SATURDAY, JAN. 30, 2016
Two days before the Iowa caucus, I am standing in a Yale visitors’ parking lot, clutching an empty coffee cup and a notebook when I see 13 other students trail into the lot. At the head of the pack is Tyler Blackmon ’16, wearing a yellow knit hat and a large “H” button pinned to the middle of his shirt. All of them look like they could’ve slept for another hour or two.
“H,” by the way, is for Hillary. As are the students. Blackmon, a staff columnist for the News, has organized this group of undergraduates to canvass for Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 through Hillary for America, Clinton’s official presidential campaign. Accompanying the students is a handful of other (older) men and women from Connecticut who are also involved in the campaign, all of whom are driving up to Keene, New Hampshire for the day.
Someone shows up with donuts and coffee. I do a brief inventory and find two people wearing Timberlands and one person wearing duck boots out of the 13.
Although the itinerary I was given says Nancy Wyman, lieutenant governor of Connecticut, will be greeting the canvassers before they drive off to Keene, Wyman is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Nancy DiNardo, the vice chair of the Connecticut Democratic Party, is here in a purple coat. “I don’t know if she’s replacing her or … ” Blackmon says to me. He assures me that DiNardo is a pretty important figure, too. I write that down.
A few of the student canvassers are members of Yale Students for Hillary, the official group that backs Clinton on campus. The group formed after Clinton herself visited Yale to receive the Award of Merit from the Law School in 2013, two years before she declared her presidential bid. Support for Clinton among students at Yale has fluctuated since then. Haley Adams ’16, founder and co-president of the group, tells me that “obviously, in 2013, nobody was supporting Bernie.”
While Yale Students for Hillary has operated at various levels of activity since then, the group has never been completely dormant, Adams says. It has remained in existence so that an infrastructure would already be in place when students began thinking of the 2016 campaign.
“We basically tried to read campus attitudes,” Adams says.
These past few months, the group has accelerated its actions, generating a new photo campaign and co-hosting events with Yale Students for Bernie and the Yale Democrats. Its members will be heading out to New Hampshire next weekend to canvass again.
The itinerary said the group would leave five minutes ago, but everyone is in the parking lot, and I am trying to discreetly photograph Blackmon taking a group selfie. I wish I’d brought gloves.
Unfortunately, Hillary for America will only give volunteers a ride to Keene, so I will be trailing the canvassers to Keene in a Zipcar instead. I have convinced two friends — whom I will call A and C for the purposes of this story — to come with me.
The canvassers have already left for Keene, but A and C are nowhere to be found. I call A, who tells me C is still in the shower. I agree to pick them up at Ingalls Rink, midway between the parking lot and their residential college.
Customer service call to Zipcar. (“You have to put your foot on the brake when you turn the ignition on if you want the car to start.”)
On the ride to Keene (2 hours 30 minutes, plus one break at a gas station where I can’t figure out how to work the pump), I learn A and C are both ardent Bernie Sanders supporters. They ask to infiltrate the volunteers by counter-canvassing for Sanders. I warn them not to blow my cover.
The Clinton field office is located on a side street in Keene. By the time we reach the office, all the volunteers are already out knocking on doors. I text the only two people I know on the trip and hope one of them checks their phone.
Back out in the car, A turns to me and asks if I noticed that everyone in the office was white.
I finally find a pair of volunteers on Hilltop Drive, where some of the houses already feature Valentine’s Day decor. First-time presidential campaign canvassers Azeezat Adeleke ’17 and Josh Hochman ’18 (sporting the matching Timberlands I saw earlier) have already knocked on a few doors. They are accompanied by a driver, who trails after them when the distance between houses isn’t worth getting in the car for. I’m still not allowed in this car (reporter, not a writer), so every time Adeleke and Hochman get in their car, I have to run to mine and follow them down the street. Their driver does not seem particularly concerned about whether I’m keeping up or not. A takes over the driving for the sake of efficiency.
Hochman informs me that, because I arrived late to the field office, I missed Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy’s rallying the troops earlier that morning. Malloy — who recently assumed helm of the National Governors Association and is frequently called a Democratic “attack dog” by news outlets that aren’t WKND — is also campaigning for Clinton in New Hampshire today.
Hochman, who has previously volunteered on campaigns for Malloy and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, has a tendency to make up backstories for the people on the list of addresses we’re visiting. He’s decided we’re meeting a lawyer, a divorced mother of three, a substitute teacher, etc.
“It makes it an encounter where you respect the voter and you respect how they came to their beliefs,” he says.
