It was 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in Portland, and eerily warm for January. Over 30 Mainers were drinking coffee and chatting next to a big yellow school bus in the Marginal Way Park & Ride off Interstate 95. We were headed to New Hampshire to knock on doors for Bernie Sanders.
Grayson Lookner, a Bernie campaign field organizer, called out to the small crowd. “How many of you are here for the first time? Let’s see a show of hands!” Over three quarters of the group raised their hands, including myself.
With Lookner’s permission, I was joining his crew to report on my experience for Mainer. I wanted to find out what motivates people to spend their Saturday traveling out of state to talk to strangers about democratic socialism — and what the strangers say back.
“There were only a few other volunteers on the bus for the early trips,” a canvasser named Rhea told me. It was Jan. 11, exactly one month before the New Hampshire Democratic Primary. This was Rhea’s fourth Bernie journey to New Hampshire this election season.
About two-thirds of the group were male and most were millennials, including the organizers. The group was also predominantly white, though that’s par for the course in one of the whitest states of America.
The Vermont senator is popular in Maine. In 2016, he bested Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party caucus by a margin of nearly two-to-one. (Maine’s primary is March 3 this year*.) As this year began, polls in New Hampshire had Sanders either leading or running neck-and-neck with former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of an Indiana college town. (A more recent New York Times poll showed Sanders smoking both of them.)
“Buttigieg is sending charter buses down to New Hampshire,” Lookner told us as we boarded. “They have you eat holes instead of donuts, I hear.”*
It’s an hour drive from Portland to Dover, a city of about 30,000 in southern New Hampshire. The voters there are pros. They know that every four years, come primary time, they’ll be courted by campaigners and collared at the diner by national media eager to hear what they think. All this attention has, I assumed, turned more than a few of them into armchair political analysts. So canvassers venturing into the Granite State better be prepared with strong arguments and even stronger answers.
“Find someone that you don’t know near you,” Lookner said as the bus hit the highway. “Introduce yourself and share your Bernie story with them, a personal experience that has influenced you to support Bernie.”
My partner was Jay Sosa, an assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. A cultural anthropologist, Jay described the time he was in Brazil and realized he had full access to free health care just by virtue of being there, while a close friend in the U.S. was struggling to afford the treatment she needed. I told him I wish I had health care that didn’t bankrupt me every month.
“It’s best to open conversations with voters by asking what issue is important to them,” Lookner told us, and we practiced several of those scenarios before the bus pulled up in front of a single-story building in a quiet Dover suburb.
Bernie’s campaign office is in a retrofitted retail space. A huge campaign sign fills one front window, and in the other, cut-out construction-paper letters spell “BERN.” A closer look reveals the letters have been signed by hundreds of campaign volunteers. The house next door had two “TRUMP 2020” flags on the front porch.
The campaign office was small and shabby. Stacks of cardboard boxes full of campaign lit and disposable hand warmers lined the walls. A few folding tables served as desks for the half dozen full-time volunteers who run the Strafford County operation. They took charge once all the Mainers were inside.
“See those arrows on the floor?” asked a staffer standing on a folding chair. “Let’s follow those to get y’all set up and out canvassing for Bernie!”
The arrows led us to a series of stations, where we were given a clipboard and a “zone” to canvas. We downloaded an app that mapped out our route for the day and armed each of us with voter information, including the names, ages and party affiliations of the people we’d be canvassing. Unlike Maine’s caucus, which is limited to registered Democrats, voters who aren’t enrolled in any political party can vote in New Hampshire’s “open” primary. So all the houses on our routes were home to at least one Dem or independent.
Some zones were within walking distance of the office; others required a driver. Mine’s name was Jake. Two other canvassers and I piled into his hatchback.
“We’ve been canvassing public housing, and it’s tough work,” Jake said. “A lot of people there have never voted in their entire lives.” He added that some residents of the housing projects are now volunteering for the Sanders campaign.
“What I’ve found to work best is to talk with people about us all coming together to take back power,” Jake said. “None of us are billionaires or millionaires. At the very least, we have that in common.”
When he dropped us off, Jake gave me a Bernie 2016 pin to wear on my shirt. “It helps if they know why you’re at their doorstep,” he told me. “You’re right at the edge of the Buttigieg epicenter, by the way. It’s basically Mordor.”’
And with that, he drove off. I faced my first block of houses, hoping Jake was kidding. He wasn’t.
