I spent this past weekend stomping through snowy Vermont, going door-to-door in St. Johnsbury on Saturday and Barre (“Barry”) on Sunday. (Last weekend we’d phonebanked to Chelsea). On arrival in St. Johnsbury, we immediately encountered the most visible sign of Ben & Jerry’s endorsement of Obama: the ObamaMobile, driven by staff intern Erin. Talk about visibility.
Both towns are of roughly similar size and demographic makeup: over 95% white and per capita incomes well under $20,000. In both locations, more than just monster snowbanks threatened to swallow entire homes: For Sale signs dotted the landscape — many, apparently, from foreclosures. No one ever answered the door at those houses.
There’s an interesting mix of trust and protectiveness up in northern Vermont. A significant percentage of homes had large, loud, and frankly scary dogs. At the end of one cul-de-sac, I conducted an entire conversation shouting at a man in a distant window while his two dogs ran interference. I was breaking a fundamental rule of canvassing — watching my personal safety — but in this case it was worthwhile. The whole household supports Obama.
At the same time, many families kept their doors unlocked. Several of us accidentally burst into occupied homes while attempting to insert flyers.
Taped to the window of one door I knocked on was a neatly-written sign that read, “We are happy Catholics. We aren’t interested in changing our religion!” A older lady opened the door and kindly informed that she was, indeed, supporting Obama. Delighted, I asked if her husband was also voting for him. “[John] has Alzheimer’s,” she said in a hushed voice. I expressed my sympathy as someone whose grandfather and grandfather-in-law had also suffered from the disease. Her voice took on a twinge of anger when she said, “He doesn’t even know I’m his wife!” We held hands briefly, and I said goodbye.
On our list, tenement dwellers far outnumbered “latte-sipping, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving” yuppies. And more common than Clinton, McCain, Obama, or Huckabee supporters were non-voters — none of whom seemed apologetic or defensive about it. The Obama campaign has reached out particularly strongly to political dropouts, but many seem untouched.
I walked by this house thinking that the spray paint was marking up some kind of pipeline; my canvassing partner was the one to point out that it is, in fact, a faded swastika. Perhaps some 500 Jews live in the Montpelier-Barre region; I hope that the (former?) residents of this home, which was one of the ones for sale, were not among them.
Signs of financial hardship were everywhere we walked. Many families listed fuel assistance as a top priority. One fellow-canvasser described walking into a home where the entire family sat on the couch, huddling together under blankets with only their faces peering out.
By the demography, Vermont should be Hillary country: among the states it ranks 48th in black residents and 38th in per-capita GSP. And I certainly met my share of both Hillary and McCain supporters, all very polite (except one girl who shouted, from behind her mother, that “Obama is a $#@%!”). There was even one couple supporting Huckabee, here in the least religious state in the Union. But this is also the land of Howard Dean, still regarded with deep affection from many I met, the man whose own Presidential campaign made it possible to oppose the Iraqi war. The war didn’t come up much in my conversations here, but Vermont has been staunchly, if carefully, anti-war for some time — precisely because so many from the state serve in the military.
Vermont is barely on the national radar as the Clinton and Obama campaigns clash over Texas and Ohio, and with polls showing Obama ahead by a large margin in the Green Mountain state, the national eye will likely continue to fall elsewhere tomorrow night. But Vermont is used to being overshadowed, not least of all by its politically connected neighbor and bizarro twin, New Hampshire. In 2004 the state supported Dean well after he’d ended his campaign. The voters I spoke with expressed some quiet satisfaction that this time, at least, their votes would matter.