At an Obama phone bank, there's enthusiasm, reason to worry

One volunteer's story of a day making calls for Barack Obama, and the response -- some of it decidedly negative -- from those on the other end.

By Rachel Fershleiser

Published November 3, 2008 8:55PM (EST)

The post below is from a friend of mine who volunteered at an Obama phone bank on Sunday. When she told me about her experience, I asked her to write it up for War Room. For a story about working at a McCain phone bank, read this article, published elsewhere on Salon today.

In recent weeks, a calm certainty seems to have settled over most of the liberals I know. After the last two elections, I can't convince myself to be that confident. So on Sunday morning I was at the nearest Obama campaign phone bank, one of hundreds of people who were crowded around tables, packed onto couches and windowsills and strewn all over the floor to make calls for Barack Obama.

The woman who trained us assured our group that we'd only be doing get-out-the-vote calls -- contacting friendly voters in Florida to confirm their polling places. Everyone on our list had self-identified as a Democrat or Obama supporter, she said, so we shouldn't need to do much persuading. As it turned out, that wasn't exactly true. There were plenty of people who were passionate about voting for Obama, but some said exactly the sorts of things that strike fear into my bleeding heart.

It quickly became clear that each page of phone numbers had its own character. My first set was friendly and informed; most had voted early or were ready to support Obama first thing Tuesday morning. Cue false sense of security. My second page was entirely Spanish-speaking. Those who understood me often seemed interested in checking their voting location. For the others I wordlessly handed off my cellphone to a nearby volunteer I'd heard improvising: "Es usted que va a votar por Obama?"

It was exciting to hear people say yes -- in any language -- and inspiring to talk to a few young African-Americans whose enthusiasm was contagious.

Then I started calling Pensacola. My third page of "likely Democratic voters" included the first Floridians I'd spoken to with Southern accents, and without exception, they were displeased to hear from me. I was stunned at the immediate anger I encountered after politely introducing myself. Many hung up after "I'm a volunteer with Bar—." Others answered my inquiry as to whether they had voted early with "Yes, but not for that man." One woman wouldn't even give her husband the phone. Instead, she shrieked, "You don't need to speak to him! I can tell you myself he wouldn't dream of voting for such a sleazebag!" That one came through loud enough to attract sympathetic smiles from my neighbors.

But it was another volunteer who really earned the group's pity. One small woman, twice the age of anyone else in my area, was especially unfortunate when grabbing her voter list. "Actually, that's misinformation," we heard her say. "No, he isn't!" "Just half-African and half-Caucasian." "Ma'am, he's always been a Christian!" "It's only a middle name!"

"You're really getting the Muslim thing?" we whispered.

"Muslim, terrorist, all of it," she said, good-humored but clearly unnerved. "I guess I got the feisty list. Anyone wanna trade?"

We declined, but began to pay more attention to her calls. "He's not! He's not Muslim!" she said to the next one. She was shaking by now. I wondered if she felt as unsettled as I did that, for our purposes, the right answer was "He is Christian," rather than "There's nothing un-American about not being Christian." But she corrected untruths quickly and accurately, then continued down her spreadsheet.

I finished the day feeling a little bit useful and a little bit terrified, grateful for the experience and cautiously optimistic about the election. But it wasn't easy to ignore the hatred attached to some Americans' perceptions of my chosen candidate. After one call, my unlucky fellow volunteer announced to a few of us, "I didn't know what to say -- he told me Barack Obama is the antichrist."

Rachel Fershleiser

MORE FROM Rachel Fershleiser

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections War Room