Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Mythical McCain Volunteer

First off, I saw Joe Biden today, and shook the man's hand! So cool! I'm glad I'm in Colorado, where they actually need to woo voters. (Pictures to be added later... if there's a picture here now, it was added after the original post).

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a volunteer for John McCain. I mean, in principle I know they ought to exist. I've just never seen one. There's a bunch of media outlets who have more or less noted the same thing, although I'm too tired to find any relevant links. I mean, clearly there are people working for John McCain, I just haven't seen anybody who does it for free. Actually, before today I'd never really seen anybody working for McCain at all (with the exception of Sarah Palin and Rebecca P-Fotenhauer(?), whom Jon Stewart shows clips of every once in a while).

I was out canvassing this morning, and I ran across a guy with a clipboard and a "Sportsmen for McCain" sticker. Afraid of a confrontation, I approached cautiously, and quickly determined that he was, in fact, canvassing for McCain. Being the curious guy I am, I asked him why he liked McCain. His response: "Oh, I haven't made up my mind yet who I'm voting for, but they pay me $10 an hour. How much do you get paid?" I think I stifled the laugh at that one. Thanks to the social networking services affiliated with the campaign, my expenses here have been fairly minimal (with the exception of various car trouble, but that probaly would've come up even if I hadn't been out here), but I'm here because I think it's important for me to be here, not because it's at all a reasonable money making enterprise. (My status message for some time has been: My friend: "I don't stay at work until they close". Me: "That's because they pay you" ).

And then I realized, hey, I'm out here to see if I can quickly convert undecided voters. And this guy, despite working for the Honorable Opposition, was an undecided voter. So I did what I could do to quickly sway his opinions, but then let him go on canvassing people in the same apartment complex.

So anyways... Has anyone actually seen someone working for McCain simply because they really think he's the right candidate? I'm still waiting.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Turf Cutting

What? How is it Sunday already? Where did my weekend go? (Actually, I know where it went... canvassing).

Anyways, this last weekend, I learned how to "cut turf". For the layman, that means breaking up a precinct into more-or-less walkable routes with reasonable numbers of doors to knock on. There's a neat little Google Map app embedded in VoteBuilder.com that does it. This has been a problem, as last night, I had a dream that lasted for quite a while, where much of the imagery was directly inspired by the turf-cutting view in google. I don't want to say the dream was about turf cutting, but... eerily close.

After separating the turf into reasonable-sized bunches, there are reports that get printed out. My field organizer thinks that it makes sense to put the pages in those reports into a walking order, since each page corresponds to a street. I'm not totally convinced that this is actually a net-time saving proposition (for me at least), but I've deferred to her experience. The big question, of course, is what is the best way to walk the route. Joy called while I was ordering some packets, and she said something to the effect of, "you sound thinky".

I've come up with a few things to try to minimize, roughly in order:
  1. Number of times to move the car
  2. Total distance walked
  3. Number of times walker has to flip the page
  4. The feeling of backtracking

I've also concluded from my own walking experience that it's helpful to actually indicate on the map that gets printed what the order I'm suggesting is, as well as label unlabelled streets. This way, when people get my packets, they don't have to think, "What was this person thinking?" They might think, "Why did this person think this route was a good one?" but at least they'll know what I thought their route was. Also, they'll have some idea what order their packet is in, in case they want to reorganize.

I'm sure that there's some computational algorithm to figure out the best route. It even seems like it might be some highly-constrained travelling salesman problem. Given that there's usually on the order of N=50 doors per packet, it seems like even a near-brute-force algorithm might work. I should look into the API for google maps and see if I can't put something together... starting on the 5th.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Princetonians in Colorado

Today I met my third Princetonian in this state. Well, almost. I stayed with Sarah, of course. And I met Scott '06 last Friday, randomly, when I noticed that he had a Terrace shirt. Today, I found out our new DFO, Lily, is putting off going to Princeton for a year to work on the campaign (among other things). Apparently this is the place to be...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Thoughts on Street Numbering

So the weekdays are more or less like the weekends. Today I did lots of data entry, after concluding that canvassing on a Tuesday morning wasn't going to be that effective.

While canvassing, it has occurred to me to wonder how street numbers are chosen. Where I live, we have a whole bunch of houses on the same driveway, and because they're on the same side of the street, they increase by 2. But lots of places I've canvassed, they increase by 4, 6, or 10. Now, I can see why one might want to leave some room in there, in case somebody decides to subdivide their lot, but there's simply no way you're going to fit 5 houses onto one of these tract homes. Some of it could be an attempt to have numbers increase by roughly 100 each block, but that hasn't been totally consistent either. And, once you've decided to increase by an amount greater than 2, (and especially 10) what number do you choose to start on? I've seen streets where it's 6 on the even side and 9 on the odd side, for example. Really, who thought of that?

