Why you should care
Because this is an on-the-ground look at one of the most surprising campaigns in U.S. election history.
I’m standing on the stoop of a stranger’s house, holding a stack of “Donald Trump for President” fliers and a clipboard — so, you know, I look official. Honestly, I prefer that no one answers. But seconds after knocking, an annoyed man pops his head out the door. I begin trumpeting the merits of the GOP’s presidential nominee, boasting about the beautiful wall he’s going to build. And then I ask: “Can I leave you some literature?”
Door slam. “That happens a lot,” says my leader/trainer. “It’s nothing personal.”
I’ve gone undercover — canvassing for Trump, door to door, as a campaign volunteer in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. You see, months ago, for fun, I signed up for Trump’s email list. Recently, I received a campaign message with a subject line that asked me to “Help Mr. Trump Beat Crooked Hillary!” There wasn’t any clear vetting process, and I easily joined the efforts on Trump’s so-called national day of training, along with a couple of other volunteers who made up my particular team.
After we knock on each door, we’re supposed to make notes inside the app, so we know whether or not to go back there before the election.
My morning began with a training session that went over the fundamentals of being an effective volunteer for Trump; it was held in a room of a bank building. We were told not to debate people; we were mainly trying to get them to talk. If they opened up about supporting Trump, we were to feed them more information. Following our training, our crew began canvassing an all-American neighborhood adorned with pristine lawns and U.S. flags. Our lanky, hyper leader/trainer notes that some people are afraid of going out to talk to voters as Republicans, and that he tries to keep conversation to a minimum himself. But he says he’s knocked on about 10,000 doors so far, including 350 on a single Saturday, and only once had the police been called on him. (The homeowner apparently thought he looked “dangerous.”) Our leader argues it’s more effective to sell Trump by looking someone in the eyes than by trying to convince them over the phone. “The challenge is reaching out to people who normally don’t vote — so we have to find them first,” he says. “And we’ll find them door to door.”
It helps to consult our app, which shows a map of the neighborhood and features a pin on each target home. (A spokesperson for the Trump campaign didn’t respond to our request for comment.) After we knock on each door — “Doorbells aren’t always reliable, so I always knock,” our leader said during training — we’re supposed to make notes inside the app, so we know whether or not to go back there before the election.
That’s the relatively easy bit. The hard part is knowing how to approach people with the right opening line. One of my teammates avoids saying he’s a Republican and instead notes he’s with a “political organization.” Our leader, in the aftermath of one rejection, confesses: “The Trump name is a turnoff.” He advises a smoke-and-mirror strategy of first saying we’re volunteering for the local Republican candidate, and then working our way to actually admitting we’re from the Trump campaign — by making it our last point.
Yet after numerous rejections, the other two Trump volunteers have bailed, leaving just our leader and me to get the word out. His impetus for going on? “I’m one of those people; if you give me two seconds, I’ll [speak] passionately about that issue,” he says. “I’m very pro-life. I’m also really big on education because my mother is a teacher.” I continue through the afternoon with him, evidently passing his test. He even says he’s going to filter new volunteers my way — so I can show them the ropes. He hands me a clipboard and a stack of Trump fliers to take with me for my next trip. I wait until he drives away to toss them into the trash.