We don’t have to contend with any seriously aggravated or Republican voters. Of the houses I follow Adeleke and Hochman to, most people who answer the door say they’re probably voting for Clinton or Sanders. I begin to count the number of pets we encounter (dogs ad nauseum, one cat). One woman tells us her dog has run away and that she has to go after it as we approach her house. (“I hate dogs,” Adeleke says to me. “I’m really afraid of them.”) There’s a man who says he’ll decide by flipping a coin, and another who says he’s voting for Sanders but that his wife is voting for Clinton. She comes out of the house to greet us and brings their toddler kid. She tries to prompt their kid into saying “Hillary Clinton,” but he becomes overwhelmed at the number of people standing on the porch and starts crying instead. I wonder if this is an omen.
Observing Adeleke and Hochman, I learned that canvassing can be boiled down to a formula. You develop some key points (probably about the Affordable Care Act versus Sanders’ single-payer health-care system), adopt a friendly but firm demeanor, make the necessary jokes about Donald Trump and mark the voter down as “committed” or “undecided” or a number of other options (voting for Sanders, O’Malley, etc.) after you walk away from the house. You talk about Clinton’s pragmatism and practicality, her realistic policy goals. Add in personal anecdotes as necessary.
At some point, Adeleke turns to me and says that, although I’m still not allowed in the car, I’m free to speak to their driver. Ed Edelson is a former first selectman of Southbury, Connecticut, a “sort of suburban” town which skews Republican. I ask him something vague about youth involvement in politics, mostly because I don’t know what I’m writing about, and he tells me that seeing college students who are willing to go out and canvass is refreshing, since Southbury has an older population.
About five minutes after that he pulls out of a driveway after us, goes the other way down the road and manages to lose us almost immediately. A, C and I decide to take a lunch break.
“Two Chinese girls and a Mexican walk into a diner,” A says. He pauses. “That’s the start of a joke.”
We’re standing in Lindy’s, a tiny stand-alone diner that is cash-only and a known pit stop for candidates looking to win (its website features flash-lit candids of Barack Obama and George W. Bush ’68, amongst others). A and C leave for a nearby ATM, and I sit down at a booth. The waitress tells me she’s originally from New Haven, and says she used to live near Ingalls Rink and the big houses.
While I wait at Lindy’s, my phone lights up with notifications. A and C tell me they’ve discovered the Bernie Sanders field office in Keene. I demand they return to the diner.
As it turns out, the Sanders field office is in the same building as Keene’s Bank of America branch. (Sanders: “If a bank is too big to fail, it’s too big to exist.”) Location-wise, my friends tell me, Sanders’ field office is preferable to Clinton’s. They also offer to give me the number of his press contact there, which suggests that they have done a lot more than go to the ATM. The burgers and fries (lunch option) are good, as are the eggs/hash/toast (breakfast option). C searches for a bathroom.
Back on the road.
I am informed that the canvassers are now taking their lunch break. We waste an hour in a bookstore. A visiting author will be arriving this week to talk about presidential “can’t-idates.”
I hear a chorus of “hi”s when I walk back into the field office, but nobody is here to greet me. Instead, I find five of the volunteers now sitting at tables in a spare room with plates of Domino’s pizza crusts and Twix wrappers at their elbows, calling up lists of voters. (They don’t have enough time to do another round of door-knocking before they leave.) Insisting he’s been called a dozen times already, one man calls Hochman an asshole over the phone.
I sit on the floor and observe for a while, and then I remember that I’ve left A and C in the car so I stand up and head back.
A few days later, Clinton wins Iowa by less than 1 percent. The canvassers from the weekend concede that Sanders has a fair amount of student support on campus (here’s a statistic: YSfB has 493 likes on Facebook, while YSfH has only 283), but note that Clinton still has significant support from Yalies. They cite debate watch parties with Yale Students for Bernie where Hillary supporters are demonstrably more visible.
“It’s true that many of the left on campus support Bernie,” Adeleke writes to me in an email later. “But I think the media narrative that ‘young people don’t support Hillary’ is inaccurate. I know a bunch of Yalies who are currently working for Hillary’s campaign, either remotely or in Brooklyn.”
Adams says she’s never once been concerned about the number of students in any groups on campus backing other candidates, or about a shift in perspective regarding Clinton.
As to how he feels about his work from last weekend now that it’s post-Iowa, Hochman tells me in an email that because New Hampshire “is Sanders’ backyard, [it] makes it that much more important for Clinton supporters to work hard in the state prior to the primary.”
Adeleke says that even if Clinton loses New Hampshire next week, the primary is just one of many.
“For me, canvassing isn’t necessarily about getting people to switch from one candidate to the other — that doesn’t happen often, especially in a place like New Hampshire, where those people have probably been contacted by campaigns a billion times this cycle,” she writes. “I just think that, as a politically active person, actions speak a lot louder than words and it’s super important to actually go out and do something. It’s easy to post snarky political things on Twitter or sit around talking about how crazy the election has been. It’s harder to hit the pavement and try to engage random people in conversation about our politics.
“So I feel good about canvassing for the sake of canvassing.”