Another phenomenon I've seen is that lots of streets in the same area have similar numbers. I've seen parallel culs-de-sac where they all have the same hundreds and thousands digits. Actually, all the streets in a neighborhood often seem to.

Basically, I'd like to sit in on whatever meeting goes on where they build a new development and decide what the street numbers are going to be. I'm sure it would get boring after a while, but I'd still be curious to see what the decision making process is like.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What I've been up to

I kinda feel like during my three days working in Colorado, I've been in more or less every lower-level position available on the campaign. I arrived in the Adams County office on Thursday morning, and once they determined exactly where they were sending me (Aurora), I was put to work at the front desk. Working the front desk at the office was described to me as "pretending like you know what's going on". Mostly, I sold bumper stickers and yard signs, and gave directions to the office for those who wanted to buy bumper stickers and yard signs.

Later in the afternoon, I was dispatched to Aurora. I've been told it's a rougher part of Denver, but it seemed perfectly fine to me. Once there, I immediately started working on phone banking. I don't remember what I tallied that day, but it was a lot of phone calls.

The next day, they actually put me to work doing somewhat higher-level activities. Among other things, I wrote up and designed a couple pieces of volunteer-literature. My main accomplishment was getting a tally sheet that used to be a full-page document down to a half-page, including adding a new section. In retrospect, I wonder if I should've made it a portrait half-page instead of landscape, but my FO seemed pleased enough with the work. Then, I went scouting for locations for staging locations for volunteers on Election Day. The community center I was specifically asked to check out was run by the city, so they didn't want to be seen sponsoring a political candidate. I did manage to find a Moose Lodge. Given Governor Palin's penchant for shooting moose, maybe they'd be open to letting us work out of there, but the person who could've given a thumbs up wasn't around.

On Friday night, I moved up to Boulder with Albert, and so on Saturday morning I reported to the Broomfield County office. They put me to work canvassing, where I knocked on almost 200 doors for the day. Then did some phone banking. So, you know, that was tiring. Today, more canvassing (120 doors), then a Get Out The Vote orientation. That one was mainly about what the command structure is going to look like for the final weekend. The thing is, though, because I'm an out of state volunteer, and had only been with my group for 2 days, they didn't have anywhere to put me (yet). It looks like I'm just going to be a floater, and they'll plug me in where there's holes.

So that's my first four days on the campaign. Tomorrow is my first weekday at the Broomfield office, so we'll see how different that'll be.

And, on a completely unrelated note, the coolest unicode character ever: ☃. Feel free to increase the font size as necessary.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Rest of the Trip

I'm taking a break before the big calling period starts, so I should probably write up the rest of the drive before it gets too cold in my memory. After leaving Lovelock, I drove some more. I listened to the debate on the radio, not making it anywhere near SLC. This was an interesting experience, as I was in some of the least populated parts of Nevada. Talking with my mom on the phone, she said the population density was around 0.7 people per square mile. When I heard that, I couldn't really believe it. It seemed too high. But anyways, even the AM stations around there weren't terribly close, so whenever I went around a large-ish piece of geography, I had to hit the SCAN button to find another station. And there are lots of large-ish pieces of geography around there.

By the end of the debate, I had made it into Elko, NV, where I had been in touch with the office, and they had arranged housing for me. Before going to my housing, though, I stayed for a bit and did some phone banking, trying to get supporters down to the office to help volunteer. Then, I went to Madeline and Mike's house. They were a very friendly retired couple who had offered their house to wayward Obama volunteers. That night, we watched some TV, then went to bed. In the morning, Madeline made a very tasty pancake breakfast, and I was on my way.

That day was more driving. Lots of it. It's days like those two that one realizes just how big our country is. I spent some time listening to music, and some to conservative talk radio. Really, any talk radio I could pick up, but invariably this proved to be conservative radio. (Speaking of "any radio I could pick up", I managed to get stations from as far as Winnipeg and Chicago while I was in south-central Wyoming). I heard pundits outright state that they thought Obama was a terrorist! Fortunately, a lot of these pundits also seemed generally negative on McCain's performance in the debate. So, you know, if they other side says that they think they lost, that's a good sign for us, yeah?

