity surrounding the candidate as you can be. Yet every single thing the campaign is doing is meant to make your job easier.
For those of you watching from overseas, in particular, you would rightly think of US presidential campaigns in terms of the rallies and adverts, debates and tv arguments.
But Americans, when they vote – if they vote, vote locally. There are 50 separate elections as each state chooses who their Electoral College voters will support.
Each state is broken up into Congressional Districts and, ultimately, down into precincts – in urban areas these are walkable areas sharing a polling place.
The City of Alexandria, in the 2014 mid-term election, had 86,500 registered voters divided amongst 36 precincts.
These precincts are gathered into groups just large enough to challenge even a very good organiser and are called, at least in this campaign, turfs.
So I’m working in the turf which takes in Old Town Alexandria – a place which reminds me a bit of Paddington, or Balmain, or Glebe (for my readers in Sydney). There are narrow streets, some still cobbled, lined with 18th and 19th century homes which originally housed merchants and dockworkers. Now it is mostly gentrified but with some areas of working or middle class families.
The high street is called King Street (there is also a Queen Street and a Princess Street – demonstrating the towns pre-Revolutionary history) and is lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and ice cream joints. It fills with locals and visitors most nights and all weekend.
It’s the job of field organisers to find the people supporting our candidate, or leaning toward our candidate, and make sure they are registered and get to the polls on election day.
This is the coal face of American elections and here’s how we fill our days: we phone likely Democratic voters and invite them to help out as volunteers, we register voters, and we knock on the doors of likely Democratic voters to ask if they are with us.
And so it was that last Friday afternoon in the seemingly endless sweltering summer heat Alexandria has suffered under since my arrival that a colleague of mine and I were knocking on doors looking for Democratic voters.
We were filtering back and forth over a street dividing a low-rise, low-density public housing development from a low-rise, low-density private development. At one of the first homes we visited we chatted with a young Black man – shirtless and tattooed, visiting from North Carolina and definitely voting for Hillary. Peering around the door – his 7-year old niece said of Trump, “That man is cray cray” and her brother, 5 or 6, added, “We want the girl to win.”
An hour or so later, the last door of the afternoon was cheerfully flung open by a well-coiffed, stylishly attired, Southern-accented White woman in her late 50s or early 60s. (For those who can, imagine a mix of Julie Bishop and the Sugarbakers from Designing Women.) When we had delivered our spiel she said, in so friendly a tone I thought at first she was joking, “Oh y’all are at the wrong house! We think she’s the Devil!” All-righty then, thanks for your time – have a nice weekend.
Oh America, you are a funny old place.