“I like to hunt, and Biden will take away our guns,” a man told me. To him, this was a personal affront. He sounded more hurt than angry. I am not a hunter, but I mustered enough facts to provide a counterpoint. It’s hard to say whether my endeavor to explain Joe Biden’s record on the Second Amendment changed his mind. He was speaking from his heart about something he loved. What Biden’s done or will do was kind of beside the point.
All of us are confused. All of us are afraid for the future. Few of us have figured out how to think rationally about this perilous time or this looming election. I’m volunteering for the Michigan Democrats, and I follow their script, but these calls go deeper than talking points. Before I started volunteering, I let some part of me believe that simply clearing up matters of undisputed fact would make a difference, maybe even flip a couple voters per precinct. In her speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama had pointed out that in one of the states that decided the election, the margin of victory amounted to two votes per precinct. That state was Michigan. But I underestimated the effect this wild year has had: the loneliness and isolation, the anxiety, the propaganda. Isn’t it more comfortable to validate what we believe in our hearts, no matter what contradictory facts intrude? I’ve called more than 200 people, spoken to about 75 of them. I can’t be sure whether I’ve flipped a single vote. Facts are simply no match for feelings.
One woman said, “I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m a Christian.” I told her that as far as I know, Joe Biden is not only a Christian himself but he believes people should worship however they choose. I told her that one of the reasons Biden has my vote is that he’s altruistic, a mainstay of Christian values. She didn’t disagree but she planned to vote for the candidate of the two who she said better embodied Christianity. Her assessment: That candidate was not Biden.
One man said that racism is a crisis in our country and would be the deciding factor when he casts his vote. He’d concluded one of the candidates was more racist than the other, which is why he’d be voting Republican this November.
Plenty of people hang up on me. Some of them call me names first. I mark “refused” on my form and move on.
Biden fans answer my calls, too. Some are still confused about how to vote absentee. Many have lost confidence in the U.S. Postal Service. I talk to them about alternative ways to drop off ballots, about the tenacity it will take to wait in a long line if they must.
“I used to vote Democrat, my whole life,” a man said. As a Bernie Sanders supporter, he was frustrated with his choices in 2016, switched to Trump then, and has not been disappointed so far. I suggested Sanders might have a better shot at a leadership position in a Biden administration than he would in a second Trump term. This voter thought otherwise.
A man said honesty was important to him, and so he’d selected Trump, whom he evaluated as deeply honest, though based on what he told me, I think this voter was maybe confusing “honest” with “unapologetic.” More than one person who told me they’ll vote Republican also had a derogatory name for our sitting president: “idiot” or something less polite. Everyone in Washington is a jerk, one said. “Trump is the only one that admits it.”
Someone said he refuses to vote for Clinton. I said Clinton’s not running, and he countered I must be extremely naive if I don’t understand that the Clintons are “behind all of this.” Thus began one of many conversations that touched on deeply held, wholly false beliefs about unspeakable supposed crimes connected to a D.C. pizza restaurant.
Like a lot of Americans, I spent much of the time from March to July inside my own home. I live in a liberal college town, and for five months, I primarily encountered my left-leaning family members in person and my left-leaning co-workers on-screen. Until I went on a socially distanced summer vacation to northern Michigan, I’d been living within a fairly homogeneous set of perspectives about how the world had changed in 2020. Up north, I saw firsthand evidence of Michiganders vehemently rejecting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s safety orders everywhere, from highway rest stops to farmers markets. The same rural yards with sexist signs condemning Whitmer had pro-Trump signs that read “God, Guns & Country.”
In 2016, Michigan was pivotal in the presidential race, with the narrowest margin of any state. Clinton lost the popular vote here by less than 11,000 votes. After years of feeling powerless during Trump’s presidency, rolling up my sleeves and talking to my neighbors felt imminently achievable. I actually love considering new viewpoints, and I’m accomplished at striking up conversations with strangers. I found myself wanting to know more about the strident pro-Trump, anti-mask crowd and also wanting to see if there was meaningful common ground for us. Given the urgency of this election’s outcome, I heeded the call to be part of the massive Democratic effort underway this fall.
I signed up to volunteer ready for door-knocking, but the Biden campaign has prioritized digital conversations because of safety. I was disappointed that my person-to-person connecting and my upbeat greetings would have to happen like everything else these days — online. It is more challenging to have a meaningful back and forth via auto-dialer than on someone’s front stoop in the evening sunshine. The facts at my disposal gave me confidence. Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, have many decades of public service between them. Their platform is understandable. Their opponent has failed spectacularly on nearly every imaginable metric for the presidency. Yet, the more calls I make, the more ephemeral hard facts seem to be. I can go hoarse rebutting myths sown by QAnon, but the truth seems to slip away from almost every conversation.
Making calls to undecided Michigan voters has not been a feel-good civic affirmation. It’s been disorienting and frankly weird, but I’m not planning to stop, hoping that maybe empathy will prevail where facts fail.
I talked to a man last week whose wife was in for Biden but he hadn’t yet decided. I pivoted from politics, and we talked human to human for a bit. He lives on Lake Superior in a part of the state I’ve never seen. “The water sparkles here a certain way in the afternoon,” he said, and I made a mental note to go up there next summer. We chatted about the Great Lakes, and he took a few well-meaning jabs at Ann Arbor college-professor types. We both laughed, and I told him why I’m voting for Biden, and he listened. He was still undecided by the time we hung up, but he asked how to get a Biden-Harris yard sign “for my wife,” he said, “until I decide.”