South Lawrence Street is in a predominately white working-class neighborhood near Dickinson Square Park on the south side of Philadelphia. But the narrow street of rowhouses also seems to be a microcosm of the vast chasm between the Trump and the Clinton electorates.
On a Tuesday evening in mid-October, I tag along with Jihad Seifullah, who is out knocking on doors and talking to people about the election. He’s the canvassing director in southeastern Pennsylvania for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s non-union worker organizing project, which focuses chiefly on political persuasion within the white working class.
At the first Lawrence Street door Seifullah knocks on, a man answers the door and politely answers Seifullah’s question about what his top issue is (wealth inequality), while his toddler daughter peeps out curiously from behind. He says that he’s definitely voting for Clinton and Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty—he’s got no sympathy for Trump. His wife (also voting for Clinton and McGinty) comes to the door, offers her email for a mailing list, and thanks Seifullah for the work he does; she works for Planned Parenthood and knows how challenging political canvassing can be.
At the next door, a couple of houses down, Seifullah is looking for Donna. Instead, Donna’s husband Walter comes to the door. He says, purely because he’s long considered himself a Democrat, he’s voting for Clinton and that his wife has no interest in talking to Seifullah—she’s voting for Trump. Seifullah asks Walter if he could just speak to Donna for a moment, and Walter goes to try to convince her but she still refuses. Walter, on the other hand, is happy to talk about why his wife and people in his neighborhood are voting for Trump—it’s the Democrats’ favoritism toward immigrants, he says. He begins to work himself into a rage. “Why are they getting tax breaks when our family got here and we got nothing?” he asks heatedly. “Explain that to me. You can’t.”
“At least Trump tells us the truth,” he says, before launching into a tirade against Mexican immigrants and an immigrant-owned corner store nearby that he says gets favorable treatment while everyone else is screwed over. This lasts for a few minutes, but Seifullah has other doors to knock on. Before leaving, Walter points out a handful doors on the street that he shouldn’t knock on—because they’re all Trump supporters.
Still, Seifullah persists. At the next door—one marked as Trump turf by Walter—a woman pops her head out of the upstairs window and yells, “Get out of here!”
Farther down the street, Seifullah talks to a stay-at-home father and former guidance counselor at a Philadelphia school. He’s moving to a new neighborhood soon, he says, in part because his family needs more space, but also because of neighbors like Walter. He talks about the need to protect universal health care, and says he’s supporting Clinton and McGinty. “Somebody needs to make some type of change—just not Donald Trump,” he says.
After each conversation, Seifullah plugs the information he gleans into a canvassing database on his iPad. In Pennsylvania alone, Working America has 72 canvassers, has knocked more than 300,000 doors and had more than 90,000 conversations with voters, mostly in Philadelphia.
As Seifullah and I double back on the other side of the street, a man hanging out in front of his house a couple down from Walter’s sees us and yells, “Trump’s the man! He’s gonna rule!” and then mumbles something about how the college-educated think they know better than everyone else.
Seifullah, a tall black man, is not fazed by pro-Trump-rhetoric. It’s a byproduct of his job—“I’m comfortable talking to all people,” he says. One of Working America’s central goals in 2016 has been to talk face-to-face with—and change the minds of—white working-class voters who are attracted to Trump’s pseudo-populist politics on trade and manufacturing.
But Trump’s campaign, which has blatantly stoked racial fears and hatreds, has made that difficult. When someone starts talking about how important it is to build a wall, Seifullah says—drawing on a deep well of experience—it’s time to cut your losses and move to the next house.
“Unfortunately, this is a more polarizing environment than I’ve ever seen in my time here,” says Working America’s political director Matt Morrison, who’s worked on 400 different elections around the country since 2008. There’s been a dramatic uptick of incidents involving racial intimidation and threats on precinct walks this year. “It’s pretty intense. It makes it remarkably hard for folks to be available for persuasion. It takes a real art to make that happen.”
That art entails engaging voters in more in-depth conversations of their interests. “We figured out the best way to persuade and mobilize was to start from a place about what they cared about, and then have [a] conversation based on that,” Morrison says. “Canvassers like that better; voters respond better.”
The group is charged with trying to shore up support across white working-class communities in nine battleground states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida. The various states’ political landscapes differ dramatically, of course: Ohio’s working class is quite distinct from Florida’s, and so on. Because Working America can draw on several years of experience canvassing in these states, it knows how best to attune its message. That’s what has made the operation one of liberalism’s most effective tools for politically persuading the non-union white working class. One of liberalism’s few tools, as well.
In North Carolina, for instance, the group is trying not only to consolidate Clinton support in communities of color, but also to identify those white working-class voters with whom they may have a chance—however remote—of communicating. “They’re not readily available in North Carolina,” says Morrison. “These are Republicans. They vote Republican all the time; they just can’t stomach Trump.” The mission, then, becomes finding a way for them to stomach Clinton.
Morrison recalls one conversation he had in North Carolina with a 70-year-old white woman who was a retired librarian. The first words out of her mouth, he says, were: “Trump—I’m scared of ISIS.” Instead of moving on to the next door, he and another canvasser pressed her on why exactly she supported Trump. Over the course of the conversation, they learned that the woman was concerned about her Social Security. That was their way in, as they explained how Trump was toying with the idea of privatization while Clinton had what Morrison described as an “unequivocal record of being on the right side.” By the end of their conversation, they had made progress. By no means had the woman become a full-blown Clinton backer, but her perspective had shifted. At a minimum she indicated that she might vote for Democrat Deborah Ross for Senate. “You have to judge a situation and move the voter based on what they're telling you,” Morrison says.
In Ohio, canvassers have experienced the full force of Trump’s pull within the white working class. In response, organizers have adopted “deep canvassing” methods that have had some success getting voters to explain their reasoning and then conducting a conversation that may persuade them to shift their perspective. If Clinton does pull off a win in Ohio, Morrison says, it will largely be due to efforts like those that slowly make inroads in the most frustrated white communities.
The labor group estimates it has spent about $4.2 million this cycle, which it has used to employ an army of 540 canvassers across the country. Since June, it has run 26,000 total canvassing shifts, knocked on 1.6 million doors, and had 500,000 conversations with voters. As get-out-the-vote efforts scale up in days before the election, Working America hopes to knock on another million doors.
Beyond the near-term focus on November 8, Morrison is troubled by what he’s seen on the ground and sees problems on the horizon for progressives. The racial intimidation and threats that Working America canvassers have encountered “won’t go away on November 9. We need as progressives a real strategy to create some real reconciliation,” he says. Even if Clinton wins the White House and Democrats capture the Senate, “We’re going to turn around and face one of the most daunting maps we’ve ever seen”—one that will lead into the 2018 midterms with an activated Republican white working-class base and a rising American electorate that needs sustained engagement if it’s to vote at all.
“It’s polarized and we’ve got a lot of work to do. This election is the beginning not the end,” Morrison says.