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Freezing for Dean
Thirty-one houses, nine open doors, and street cred
Primary foot soldiers

CANVASSERS ARE the unsung heroes of any political campaign. They go door to door with campaign literature and try to engage potential voters in conversation about their candidate. Their ranks are populated with students, impassioned political junkies, and, in some cases, singletons looking for a date. Regardless of motive, they’re on the frontlines of retail politics and can best gauge how the public is responding to candidates. With less than three weeks to go before the New Hampshire primary, we sent three staffers to the Granite State for a day to volunteer for the campaigns of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Retired General Wesley Clark, and Massachusetts senator John Kerry. We wanted to see how Granite Staters — perhaps the most influential voters in the country when it comes to presidential-primary elections — were engaging with the campaigns of the leading candidates. In order to get as authentic a reading on the political climate as possible, our staffers did not identify themselves as journalists to the campaigns. That said, they were instructed to do what the campaigns asked of them; in other words, there wasn’t a saboteur among them. Our findings are below.

Camille Dodero freezes for Dean

Mike Miliard joins the Clark contingent

David S. Bernstein hooks up with Kerry's kids

SALEM, NH — Clearly, I was naive about this whole canvassing thing. I’m standing here in the frozen New Hampshire tundra with three pairs of socks covering my feet, self-heating hand-warmers slipped inside my black gloves, and my first-ever, brand-new pair of long johns snug under my clothes. It’s 2:25 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, and in the last three hours I’ve knocked on 31 doors for the Howard Dean campaign. First, I plodded around a cul-de-sac of modern wooden houses with slanted roofs and long driveways, then moved on to a neighborhood of trailer homes less than a mile away. And even though I should be feeling ebullient right about now — I just completed all the houses listed on my route! Woo-hoo! — I’m not feeling much sense of accomplishment. Jess, a student volunteer from the Dean campaign, is coming to fetch me from this godforsaken land of trailer hitches, American flags, and snow-encrusted SUVs, but I’m feeling rather defeated.

I had imagined that spending a day as a foot soldier for Howard Dean would be like a commercial for the Mormon Church — a shoe-leather pilgrimage of warm, pleasant threshold exchanges in which I’d bond with total strangers over shared perspectives. Would you like some hot chocolate? a cute, liver-spotted octogenarian would say after offering his sentiments on Social Security and noticing the icicle formed on the tip of my nose. Could I invite you in? a sweet-faced soccer mom would say after sharing a heart-wrenching tale about her football-player nephew who had become a paraplegic while fighting the war in Iraq. I’m so sorry, I’d say. But did you know that Howard Dean was against invading Iraq all along? Yes, yes, she’d cry, wiping away her tears. Put me down for him! The day would be filled with random acts of kindness and displays of shared community — you know, real rainbow-and-puppy-dog-type shit.

I wasn’t the only one with such optimistic expectations. On my way here, the three other first-time canvassers in my carload had agreed that they’d rather knock on doors than dial phones, even in the arctic blasts. It’s so much easier to hang up on a caller than to slam the door in someone’s face, went the reasoning, so by slogging from house to house we’d certainly be more effective. "Yeah, I’m always nicer to people at my door than I am over the phone," says Jess. "Unless they bring up Jesus."

In reality, canvassing is more like pretending to be an encyclopedia salesman than a proselytizer for the Mormon faith. It’s an arduous journey through mangy, growling dogs, annoyed countenances, wary glances, and brusque responses. You see people peek out the windows like Norman Bates and then disappear. Sometimes I hear people rustling inside, followed by silence; I picture them hiding behind their sofas. And in today’s record-breaking cold, when cracking the door to an unfamiliar face seems more like a health hazard than a minor inconvenience, I’m lucky to find anyone who’ll even come to the door, never mind forge a personal connection. But as Jess drops me off, alone in the middle of an icy road in an upper-middle-class development called Lancaster Farm, I remember the real incentive for working on this campaign.

"You guys are earning a lot of street-cred points by doing this," said the bespectacled Deaniac at the office earlier today, before we filed out into the chilly wind.

"Yeah? When can we redeem them?" someone joked.

"Next November. When George Bush isn’t president of the United States."

"Fair enough," someone else said. "You win."

At 9 a.m., the Deanmobile is running late. There’s supposed to be a yellow school bus waiting for us on Charles Street by the edge of Boston Common. But when I get there, the vehicle is nowhere to be found. Instead, I find a group of mostly twentysomethings swaddled in layers of wind-resistant nylon and polypropylene waiting on the curb beside Boylston Street. Jen, the Boston contact for Dean’s New Hampshire campaign, informs us that the chartered vehicle probably won’t be here for another 15 minutes. So maybe we should head up Boylston and find shelter until our transportation arrives.

The previous day, when I told my sister what I’d be doing, she mentioned she’d heard on the news that young singles were using political "meetups" and campaigning events as dating services. Even a New York Times Magazine feature about Dean devotees in Vermont mentioned a feel-good story of how one brokenhearted 26-year-old got over a break-up when he became a Deaniac in the course of discovering new love. Certainly, being on the prowl makes sense — if you’re politically active and romantically unattached, you gotta figure that your fellow volunteers are at least like-minded. But when we trudge into an enclosed food court to wait for the bus and I’m introduced to Dave, a 27-year-old from Somerville who doesn’t appear to know anything about Howard Dean — He’s governor of Vermont, right? — his motivation for being here is immediately transparent. "Are you dating anyone?" Dave asks after 10 minutes of talking. Given that I look like that kid who can’t put his arms down in A Christmas Story, I chalk up his question to my being one of two women here so far. "Yeah, I am," I answer.