“I’m going for Buttigieg, for sure,” Elizabeth, 61, told us as soon as we introduced ourselves. This was the second house on the route.
“I need someone younger, less angry,” she continued. “I consider Bernie an angry old man and I think he cost us the last election.”
Although Elizabeth swore there’s “no way” she’ll vote for Bernie in the primary, she doesn’t disagree with any of his policies. She just thinks Buttigieg, whom she narrowly favors over Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, has “more energy” and presents himself as the most professional politician.
“He’s extremely articulate,” Elizabeth said of the 38-year-old mayor of South Bend. “I got into Buttiegeg at the first debate, and when he gave his speech in Dover. It’s how he frames things. He’s consistently articulate.”
I asked Elizabeth if she had any concerns about Buttigieg. Turns out she did have one: optics. If Buttigieg appears on a debate stage with the president, “He may look too small next to Trump,” she said. “He’s small!” she added, excitedly.
Elizabeth was typical of the fairly well-off Boomers I encountered in New Hampshire that day. She was uninterested in comparing the candidates’ policy proposals and more concerned with their age, appearance, demeanor and “electability.” In other words, these voters view politics the same superficial way it’s presented to them, night after night, by the talking heads on cable: as a horse race. It’s all about the odds, the numbers (poll results, fundraising totals, demographics), rather than ideas and plans to implement them.
As our route led us away from Mordor and into blocks of older, less expensive homes, the candidates’ chances of “beating Trump” were still top of mind for most voters, but we encountered more people who were undecided, and none of them were ruling Bernie out.
“I’m just trying to figure out who’s my candidate, but Bernie is absolutely of interest,” Anita, 63, said. She invited me inside to chat, so the melting snow wouldn’t drip on my head. “I think it’s great he’s gotten young people excited, out ringing bells.”
More than a few voters I’d met earlier that morning were bothered to see the “third Bernie volunteer” on their doorstep this season. But to undecided voters like Anita, this indicated genuine enthusiasm for the candidate, an important factor when deciding who’d be able to defeat Trump. But again, not the only factor.
“I think it will be about numbers, who comes out to vote,” Anita said. “There are people who are persuadable,” and she counted herself among them.
Anita was worried that Sanders is too “radical” for older voters, which damages his electability. But as we discussed those “radical ideas,” her opinion began to shift. “If you really listen to what Bernie’s saying, like with health care, that your taxes may go up but your premiums will go down…” She paused in mid-thought. “People will just stop at ‘taxes go up.’”
I suggested that another benefit of Sanders’ Medicare For All plan is that tens of millions of people without adequate health insurance would get coverage. “Well, that’s if you’re interested in the tens of millions, and I think a lot of people may not be,” Anita said with a chuckle. “They’re interested in their own stake in the game.
“The biggest idea of Bernie’s that gets to me is the inequality business,” she continued. “The idea that there are people that have way too much money — so much.” We agreed that “redistribution of wealth” is a concept that resonates with most Americans, regardless of their generation, which brought us back to the topic that started our conversation.
“If there are enough young people that come out and vote, and that’s what young people want, then I’ll vote for Bernie, too,” Anita said with a smile. “I think his ideas are wonderful, and if he has the support of young people, that makes him more electable.” She took a Bernie postcard and wished me good luck as I walked out the door.
By early afternoon, our route had drawn us off the main street and onto more secluded roads. That’s where the Republicans were hiding.
“Alright, save your breath. I’m not going to vote for Bernie,” Harris, 62, said as soon as he opened the door. Turns out his wife is the registered Democrat. “In this time of absolute prosperity for everybody, I’m voting for the only choice,” said Harris, “Trump.”
Harris did offer me some quasi-friendly advice as he stepped back to shut the door: “Be careful of the ice on your way out. It’s easy to slip and crack your head.” But the door was still ajar and, sensing an opening, I asked him what his top issue was, and why he supported Trump.
“Top issue is just getting government off my back. I don’t want bureaucrats telling me what to do,” Harris said. “I grew up in New York. I saw [Trump] in action in New York. He’s kind of a crazy guy. But he’s draining the swamp.”
Then Harris asked if I’d been canvassing his neighborhood at night. No, I said, not me. “Oh, I thought it may have been you,” he dryly replied. “Must have been one of your pals. He was wearing dark clothes and had his flashlight pointed at the ground. On these country roads, it’s impossible to see at night. You never know what could happen.”
