Tagging along with Obama and McCain canvassers in North Carolina.

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 30 2008 5:36 PM

How Does a Red State Turn Blue?

Tagging along with Obama and McCain canvassers in North Carolina.

(Continued from Page 1)

So I go to an area called Ballantyne, 16 miles south of Charlotte's center. Ballantyne is a country club community, a four-star resort, and the most recent example of Charlotte's rapid growth. It looks like a suburb, but it's still within city limits.

A busload of Obama supporters from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has come to knock on doors. The weekend before, they were in Arlington, Va.; two weeks before that, they canvassed Columbus, Ohio. The students look young, confident, and like they just rode a bus down from Washington. A young Obama organizer named Punya gives them their orders.

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Each pair is assigned 100 doors; the campaign is hoping to reach 10,000 doors by Election Day. Punya tells them just what is riding on their knocks: "Mecklenburg County and Union County are possibly the most important counties in North Carolina. You're working in the most important part of the state." She explains that they'll be talking to like-minded voters but not necessarily motivated ones: "The majority of people you'll be talking to are Democrats or undeclared. They're sporadic voters; they don't vote every year. We want them to vote this year."

I go with two of the students, Marc Friend and Alexa Pollock, to their assigned territory: a condo complex called Copper Ridge. There are entryways with about 16 buttons on each. So Marc and Alexa won't be knocking on doors, they'll be ringing buzzers, hoping folks will let them inside or come out for a chat.

This hope doesn't get them far. At least half the folks don't answer. Those who do respond are not very interested in talking to representatives from the North Carolina Democratic Party, which is how Marc and Alexa describe themselves. This doesn't seem like the best possible script—for undecideds, party politics wouldn't seem to be a big selling point. Marc and Alexa experiment with a number of variations and find more success once they start telling people that they are with the Kay Hagan campaign. Using Hagan's name casts the students as locals rather than the carpetbaggers they are, and they are treated with more courtesy than before.

Still, it would be an exaggeration to say they're welcome. At one point, a woman comes to the door and says: "You can't solicit in here. So stop ringing the buzzers."

After a phone consultation with Punya, who explains that political campaigns are exempt from no-soliciting policies as long as they don't post anything, Marc and Alexa move to the next doorway and ring another buzzer. The door clicks open, and a grandmother in a blue sweatshirt with a glittered design emerges. "We're here with the North Carolina Democratic Party," says Marc. "Y'all are in the wrong group!" she says. She's friendly but absolutely serious, and she affirms what has become clear: This is not Obama Land. And it does not want to be.

Marc explains to me why he's not discouraged. "It'd be nice if they could get North Carolina for Obama, but it's not crucial like Ohio or Pennsylvania," he says. "And if Obama wins—I should say when Obama wins—he'll need a Senate he can work with. Not necessarily 60, but 50-some. That's why we're working so hard for Kay here and [Al] Franken in Minnesota."

Later that day, I tag along with two McCain canvassers, who have better luck: Pam and Mike Wisniewski, a young married couple who live in North Charlotte. Like so many others in North Carolina, they grew up elsewhere—Pam in Florida, Mike in Michigan. Pam wears a Women for McCain T-shirt; Mike has one that says "McCain-Palin, Country First." We are in a neighborhood called Ashbrook, full of houses built in the 1950s, home to a lot of older residents: It is a McCain canvasser's dream. Mike and Pam skip the houses that already have McCain or Obama signs in the yard. Their script dictates that they say they're there on behalf of the McCain-Palin campaign—no mention of Liddy Dole—and then ask whether they can count on his or her support. This time around, people do come to the door, and many of them have either voted for McCain already or plan to.

Pam hands out fliers she's made about how Obama's tax plan will affect small businesses and agrees with an older Asian man that Obama should release his birth certificate. "My grandmother has her birth certificate from the 1920s," Mike says to me while the others chat. "So it's not that hard."

One gray-haired lady tells them she's already voted. "May we ask who you voted for?" Pam says. "You can ask, but I ain't going to tell you," the woman responds. Then she shows her hand. "All that brainpower won't get you through all the things McCain's been through. But I won't tell you who I'm voting for. You have a good day, and I think y'all are real smart to be doing this."

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