That's how I ended up standing on a corner in Nashua NH, during rush hour, holding an Obama sign, surrounded by super energized partitions from both parties. There were probably 40 people all together and our job was to stand there and wave at cars. It wasn't at all what I wanted to be doing, but I had made my mind up to go volunteer, and this is what they said they needed, so there I was...
Even for someone of my limited athletic skills, sign holding and waving is actually a very easy job. It left me a lot of time to chat with people and think. My first thought was "This is an extremely stupid way to spend campaign resources."
Seriously, who were we going to convince to change their vote by holding a sign and waving at people? But as I watched I realized our goal wasn't to convince people to vote a certain way, but rather to make them feel like part of a larger group and thus comfortable voting a certain way. Here's how I think it works:
Imagine you drive by a corner and there are a bunch of people holding Obama signs. They all look happy and are waving at you.This makes you (an Obama Supporter) feel like you belong to something. You have a connection to these people. You agree with them, and their presence, even on a very subconscious and childish level, reinforces your comfort with supporting that candidate.So there I was, feeling like an idiot holding this sign. Fairly confident that this sort of ridiculous sign waving wouldn't work on me, but still along for the ride. After a short time I got over my discomfort and started talking to a few of the other people there. There were people from ages 2 to 70, and most of them were very friendly. I was amazed by the different races, religions, and careers represented in that small group. It's an interesting place to network.
Now imagine the opposite. The people are all holding McCain signs, waving and chanting McCain 08. It probably won't change your vote, but it's a paper cut in your armor for supporting that candidate. You feel left out. Enough of those and you may start thinking of supporting the other guy just to fit in.
As best as I can tell, the people who stand on corners holding signs are engaged in a form of reverse peer pressure.
Unfortunately there were a few people on both sides that decided there job was to verbally assault each other. The mood quickly became caustic as they started yelling some very nasty stuff. It struck me that this was totally counter to achieving our goal because as they stood there attacking each other they were ignoring the people we were supposed to be courting. Yet on they went.
I was standing next to an exuberant and friendly black guy named Claud. Claud is the sort of person that's the live of a party; Really animated and he had so much positive energy he just made people happy. He wasn't getting involved with the fighting, but he became the target of the attacks when someone from our side yelled "Racist" and the other guys started directing their attacks at Claud...
Keep in mind that out of the 40 people only about 6 were actively taunting each other. Multiple attempts were made on both sides to calm these guys down, but they kept flaring up again.
This went on for about an hour. Even thought it was only a small group of obnoxious people, it seemed to me to be the focus of the night. That sort of caustic talk tends to suck all the life out of everything else going on. Except Claud... Life of the party...
When the traffic died down we all packed up and that's when I saw the thing that gave me hope. The noisy guys got distracted (they probably saw something shiny and ran off after it) and left the rest of us alone.
Claud picked up one of the other camps signs and brought it over to one them. I had long since forgotten that there were only a few noisy assholes and was honestly expected a brawl to break out. But their body language suggested otherwise. Claud and one of the other camps guys shook hands and wished each other good luck. Just like that the lines between the camps faded away. The rest of the sign holders from both sides started talking. There was almost no way to see who was in which camp.
And that made me smile.
The day before the end of a 20 month campaign, these people are voting for different candidates, have just stood out in the cold with people yelling obscenities at each other, and yet they didn't get taken in by the fighting. They shook hands, helped each other carry stuff back to their cars and wished each other good luck. Not good luck with the election, but good luck in life, which seems so much more important. It was a mutual respect I hadn't expected.
The final parting gift to my sense of where to draw the campaign battle lines came as we waited for a truck to pull up so we could load the Obama signs for their trip back to campaign headquarters. I think I have to give up on stereotypes because I never expected one of these to show up with an Obama sticker.