Students canvass in Virginia, try to swing state to Obama

By Jed Layton, Hinckley Institute Journalism Program

SULLY, VA.8212;Each door Imani Tate knocked on had a mystery behind it. Is there anyone home? Will the people be receptive? How should I talk to them? What should I do if they get angry?

Tate, a freshman in international affairs at Georgetown University, and other students spent Saturday afternoon asking themselves these questions as they canvassed Sully neighborhoods to raise support for Sen. Barack Obama.

“I had gone door-to-door before, but this is the first time I have ever gone canvassing,” Tate said. “It is a bit nerve-racking.”

Sam Solomon, a freshman in government, had more experience canvassing than other students. He always made sure everyone in the house was registered to vote.

“I canvassed for a congressman while I was living in Chicago, but it is different knocking on doors for Obama,” he said. “There is a lot more at stake.”

Virginia is a swing state this year, meaning it could go to either Sen. John McCain or Obama. Although Virginia typically votes Republican, an influx of people into Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. suburbs has the state at nearly even for both candidates. During the “veepstakes,” there was talk of Obama choosing Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine to bolster Virginia support.

“If Obama wins here, and it looks like he has a really good chance, it will be because of these types of neighborhoods,” Solomon said. “The demographics here have completely changed. It is the same with North Carolina. It is shocking that Obama could win that state as well.”

Virginia, with its 13 electoral votes, has become a target for both campaigns in recent months. An Oct. 1 Mason-Dixon poll showed McCain leading the state by 3 percentage points, 48 percent to 45 percent. North Carolina, with its 15 electoral votes, was even closer in a Sept. 16 poll which had McCain up 1 percent, 48 percent to 47 percent.

Although some people the students met were friendly, others were hostile. One man verbally attacked Lane Wheeler, a freshman in government, while she was canvassing Saturday.

“He started to yell at me and told me I was ignorant,” Wheeler said. “He followed me out onto his lawn shouting crazy theories about Obama’s house being given to him by the mafia and Obama’s brother being a terrorist.”

There were a few enthusiastic people behind the closed doors. However, most were indifferent to the message the students shared.

“The best people to talk to are the ones that are undecided or leaning a certain way,” said Tyler Bilbo, a freshman in government and Chinese. “They are the ones that are good for us to talk to and are good for the campaign. Otherwise they waste money targeting voters they don’t need.”

Bilbo talked to a potential voter and explained to him why he was knocking on his door.

“I am here as a student supporting Barack Obama because I am tired of living under a Bush White House,” he said to the man through a screen door. “I think McCain’s policies are too similar.”

The man smiled and waved saying he would likely support Obama as well, but still hadn’t completely made up his mind. Bilbo responded telling the man to watch the next presidential debate, so he could see how similar the “Maverick” was to the president.

More than 30 students traveled an hour from Georgetown to Sully to participate. Volunteers from the Obama campaign picked the students up, drove them through bumper-to-bumper traffic and gave them a pep talk before dropping the students off in the Virginia suburb.

As she walked from house to house, Wheeler noticed Democrats weren’t the only ones canvassing in this neighborhood. Flyers supporting McCain and incumbent Republican congressmen were stuffed in recycling bins and between doors.

“Maybe that is why people have been annoyed when I come to their door,” she said with a smile. “I bet this neighborhood gets a lot of this.”

Wheeler said the McCain campaign has stepped up its efforts in Virginia and other swing states after recently giving up on Michigan, a state Republicans failed to win over from Democrats. But even if Obama does not win the state Nov. 4, the students called the day a success.

Although Solomon wants Obama to win the election, he mostly hopes to help people become involved and informed. John Terry, a potential voter whom Solomon visited, told him he was tired of politics.

“I don’t like anybody at this point in time,” Terry said. “I will probably not support either of them.”

Walking away from Terry’s door, Solomon said people who don’t like politics or government have the most need to become involved.

“If there is something that bugs them about our nation, they need to let others know,” he said. “They need to be offering suggestions instead of just doing nothing. Hopefully our knocking on their door can inspire them to do something.”

[email protected]

Editor’s Note8212;Jed Layton is reporting in Sully, Va., through the Hinckley Institute of Politics and Shantou University.

William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

Barack Obama