Door-to-Door in Des Moines and Modesto: 2 Canvassers Share Their Tales

On this historic day, two women who ventured out to talk about voting, issues and candidates in advance of today’s election share their experiences with Ethnic Media Services. Here they are:

Alice Hm Chen describes her Modesto, Calif., experience. In Congressional contests here, Dianne Feinstein is defending her Senate seat against challenger Kevin DeLeon, another Democrat, and Congressman Jeff Denham, a Republican, is being challenged by Josh Harder, a Democrat.

She writes:

“I’m driving into a prototypical Californian suburb: treeless wide streets, clear sidewalks, neat lawns without much shade.  … Well-kept, monochromatic tan two-story houses with two-car garages, with blinds drawn and garage doors closed to the mid-morning sun. The driveways are mostly empty. A few have cars filling the driveway, sometimes spilling out onto the curb.

As we make our way door to door, people are unfailingly polite. Even the two Republicans who are quick to close the interaction and pointed in their comments deliver them with a smile. One is an attractive light-skinned African American woman in her early 40s who cracked the door one head-width wide to let me know that everyone living there is a Republican or independent. The other is a tousled-haired, tattooed white man in his late 20s unpacking his car from a grocery trip, his biracial kids tumbling out with the groceries, who told me in no uncertain terms, “I don’t do politics. Especially Democrats.”

Glimpses of the homes’ interiors reveal a consistently upper middle class flavor, with spacious rooms, comfortable furniture, neat décor and an occasional pool visible beyond the beveled glass doors.

Glimpses of their denizens reveal a remarkable diversity:

  • A young Muslim woman wearing a hijab, along with makeup and braces, who giggled when I asked her who she was voting for, and called over a young man in a baseball cap who told me that my candidate had come to speak at his (with a sidelong glance) “church.”  Behind him snippets of laughter and conversation coming from young people milling about the kitchen beyond the living room.
  • A multigenerational South Asian family. As the scent of Indian food wafted from the open garage, the initial emissary was a young woman stylishly dressed in a sari, bedecked with jewelry, with a preschooler in her arms, followed by her in-laws. When asked about who she is voting for, she says that she leaves that up to her husband and father-in-law. Her father-in-law laments that in his home country he knows which politicians are good, but here, he is confused by all the negative campaigning and unclear who to vote for.His main point is that the cost of water, of gas and of owning a car is going up much faster than his paycheck.


  • On another street, a South Asian couple emerges from their black SUV with their 3 kids, who range from a tall, thin teenaged daughter to boisterous elementary schoolers playing basketball in the driveway.  We commiserate over how complicated voting has become, and how they’ve set aside the afternoon to research all the ballot measures. They are very clear that their vote matters in the upcoming congressional race.


  • Not two blocks away we meet a young man in his mid-20s working on his car in his garage, wearing a black “Mexico”T-shirt.  He’s a citizen, but not registered to vote and doesn’t think it makes a difference in California.  When I press him on the need to stand up against policies coming from Washington, D.C., he resignedly responds: “The popular vote doesn’t matter.”


  • We pursue an extended Latino family up their sidewalk to their front door — six or eight adults in their late 20s, three or four kids running underfoot.  All are eligible to vote but not registered.  They’re interested enough to interrupt their family gathering to hear me out, but completely disconnected from the candidates and issues.


  • A gray-haired, bespectacled Mandarin speaking man who just immigrated from Oklahoma and isn’t yet registered to vote in his new hometown.


  • An older Filipino couple who are staunch Democrats, who sent in their ballots long ago.


  • A middle-aged white guy who likes the certainty of walking into the polling station on election day and shakes his head at the fact that people around the world die for the right to vote, yet many in his neighborhood don’t bother.


I leave both uplifted and sobered. This community is so much more diverse than any neighborhood I frequent in the Bay Area. The people I encountered were more generous with their time and thoughts than I would be. But their disengagement and disempowerment from the political process is profound.


With the proliferation of propositions and offices, we’ve made voting way too complicated.  With all the negative campaigning, we’ve caused people to shut down.


At the same time, when you actually talk to people about what they want for their families and communities: healthcare, education, immigration, jobs, people clearly are invested.


How to bridge the disconnect?



Alison Engel is a former reporter who left California for Iowa and over the past several months has volunteered for Democratic candidates there. She shares her experiences doing so in Des Moines, the state capital. Iowa’s contests this year include four Congressional seats – three with Republican incumbents — and its governorship, secretary of state and attorney general positions, among others. Iowa has 31 counties that supported Donald Trump in 2016 after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, more than any other state in the country.

Ms. Engel’s reflections:

On Saturday, Oct. 27, as I was door-knocking in Johnston for Democratic candidates, I had a depressingly familiar experience. A middle-aged man answered the door. I asked to speak to his wife, a registered Democrat, by name. He saw the campaign flyers on my clipboard and without a word, slammed the door in my face.

All volunteer canvassers get doors slammed in our faces occasionally, but in this election cycle, there is a noticeable and alarming trend for men not to allow their wives or adult daughters to come to the door to listen to us or receive our literature.

It has happened to me every time I’ve door-knocked over the past four months. A few weeks ago, I had a father brusquely tell me that his daughter wasn’t home when I could see her standing right behind him. To her credit, she said, “Yes, I am,” and proceeded to fill out an absentee ballot request as he seethed.

The political gender gap is more pronounced than ever, commentators are telling us, but my fellow volunteers and I know that without seeing any polls.

For the past several weeks, I have hosted dozens of door-knocking canvassers, and many have returned with similar tales of men denying access to the women in their households. I have not heard one instance of a woman denying access to a man she lives with.

This summer and fall, when I took my clipboard to farmers’ markets, signing up people to vote by mail, I quickly learned that I had better luck talking to women alone than talking to couples. All too often, when I spoke with couples, the men did all the talking. And quite often, when men informed me they both were Republicans, the look on his silent wife’s face sent me a different message.

When I volunteered at the Democratic booth at the Iowa State Fair in August, it was striking to observe the Republican booth across the aisle and notice how few women stopped there. (Maybe the life-sized cutout of Donald Trump scared them off.) We Democrats attracted an even gender mix, but it was not uncommon for women to tell us they couldn’t have a yard sign delivered to their home because their husbands wouldn’t approve.

In Iowa, where fervor for the sports teams of the two largest state universities runs high, people’s homes often have flags or door signs displaying their allegiance to either the cardinal and gold of Iowa State or the black and gold of the University of Iowa. For households with alums from both schools, stores sell banners and signs that proclaim “A House Divided,” with the Cyclone logo on one side and the Hawkeye logo on the other.

In this political climate, “A House Divided” has come to mean that men and women living together have different party affiliations. I certainly hope that these women who are being silenced will vote according to their beliefs and not be cowed by the men in their lives.