I finally got into my friend Sarah's apartment around 11:30 that night, went to sleep, and then went to work at the office the next morning. More details on the work I've been doing in the next post.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


More details on the rest of the trip to come, but for the moment, I've arrived in Colorado, and have been given at least a rough assignment. I'll be working out of Aurora. I need to google map that to see where that is...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

On the road (and other problems)

I'm writing this post from the Pizza Factory, in Lovelock, NV.

I spent my last night in the Bay Area hanging out at Stanford, with my high school friends LeAnn and Vivek, and of course my girlfriend Joy. Good times were had all around, and we ended up going to some late night cafe thing on campus. Joy and I both ended up ordering Boba, and at the end, we had two giant boba straws, and started playing aound with them. Joy shot a boba ball into my mouth. Then, either Joy or LeAnn (I don't remember) tried to do a straw walrus. I decided she couldn't do it well, took the straws from her, and did it myself. Me and my big mouth.

I left Sford around 7:30 this morning and hit the road, heading on I80 going east. And drove. I stopped for gas. And then drove some more. Then, disaster struck. I hear this odd vibrating noise in the right side of my car. "Okay, that's a little weird... I wonder what that is." Then it got louder. And my car starting pulling to one side. I pull over to the side of the road, about here, looked at the mess that was my front tire, and called AAA. It was kind of odd trying to explain where I was. I actually wasn't paying attention to where I was until all this happened, so I had no idea what exit number I was at, and couldn't see any mile markers. The GPS told me I was in Fernley, but wasn't much help beyond that. Eventually, I ended up telling the operator what I could see, and they eventually figured out where I was, and dispatched a truck. He helped me put on my spare, and suggested I go to Lovelock (some 55 miles down the road) to actually get my tires replaced. So, here I am. I've got my front two tires replaced, and advice for further repairs (apparently my front right half-shaft needs replacing. Whatever that means).

Well, my calzone's all done now, and I should probably get back onto the road. I doubt if I'll make Salt Lake City in time to watch the debates, but there's always radio.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Journey of a Thousand Miles...

… starts with a journey of a couple hundred miles. This past weekend, I participated in a Drive For Change event to Reno, Nevada. Some of the incidentals of this trip have reaffirmed my faith in the inherent goodness of most people. The unofficial theme of the weekend seemed to be "relying on the kindness of strangers".

I ended up carpooling up, on very short notice, with a nice woman named Diana, from Berkeley. I found her through CraigsList (although I think DriveToNevada.com is probably a better option if you've got more lead time). I was there expecting I'd have to drive up, and pay for, the whole thing myself, but she took her share (or slightly more than her share) of the driving and gas.

I ended up staying in one of the hotels that the campaign recommended---I think either the Rodeway or the Travelodge on Market... they're more or less inextricably linked. But they gave me two beds, and large though I am, I can only really use one. So, on Saturday night, I found a field organizer who seemed to be organizing room sharing, and let her know that I had an extra bed. Within half an hour, she had found someone to share the room with me. Even better, he was also headed to Colorado (although somewhat sooner than I), so he managed to get me directly in touch with the travel coordinators both in the bay area and in Colorado. I had spent much of the previous week trying and failing to find anybody from the bay area to talk to, and had had only brief contact with the Colorado folks, so it was great to be plugged in so directly.

Finally, while driving up, I found out that I found a sponsor from TravelForChange.org who was willing to pay for my trip out. I was driving, and couldn't get directly in touch with her, but when she called on Saturday, she said that she was willing to pay for me to either drive or fly out. To avoid being a burden on the campaign, as well as possibly carpool, I selected the driving option.

So much of what I've seen on the campaign has been that it operates on a Burning Man-esque sharing economy. There's lots of ways to let people know what your needs are, and there are similarly lots of people who have extra resources that they can't use, and once the two of you are put together, you can achieve a lot more than either could alone. I think it's wonderful! Of course, it's all people united by the same general principles, so I don't know how universalizable it could be, but even if it were spread a little bit more... I guess Craigs List is a step in the right direction.

The weekend itself was lots of fun. I mostly did canvassing, which was quite fun. I don't think I've ever really found so many people who didn't know who to vote for. All in all, I think my favorite moment was when I knocked on a door, and the man there opened the door, but not the screen door.
Me: "Hi, my name is Peter Combs, and I'm a volunteer for Barack Obama's Campaign for ----"
At this point, the man opened the screen door, stuck out his hand, and thanked me profusely for volunteering for the campaign.