Meeting Myself in Bucks County
Knocking on Doors
Shane Wolf, a tall, 36-year-old marketing executive from New York and a volunteer canvasser for the Obama campaign, strides up the driveway of a home in Sellersville, a town of 4,500 in the northern part of the county. Stepping up to the door he gives it a solid knock and within a few moments a shirtless man in his 30s with a slight paunch appears. Shane asks whom he will be voting for on November 4. "I won't be voting for McCain," he barks, "I just can't imagine Palin as president."
From my vantage point on the sidewalk in front of the gruff man's quarter-acre of tightly manicured lawn and his drab, blue-gray paneled home, he remains partially obscured by the screen door. He holds it only slightly ajar, as if as a protective barrier against Shane--and undoubtedly the Democratic Party liberalism he represents.
The man's oblique support for Obama may be no ringing endorsement, but it speaks volumes about the political shift that has occurred in this county. A recent Politico/Insider Advantage poll of four key counties in Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Obama topping McCain 47 percent to 41 percent here. That's still within the poll's large margin of error, but he was startlingly stronger among the county's sizeable group of self-defined "independents" (46 percent-32 percent). Among 30-44-year-olds like the man Shane has just canvassed, he is leading by a whopping twelve points (49 percent-37 percent).
And keep in mind that his was the least welcoming reception Shane got while I was following him that afternoon. As we made our way through endless culs-de-sacs of near identical aluminum-sided homes, I felt ever more amazed that this was the place I so desperately fled as a teenager.
While we drive to another corner of Sellersville, Shane relates campaign stories. "Once, I knocked on a door and the guy asked me if I was from New York. I thought he was going to punch me. By the way, he was Republican. Instead, he said that he was voting for a Democrat for the first time since Kennedy." As Shane remarked, the average age in that heavily Republican community must have been 127, and yet many of the conservative homeowners were remarkably willing to give his Obama pitch a solid listen.
Has he dealt with any racism while canvassing for Obama? "I think the n-word was used once. I was stunned."
I, of course, was stunned for a different reason. Here was Shane--an out-of-town Democrat--alone and door-knocking for an African-American candidate in this Republican stronghold, and yet he hadn't faced a flurry of racial invectives or even many stern skeptics. What on earth was going on?
By the time we make it back to Doylestown, it's late afternoon and the Obama office is teeming with volunteers. Groups of late-morning and early-afternoon canvassers have returned and are milling about, drinking coffee, and swapping stories from the field. I've been around political campaigns before and this one definitely has the wind at its back.
Shane and I retire to a nearby cafe, where I ask him how he thought the day went and how well, in his assessment, the campaign is connecting with Bucks County voters. "No one slammed the door," he replies, chuckling. Then he adds in all seriousness: "As the campaign has reached out to traditionally Republican voters, they've begun to realize that it's time to set aside how they feel about social issues. Eight years of Bush's failed policies have created a perfect storm, capped off by this economic meltdown. There's something that matters more to them now than how often the candidates go to church."
What Shane has pinpointed is Thomas Frank's well-known description of Republican Party dominance in Kansas--but in reverse. After decades of being hooked on the values embodied by the Christian Coalition, values that powered the Reagan Revolution, many voters in Bucks County now seem understandably focused on bread-and-butter concerns--wages, healthcare and the economy. If this is the bellwether political battleground that so many pundits and journalists make it out to be, then a mass defection from the Republican Party is underway. It's no longer a matter of a single candidate's inability to connect with voters but perhaps a wholesale rejection of what the party has to offer.
"The economy is definitely the number-one issue for everyone here," Shane says. "I don't hear people talking about gay marriage."
Bruce Hellerick's thirty-six-acre family farm is a short drive from Obama headquarters. For six generations the Hellerick family has been farming here, and for the last thirty-five years, they've been selling produce to passers-by. This time of year, the farm becomes a quasi-amusement park with a children's play area, where part-time teenage workers entertain kids, and up the hill, three corn mazes cut into a bounty of six-foot-high yellowing stalks.
Bruce assures me he's a staunch Republican, but also admits he remains undecided about November 4. "Usually I'm decided by now," he says, smiling congenially. "The experience McCain has with the military and whatnot really brings a lot to the table." On the other hand, he continues, "Obama's got a great vision, but I'm concerned about the people he's been associated with." As for McCain's running mate: "Sarah's very charismatic, but I don't know about the folksy thing."
During our conversation he manages to use the word "family" and "tradition" so many times that I lose count. How is it, I wonder, that Bruce, so inextricably involved in ideas of family and tradition and so concerned about Obama's associations with fiery black pastors and sixties radicals, can still remain on the fence only two weeks before Election Day? Two days of talking in Bucks County left me with the impression that one blended "family," the Republican one, was certainly disintegrating under the pressures of a new era.
Up the hill, two women are seated on a picnic bench by a corn maze. Wendy Walters, a 45-year-old hair stylist, is, like Bruce, a Republican and, as she quickly informs me, a hearty supporter of school vouchers. Yet she seems to have caught the virus of indecision too. She's just not sure what she's going to do when she steps into that polling booth. McCain's "issues seem to follow Bush," while Obama "is a book with a pretty cover and blank pages." So she tells me either/or-ing away. Across the table, her friend Tracy Northrop, 41 and a homemaker, is also Republican... and also undecided. "I don't like either one very much. I'm a Republican but I don't always vote that way. I'm very undecided. I think McCain is out of touch with the people. And Palin makes me really afraid."
Earlier in the day, while driving to Sellersville, I asked Shane about Bucks County's legions of undecided voters. He thought they understood something had to change, but haven't quite gotten to the point where they can admit, even to themselves, that they will vote for Obama. Bruce, Wendy and Tracy give weight to Shane's theory that Republican defectors may inch toward voting for Obama. They could prove to be a reverse "Bradley Effect"--Republicans who won't tell pollsters, or even maybe their friends, what they're going to do, but might quietly opt Democrat in this election.
But will they? While the Republican Party's support among voters here is visibly crumbling, there's also deep skepticism about the Democrats, particularly Obama himself. Do the concerns I repeatedly heard about Obama's "associations" or his "experience" serve as coded stand-ins for saying that he's black and will not get my support? Regardless of what these voters decide, though, dark days lie ahead for the GOP.