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Volunteering for Obama: what it’s really like

I’ll say it right away: the campaign trail is not for the thin-skinned.

You will have doors slammed in your face, sometimes by sweet old ladies who take one look at your button and scream “NO!”

You will see people peer out through a crack in the blinds and then pretend they’re not home.

More than that, on a presidential campaign, you will have to use the things you like least about your candidate as selling points to “swing” voters. You will have to choke down your anger at blatant racism and sexism to try to keep smiling and convey your point.

You will have to keep yourself honest.

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But you will also make new friends, some who last only a day and others who you’ll call in the middle of the night to share stories or cheer at a debate performance. You might fall in love, or at least fall into bed.

You will bond with people who you would otherwise never have met, people older and younger than you, people with more money and people with less, people with Ph.D.’s and people who didn’t graduate from high school.

It can be rather taxing, but it can also be the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done, and a reminder that, for all its flaws, there is still something great about our political system. It allows thousands and even maybe millions of people can come together like this and give up their free time to be insulted, mocked, and maybe to change a few minds.

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This is my third presidential election, my fourth candidate (my choice in 2004, Howard Dean, lost in the primaries and I switched to support John Kerry).

I hope it’ll be my first win.

I’ve been on the Obama trail since last winter. Really, since the summer of 2007, the first primary debate, and the moment my friend called me to say that she’d heard Obama declare. There was something special about this one, we thought. And so even when other candidates further to the left had a few policies we liked better, we stuck with him.

I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, but I have since realized that I will never see a president who agrees with me on everything, and it’s better to find one who has some bedrock principles I agree with and most importantly, one we can put into office.

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Still, I would rather see people vote third party than just throw up their hands in despair. I will never criticize someone for voting her or his conscience.

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I criticize people for not voting. I knock on their doors and plead, cajole, and argue. I point out the flaws in their arguments, bring up policy points that they may not know, and try to be as gentle as possible when dancing around the topic of race.

Though inside I may be screaming “You just don’t want to vote for a black man,” on the outside I will smile and make sure to bring up Obama’s white mother and grandparents and try not to feel that I’m selling my soul.

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But at night, after a long day, with sore feet and sore knuckles from knocking on North Philly doors with no doorbells, I will relax, crack open a beer, and share stories with friends new and old. I’ll go home and maybe soak in the bathtub, and then grab my laptop and skim through the latest news stories.

I’ll complain that the polls are not a headline-worthy topic, and decry the lack of discussion of issues, because the truth is I’ll have spent a whole day discussing the issues face to face, and people do want to know about them.

Nobody I’ve ever spoken to in eight years of political volunteering has asked me which candidate I’d rather have a beer with.

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And yes, I’ve had to calmly tell people that no, he will not only appoint black people to judgeships and cabinet positions (though I hope he will have a higher minority percentage than we’ve seen before). I’ve had to explain hundreds of times that no, he is not a Muslim, that Indonesia is very different from Iran, and that a flag pin does not patriotism make. I’ve even had to explain just what a community organizer does.

On the other hand, the people asking me these questions had real concerns. They wanted to make sure they were going to vote for a person who, yes, shared their values, but those values weren’t just God and guns.

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She’s interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

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