8am on a Saturday morning and Democrat volunteers from all over Boston were drinking coffee in the car park of a carpet megastore. It was from here that we’d drive out to New Hampshire.
Few states feel the brunt of the campaign like the Granite State. Its 1.2m inhabitants are under siege, with countless TV adverts and candidate appearances, and hordes of eager canvassers on their doorsteps.
Arriving in Goffstown, we gathered in a quaint tea shop for a briefing. An elderly female volunteer in oversized spectacles shared a joke with a heavily pierced and tattooed young man. The coordinator started with a health and safety briefing: “Never approach a house if you suspect that your safety might be compromised. Look to see if the owner is carrying a weapon.”
I asked if guns were a common problem.
“New Hampshire’s motto is “Live Free or Die” and a lot of people here are proud to exercise the Second Amendment. The good news is that they don’t have a ‘stand your ground’ provision here. That means the law probably won’t protect them if they shoot you.”
“Then there are the dogs. Last week someone got bitten while she was approaching a house. This is a rural area and many people keep large dogs for security. Remember, these dogs have often been trained to attack intruders.”
“What happened to the victim?” I asked.
“She actually kept on canvassing. It was only a flesh wound.”
Looks of admiration all around.
I arrived at the first address on my list and made the mistake of parking at the start of the drive and setting off on foot. It was some time before I saw the house—New Hampshire is a land of long driveways. Nobody was home.
I’d been assured that my list had been carefully compiled to ensure that it consisted of “genuinely independent voters who might go either way.” The next house on my list had three “Romney for America” posters proudly displayed on the lawn. I decided to leave the owners in peace. The next house had a Ron Paul banner. My faith in the campaign’s data was disappearing rapidly.
I was 40 minutes into canvassing before I finally spoke to some voters. The door was opened by a flustered father who was attempting to keep hold of three separate toddlers. I mumbled an introduction; he smiled and said he’d fetch his wife. “She’s the political one.”
She had voted for Obama in 2008 and would be voting for him again this time. “To be honest though, it’s mostly because there isn’t a decent Republican,” she said.
I asked her what she thought of the president.
“This time last year I was starting my own business. A daycare centre. I went everywhere for a loan and I got nowhere. All this money we’ve given to the banks, all this talk about doing everything to the economy and I couldn’t get a single dollar. You know what’s happened with my business? It’s a success. One year on and it’s doing really well. But I did it on my own. I keep thinking I should write to the president about it.”
I told her she should.
“Is that a British accent? You’re socialist there aren’t you? Does that work for you?” It wasn’t said in a derogatory tone; she sounded genuinely curious.
I asked her what sort of responses I should expect around Goffstown.
“Oh, you’ll find plenty of idiots around here. Loads hardly ever leave the woods.”
After several more empty houses, Romney posters and extensive driveways, I found something very rare: a genuinely independent voter.
“I haven’t made up my mind. I’m actually finding it very difficult. It’s hard to know what’s going on. You see the stuff on TV but you still don’t know what’s true and what isn’t. I keep planning to sit down at the computer and read up on exactly what they both stand for.”
A car pulled up
“That’s my husband. I’m warning you, he’s a pretty strong Republican.”
It seemed like the right moment to leave but the husband wanted to have his say.
“I have an easy way of looking at things. You’ve got four years to do something. If you don’t do anything then I give the other guy a shot. I can’t see what Obama’s done.”
After that, there was no stopping him.
“You know I enjoy talking politics. What I don’t like is when someone comes to the door asks you who you’re going to vote for and then starts lecturing you about why you’re wrong. They say they want to know what you think but they actually want to tell you what to think.”
I said that I wasn’t going to tell him what to think. He smiled and invited me in for a drink, but I had to get on.
“Now if Bill Clinton was standing, I’d vote for him. We both liked Clinton.”
It was almost time to return to the tea shop and I’d barely made an impact on the list. One more house. I knocked and a man opened the door very slowly. He stared at me intently, without saying a word. I began my patter. He slammed the door.