Reflections From The Campaign Trail From An Elizabeth Warren True Believer
By Kellie Leeson, Co-lead Organizer of Empire State Indivisible
I spent three weeks in New Hampshire ahead of one of the First in The Nation primaries in support of Elizabeth Warren. While there is much to consider about the NH primary and whether it is appropriate for two very rural and white states to lead the presidential nominee selection process, at this point this is the reality. Of course, in NH some people were not interested in talking or being bothered but many took their role in the primaries seriously and were keen to consider their choices with the stranger knocking on the door.
The overriding feeling I gleaned from NH voters was fear. People are scared of another four years of Donald Trump. I heard it over and over and this fear of the possibility of more Trump seemed to create paralysis among the electorate and the concern that they personally would make the wrong choice that would lead to this outcome. After 2016, Democratic voters had lost confidence in themselves.
I was volunteering for an objectively qualified candidate and yet so many of the conversations returned to Elizabeth Warren’s “electability”. One man living in NH told me that he was supportive of Elizabeth Warren but he didn’t know if the people in the Midwest would elect a woman. He explained that he was not from the Midwest nor had ever lived there. Another woman told me she liked both Bernie and Warren but found Elizabeth Warren angry while another said she seemed “crazy”, both common tropes used to undermine strong women. More frequently, voters told me that they really liked Elizabeth Warren and perceived her as extremely smart and competent. I listened as one woman tried to puzzle out her selection when she noted that Elizabeth Warren would make the best president, it was as if the election were not for that exact office. In 2016, Americans voted for a woman, she had more votes and still lost. This one experience provided a data point making people question whether Americans, and especially the folks in the Midwest, are ready for a female president. The conjecture was maddening, and the power of Wisconsin never loomed so large.
By the end of the three weeks I was exhausted by the constant onslaught of sexism. As I continuously confronted this, I couldn’t help but consider how racism had already erased the candidates of color from the presidential field with all the diversity of the democratic candidates shrinking to one that featured solely white options. David Dennis, Jr. captured it perfectly when he stated in his Washington Post piece, “As inequality creeps along, it swallows up each level of marginalized people on its way. Black women and men of color may get gobbled up first, but that oppressive beast will eventually find its way to white women, too.” Knocking on doors I could hear this — one on one interactions all added up to provide a reflection of America and our collective bias.
While being beaten down by the misogyny, I was simultaneously buoyed and blown away by generosity. The people of New Hampshire rallied to support volunteers in unimaginable ways. I personally was housed by people who barely knew me but opened their home to me and I was not alone. Volunteers and organizers around the state were housed by benevolent people. In Exeter, a state representative allowed her home to be used as a “staging location” and countless volunteers wandered in and out every weekend and always felt welcome doing so. Local volunteers popped in to pick up a “turf” and spend a spare two hours talking to their neighbors and others traveled on weekends from Massachusetts, Maine and New York to knock on doors and engage fellow voters in our democracy. I personally met gracious voters who welcomed me into their lives to discuss one of their most important decisions for 2020. These voters shared their fears, concerns and hopes with kindness and often concern over my cold hands and health. The residents of NH collectively opened their state for a national conversation one household at a time.
What I did hear from the Democrats of NH was that regardless of the candidate, they would come together and unify against Donald Trump which only nominally cheered me when seeing the results in NH. I couldn’t help but note that many of the voters with whom I spoke, in the end, felt that voting for Warren was too much of a risk.
After three weeks in the cold of NH, I headed south to the Carolinas. I spoke with countless voters and rarely heard anything about electability or the pressing fear that came through in NH. Of course, there could be many reasons for this but it is striking given that many of the households I visited were families of color. I was thinking of the writer Kara Brown who noted how many white Americans are just now waking up to the fear of existing in this country, perhaps that explains the difference. Perhaps in NH, it was this new found fear that needed to be expressed while in South Carolina people no longer felt that it needed to be communicated, especially not to me, an unknown white woman roaming the neighborhood.
As in NH, most voters in SC were undecided but unlike NH very few were willing to share their preferred candidates. At the first home on my list in SC, I knocked on the door and started to engage with a voter, her husband then jumped into the conversation and asked me to highlight the three key points for Elizabeth Warren. When I looked down at my paper he kindly stated, “When you come to black folks’ homes you need to have your points together,” and he was right. As I visited homes, I asked people their opinions and then if they would be willing to hear about Elizabeth Warren, nearly all voters shook their head and said, “go ahead” and with my three points in hand I was ready to roll. One young kid of 25 listened and was so still that l I started to wonder if he was still breathing. At times when describing the corruption and inequality of the system, people would nod their head in knowing agreement . One woman, in her 60s who is living with a disability, explained that she can’t afford to turn on her heat in the winter. Another man sitting outside with friends educated all of us on the numerous corruption scandals swarming the current president and how they threaten our democracy. I spoke with an 85-year old man for about 20 minutes, he told me about his health, his children, his grandchildren, his active life of bowling and swimming. These are my most treasured moments. There was something very real about the southern hospitality I felt, something indescribable but decidedly different from the northeast in the interactions. One elderly lady who we had missed at her home, drove up to us on the street and thanked us for what we were doing and said she had asked the Lord for the opportunity to see us and was grateful.
The results from SC highlight that there is still work to be done for Warren to build name id and trust. I hope I was able to contribute to that as I both listened and talked to voters. As I consider the results, I realize Biden has a long history in the state and his victory is one that I can understand but what about Steyer and Buttigieg, candidates with impressive but very limited records? It is hard not to wonder, what does it take in the US for women to be trusted?
On a personal note, knocking on doors and talking to people in their homes, is a privilege. I noticed small things such as the failure of the doorbell industry to make a reliable product, and while huge dogs are all the rage in NH, tiny cute dogs are the trend in SC and interestingly, Americans are unified in their love of the door wreath. Up and down the Eastern seaboard I saw how other Americans live from the grandest to the most modest of homes and on some days my breath was taken away by the absolute poverty of my fellow Americans. In all but the rarest of circumstances was anyone anything but kind. At Warren rallies, people often start by explaining why they are in this fight. I am in this fight because I see a society that increasingly does not reflect my values. I live in a society where money and power at all costs is lionized and where working Americans live on a knifes’ edge. I am in this fight because I think our government should work for all of us and not just some of us. I am in this fight because I still believe we can change course and create a more just and equitable America if we allow ourselves to imagine it and then work for it.