But Dave is the exception, not the rule. When we finally climb aboard the bus at 9:30 a.m., the other volunteers aren’t noticeably angling for hook-ups, and they’re schooled in Dean lore, eager to discuss the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses with fellow young Democrats. There’s Andrew, a fourth-year medical student living in Brookline, who touts Dr. Dean’s strong health-care record, while the person in front of him devours a Dean profile from the New Yorker. Tim, a postgraduate studying philosophy at Tufts University, talks about how rival candidate John Kerry seems to be driven by self-aggrandizement rather than public service and openly wonders if Dean’s recent "mealy-mouthed" statements could possibly undermine his campaign.

Before long, the bus arrives at the Salem headquarters, the command center for a zone the Dean campaign calls the "Bedroom," a nickname that indicates its denizens are mostly commuters working in Boston. There are at least 50 people here bustling around the narrow room, some on the phone, others scribbling support letters on blue-and-white Howard Dean stationary. On the walls, there are dry-erase boards and sheets of paper bearing words of inspiration, including LUCK IS NOT A STRATEGY and ASK NOT WHAT YOUR CAMPAIGN CAN DO FOR YOU/ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR CAMPAIGN. There’s a SNOWMOBILERS FOR BUSH bumper sticker affixed to the wall, an arrangement of manila folders containing Dean’s various positions on the issues, and a quote from a major newsmagazine printed out as a kind of rallying cry: "At Bush’s suburban Virginia campaign headquarters, manager Ken Mehlman has taken to asking staff members who knock off early, ‘Does Howard Dean’s staff go home at 6?’"

Stephanie and Jess, two undergraduate interns devoting their winter breaks to the Dean for America campaign, give us newbies our marching orders. We’ll head out in carloads, each canvasser armed with a predetermined route of residences where Democratic or unenrolled voters live. Our driver will drop us off at the beginning of our course and arrange to pick us up a few hours later at our last house. If we get too cold, we can call our driver who will come get us — a dead canvasser won’t help the cause. Unfortunately for the likes of Dave, there’s no briefing on our man Howard, but then, knowledge of the candidate doesn’t seem essential to the task at hand. "The most important thing," says Jess, "obviously, we’re supporting Howard Dean, but we want to find out who these people are voting for, no matter who it is." After learning who the voter intends pull the lever for, we’re to rate them on a scale of 1 to 6 in terms of their allegiance to a candidate — "1" being an unequivocal Dean supporter, "6" being a Bush follower or someone who isn’t voting in the primary. Lastly, we’re reminded how our willingness to slog through the streets in sub-zero temperatures, icy wind chapping our cheeks, crystallizing our snot, and rendering our ballpoint pens useless, will convince voters of our dedication. As Woody Allen says, 80 percent of success is showing up.

To some extent, that’s true. The first person to answer the door and the seventh house on my list — a married, unenrolled voter who answers the door in sweatpants and no socks — eyes me pathetically. "I admire your dedication," he says, greeting me. Thanks. Will he be voting in the upcoming primary? "I don’t know," he mumbles. "But my wife is leaning toward Dean." Great, great. Is he leaning toward Dean too? "I don’t like politicians," he explains guiltily. I hand him two Dean pamphlets. As he closes the door, he says, "Stay warm."

Stay warm. Over and over, they say the same thing. If someone does answer the door, he or she is mostly polite, but slips away quickly because it’s so cold. If no one answers, I tuck two Dean fliers in the front door. One man peers at me through a window and angrily waves me away. A woman with penciled-in eyebrows and an American flag in her window actually snickers when I ask if she’ll be voting in the Democratic primary. A Rosemary Clooney clone in a bathrobe says she’s leaning toward Dean, but doesn’t want any more literature. At one point, I actually get an adrenaline rush when I see that a house on my list has signs for both John Edwards and John Kerry planted on the front lawn — a house of divided loyalties, or even tangible proof of indecisiveness, should at least make for memorable conversation. Lamentably, no one is home. Indeed, out of the 31 houses on my list, only nine doors open. And I don’t find one Dean loyalist in the bunch.

When we get back to the office, there’s hot chocolate, juice, and coffee waiting for us on a table. The staffers ask us to tally our sheets, scribbling the 1’s — the unmistakable Dean supporters — on a sheet along with our names. Getting a "1" is a sure sign of success. At the end of the day, the tally showed 51 new Dean supporters. But next to my name is a giant goose egg — never a good sign. If success were measured entirely by our ability to record Dean supporters, I’ve definitely failed.

But I want to make some sort of positive contribution. Since there’s time to kill before the bus leaves for Boston, the staffers encourage us to write letters to people with whom we’d made personal connections during the day. I’m at a loss here, so I write a letter to an elderly man who was simply nice to me — and thank him for being nice. Then I sit down and scribble another, the only other I can think to write.

Dear Daniel,

I came by your house earlier today on behalf of the "Howard Dean for America" campaign. While I was there, I noticed both John Kerry signs and John Edwards signs planted in your front lawn. Might there be space for a Howard Dean sign there too?

Warm regards,

Camille Dodero

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]phx.com

Issue Date: January 16 - 22, 2004
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