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How to Make People Care About This Disaster of an Election

Many Americans are fed up with the presidential campaign, but that doesn't stop progressive door-knockers from trying to convince them that there are issues worth caring about and voting for.
October 25, 2016, 3:00pm

Canvasser Emily Eastman talks to Tony Ruffino in his apartment. Eastman is working for Rights and Democracy, a progressive group trying to turn cynics into voters. Photo by the author

Here's where the country is at as the 2016 election approaches: A poll of voters under 36 found 39 percent said they'd rather have Barack Obama as president for life than see Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton occupy the White House. Twenty-six percent would prefer the presidency be picked by random lottery. And almost a quarter would rather a meteor destroy the earth.

So no, it's not a great time for idealism and optimism. Bernie Sanders may have energized young progressives in the Democratic primaries, but his defeat after a heated campaign left many of them even more embittered. But some liberal organizers say they've found a way to circumvent the deadly depression of this election season. They're focusing on the people on the ballot not named Trump or Clinton, and on building a longer-term movement to push for progressive policies. And, oddly enough, some of them say that the grotesque mess at the presidential level is helping them find recruits for their cause.

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"Almost every single person I talk to, the first thing they say is how much they despise both candidates," said Emily Eastman, a canvasser for the progressive grassroots group Rights and Democracy (RAD) in New Hampshire. "I get it, because I also feel that way."

Eastman, who was involved in the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, said that sense of shared disgust is often the first place a canvasser can find a connection with a voter.

"We all agree that this is a messed up time that's happening right now," Eastman said. "Something is broken. How do we fix it?"

In a move that's fairly common among grassroots groups, RAD is reaching out to voters talking not about Clinton or Trump but about the Senate and other down-ballot races. RAD's ultimate goal is not just to help more progressive people get in office but to build an organized constituency to push for progressive, broadly popular goals like raising the minimum wage, fighting climate change, and reducing the role of money in politics.

Maria Fitzsimmons, the group's organizing director, said RAD will continue canvassing, and working with the people who've signed up to help, after the election. The group wants to do the traditional grassroots work of holding elected officials accountable and also recruit people who might eventually run for office—particularly in places where Republicans tend to dominate.

"We really want to build some key relationships here, to find some people that are going to be a vanguard for progressive organizing in this area," she said. "I've met people who've said, 'I am a progressive, but I'm terrified to talk to my neighbors about it.' Those are the people we're trying to find."

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This past Friday afternoon, Eastman, who uses the pronouns they/them, was out on the doors in an apartment complex in the southern New Hampshire town of Derry. A 25-year-old with half a head of long blond hair (the other half is mostly shaved), they quit a job running a Newbury Comics store about a month ago to take a job canvassing.

True to Eastman's predictions, nearly every door they knocked on revealed a voter with a grudge against a political system that made a Trump/Clinton race possible.

"It's taking up way more headspace than it deserves," said Tony Ruffino, a gray-bearded man who opened the door holding his toddler granddaughter. Ruffino was clearly busy with child-wrangling, but after just a few questions from Eastman, he invited them into his apartment to talk more. Yes, he's emphatically in favor of raising the minimum wage. He's very concerned about student loans and can't believe how far in debt his son is, despite having a good job in IT.

"The election sucks… Our country is going to hell in a handbasket."

Ruffino didn't require any convincing on RAD's core issues. He was a Bernie Sanders man himself. But he'd recently moved in with his son to care for the little girl, and his name wasn't on the lease, so he wasn't sure how to register to vote in Derry. Eastman made some suggestions and signed him up to keep getting information from RAD. By the end of the visit, Ruffino was still marveling about the state of the 2016 election.

"The word that I'm most able to get this down to is 'absurd,'" he said.

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At another door, a woman in a Red Sox hat was even more irritable about the choices before her on November 8.

"The election sucks," she said. "Our country is going to hell in a handbasket."

Unlike Ruffino, she had some mixed feelings about the minimum wage. She'd like to see it raised, but she has a master's degree and works at a nonprofit, and she doesn't want to see high school–educated workers making more than she does. She and Eastman talked amiably about the state of the economy, and the importance of raises for all workers. But when the conversation turned to the candidates for Senate, she returned to full-blown cynicism.

"They both suck," she said.

One of Eastman's goals on the doors Friday was to harness that kind of sentiment. In the New Hampshire Senate race, Fitzsimmons pointedly said that RAD is not working for Democratic candidate Maggie Hassan, but against her Republican opponent, Senator Kelly Ayotte. While not all of Hassan's positions fit RAD's agenda, opposing Ayotte definitely does.

Talking with voters, Eastman noted again and again that until recently, Ayotte had supported Trump. That's a talking point because Trump's polling in New Hampshire has been much worse than Ayotte's. A few people Eastman talked to seemed horrified to learn that Ayotte has called Trump a role model for children—a statement she made at a debate, retracted hours later, and has been regretting ever since . Hassan's campaign produced an anti-Ayotte commercial highlighting that moment, which could potentially cost her the election—that's how toxic this presidential campaign has been.

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Another RAD canvasser, Justin Roshak, a 24-year-old working in the scenic New Hampshire communities of Haverhill and Laconia, said he's also found that Ayotte's ties to Trump worry voters.

"I think a lot of people have a lot of respect for Kelly Ayotte," he said. "They think she's bright and hardworking. I think the fact that she's tied herself to Trump has really been on people's minds… There's some disappointment in Kelly Ayotte that she made such a poor choice."

Like Eastman, Roshak said he doesn't see the negativity many voters feel about the presidential race as something that's necessarily a problem. He said he worries about people who just don't seem to care about politics at all, but cynical voters are a different story.

"The people who have been cynical, in my experience, are the people who seem to care the most about politics," he said. "The more I talk to them, it becomes clear that it's because they have all these hopes and dreams for the country."

Follow Livia Gershon on Twitter.