Willow Grove, Penn. — Standing outside of an ACME supermarket on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, Carter Colter asked a question that he had been repeating to incoming and outgoing shoppers for the past three hours.
“Excuse me, are you registered to vote?”
Colter, 70, a retired advertising salesman who had joined a group of volunteers who traveled from New Haven down to the Philadelphia suburbs for the weekend to volunteer for the local Democratic Party, was wearing a yellow windbreaker emboldened by a deep blue Hillary Clinton sticker.
Bruce Hallowell, a silver-haired man in aviator sunglasses and a camouflage coat, stopped in front of the store entrance and broke into a big smile upon hearing the question.
“I am registered,” he said. “And I’m voting for Hillary Clinton and the whole Democratic ticket. I’m a carpenter with just a high school education. I don’t know much about politics, and, to be honest, I think that the presidency is still a man’s job. But when I hear the kinds of things that Trump says about women and immigrants, it’s embarrassing. He’s like a child. He cannot be the president of this country.”
These were the types of internal contradictions that Colter, along with a handful of other Democrats from Greater New Haven who had traveled to Pennsylvania for the weekend to campaign for Hillary, encountered at every turn as they sought to sign up the residents of Montgomery County before the state’s Tuesday voter registration deadline.
They traveled to one of the nation’s battleground —a suburban area where white voters remain undecided enough between Clinton and Republican Donald Trump that the vote, and perhaps the fate of the American government, is up for grabs.
The volunteers met voters who were skeptical of female authority figures while at the same time repulsed by Trump’s chauvinism; voters who were eager to register, but unsure of who to vote for; voters who could not wait to support Hillary, and others who thumped passionately for Trump; and finally, all too often, people who dismissed both politicians as liars, and who vowed not to vote at all.
From New Haven to Dresher
Melody Oliphant, 24, a post graduate research associate at the Yale School of Medicine, organized the weekend-long campaigning trip from New Haven to Pennsylvania. Eager to follow up on a well attended presidential debate party that she had helped host at Cask Republic a few weeks ago, Oliphant decided that the next logical step in rallying New Haven support for Hillary Clinton was to bring a group of volunteers to a nearby swing state, where their advocacy could help tilt a teetering electorate from red to blue. Pennsylvania, with its competitive Senate and attorney general races and its looming voter registration deadline, seemed the perfect candidate.
After driving down Friday evening, Oliphant and a handful of college friends from Wesleyan converged upon the Montgomery County campaign headquarters. Tucked away at the end of a low-key suburban shopping plaza in Dresher, Pennsylvania, the headquarters brimmed with activity on Saturday morning, brightened by overlapping Hillary Clinton, Katie McGinty, and Ben Shapiro posters, as well as by a few dozen weekend volunteers recently arrived from New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maryland.
Riju Das, 34, a veteran Democratic political operative from Farmington who was one of the chief organizers working at the Dresher campaign office, handed out clipboards stacked with voter registration forms as he explained the importance of this part of the state to the outcome of the general election.
“In Pennsylvania, counties are the kingmakers,” Das said. “And Montgomery County, which is the third largest county in the state and recently flipped from Republican to Democratic, is critical for every Democrat on this year’s ballot. Historically, as Montgomery County goes, so goes the rest of Pennsylvania.”
Armed with instructions, Hillary stickers, and voter registration forms, as well as with the confidence that signing up new voters in Montgomery Country could actually influence the election, Oliphant and her team headed out to their assigned turf: the Willow Grove mall.
Inside Willow Grove
Like many upscale suburban malls, Willow Grove is spacious, suffused with light, cleanly scrubbed, and teeming with overpriced goodies. Unlike many upscale suburban malls, Willow Grove is remarkably diverse, pulling in people of various ages, races, and ethnicities from all over the greater Philadelphia metro area.
Stationed in the pavilion alongside an Island of Treats candy vendor and a Vans shoe store, Oliphant stopped each passerby with a smile and a question: Are you registered to vote?
“I’ve been meaning to do that!” a young woman on a 15-minute break from her job at Victoria’s Secret exclaimed. “Here, let me fill that out now so I don’t forget.”
A few minutes later, a couple stopped to change their voter registration addresses, but seemed hesitant about voting at all in the general election. “I supported Bernie Sanders in the primary,” the young man said after handing back the form. “But I think Hillary and Trump are both crooks. They’ll both be terrible for this country.”
Plenty of people walked right by, some indifferent or impatient towards the question, others seemingly confused by it. Plenty of others responded that they were already registered, joyfully raising a fist in support of Hillary, or scowling derisively at the volunteers for being so naïve as to support either candidate.
By the end of the afternoon, Oliphant and her fellow Willow Grove volunteers had gathered 18 new registrations and address updates. On a cool Saturday afternoon in the suburbs, the mall had proven to be fertile ground for signing up last-minute potential voters.
On Sunday afternoon, Carter Colter, who participates regularly in a Hillary phone bank in Milford and had been recruited by Oliphant to join the Pennsylvania campaigning trip, drove out to the Willow Grove ACME grocery store with his own stack of voter registration forms. A lifelong Democrat who was struck by a sense of urgency to volunteer for Hillary Clinton after the death of conservative Supreme Court Justice Anotnin Scalia threw into sharp relief the high and lasting stakes of this year’s presidential contest, Colter was eager to register voters and talk about his support for the values of the Democratic Party.
Much like Oliphant’s experience at the mall the day before, many of the people queried were already registered and had no interest in talking; others expressed delight or disdain for either candidate; and a select few walked by with their heads down, promising never to participate what they believed to be a crooked political system.
“Oh yes I am registered, and I wouldn’t miss this election for the world!” one woman beamed as she walked into the store. “I hope you guys are on the Trump train,” another shouted from his car window as he drove by. “I’ve got some extra Trump hats in the back if you want some!” “Yes, I vote every election,” a man smiled wryly amidst the sound of shopping carts rattling in the wind. “Even for the dogcatcher.”
After three hours on his feet on a brisk Sunday afternoon, Carter packed up with no new registrations recorded (though at least one promise from a young man who said he would register online). He stopped by the campaign office before starting the 3-plus hour drive back to the Elm City, where he reflected on the key difference between people’s responses today and the responses he heard the last time he volunteered for a presidential campaign in Pennsylvania back in 2004.
“The primary difference was that, when we were volunteering for Kerry, we were out there opposing the Iraq War,” he said. “We were speaking out against a specific policy. None of us loved Bush, who we thought was just a tool of the neo-cons, but our critique wasn’t personal in the same way that this election has been. And Trump has made it that way. With nicknames like Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted and Crooked Hillary, he has turned this into a shouting match over individual personalities: nothing of substance or party loyalty. And that’s what people respond to. It’s just all so personal.”