Catching his drift, I replied, “That’s how someone could get hit by a car.” Harris smirked and wished me luck before he completely shut the door.
The next house I hit didn’t go much better. It had a Ring home-security system — basically a high-tech doorbell, made by Amazon, implanted with a small camera and microphone.
“This is a private neighborhood, you know?” Catherine, 43 and invisible, said through her Ring. I told the device I was canvassing with the Bernie campaign.
“I know who you are,” Catherine said. “If you don’t leave this neighborhood right now, then I will be calling the police.” I wished her well and moved on to the next house nearby. The cops never showed.
There weren’t any converts in this part of town, but fittingly, it was at the edge of this conservative neighborhood that I encountered my first and only Biden fan.
“I don’t have time to talk today,” said David, 62. “My neighbor called to let me know you may be coming over.”
David’s door was open just a sliver; we could barely see each other. I told him that was alright, then asked if there was an issue important to him. “Yes, beating Trump,” David said. “And I will be voting for Joe Biden.” He closed his door before I could thank him for his time.
We didn’t see any rival canvassers on that warm winter Saturday, not even the soul-eating Buttigieg ghouls that Lookner warned us about. And none of the voters we met mentioned having been visited by volunteers for other campaigns. Given the relative moderation of Bernie’s competitors, that’s not surprising to me. It must be hard to get motivated to knock on doors and preach the benefits of making technical adjustments to the Affordable Care Act.
Behind the last door of the day was a man in his sixties who told me the only thing that mattered was “getting rid of Trump.” He’d been converted to the Buttigieg camp just by “listening to him talk.” Buttigieg is “very articulate, of course,” he added.
That’s when Jake, mercifully, pulled up in his hatchback. “You’re the last person still out here,” he said when I climbed in. “Here, we brought you what was left.” He handed me a plastic bag with three Cliff bars, and a Gatorade, then asked how my experience had been.
I told him I was shocked how seemingly uninformed and interested these “professional voters” were regarding campaign issues. Who cares if Mayor Pete can eloquently articulate policies that won’t actually make a difference?
“Imagine your life revolves around being obsessed with normie news and politics,” Jake said with a laugh. “It’s a different reality.”
The canvassers in the public housing projects that day had gotten off to a rocky start, Jake said, but ultimately made some progress. He said the only candidate many of those residents knew about was Bernie. In total, the campaign hit about 15,000 doors in New Hampshire that day, an organizer later told me. The total number of New Hampshire households canvassed by Jan. 11 was approximately a million.
Jake grew up in a conservative household and joined the army right after college. He said his entry point into leftism was the political comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, which began four years ago. “I was looking for something different after 2016,” Jake said. “I’d felt alienated.”
“When I heard their episode on Charlottesville, it just made sense to me,” Jake continued. “The failures that got us there were because of liberals and conservatives. It was practical and made sense, realpolitik.”
I told Jake I’d had a similar experience, minus the conservative phase, and planned to attend Chapo’s live event in Derry, N.H., on Feb. 9. “See you at the show,” Jake called out as I headed back to the bus.
I was the last one to board, and walked back to the same seat I’d occupied on the trip down. Jay was sitting across the aisle again. We were both exhausted, but also felt fulfilled by the experience.
“Canvassing is a relief for me,” Jay said. “I have so much high stress work I have to do in my life. It’s cathartic to be able to just talk, have conversations with people.” Jay said he’d had several nearly hour-long conversations with voters. That “may have not been how you’re supposed to do it,” he said, but it worked for him.
Back in Portland, I thought of all the tweets, posts and other online chatter I’d missed that day. And I realized I didn’t care. To really make a difference, you have to “go into the flesh world,” as a Bernie staffer put it that morning. You need to meet people in person. They need to see the look on your face.
If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that opinion-poll numbers are unreliable indicators of results at the actual polls. Eloquence, Trump proved, is also highly overrated. It seems to me that surer signs of a candidate’s electability are numbers like the size of crowds at campaign events and how many volunteers are willing to spend their free time working to get a politician elected. By those measures, Bernie’s got this in the bag.
*Clarification: An earlier version of this article misquoted Lookner as having said “souls” instead of “holes.” Also, we should have noted that Maine’s Democratic Party primary, in which party members will vote for their preferred candidates, in on March 3, followed by a caucus on March 8 to elect delegates to the state convention based on the results of the primary.