This week’s This American Life, called “Ground Game,” follows volunteers across Pennsylvania for both the Obama and McCain campaigns, and its riveting stuff. As much as some optimists like to say that race may be an overblown factor in this election, it seems to be the elephant in the room in almost every conversation highlighted on the show.
The first acts follows two black Democrats for McCain supporters as they canvass Scranton for John McCain. If you’re an Obama fan, you might find it a little scary to hear how easily they flip people who are leaning toward Obama into undecideds (ironically, they’re being black probably gives a lot of people whose ambivalence about Obama is fueled by ‘racial anxiety’ a stronger standing to oppose him).
The next act follows Casey, a raspy-voiced, fifth-year senior who is trying to register voters for Obama at the cartoonishly white Penn State campus,* one of the biggest universities in the country. She’s the resident superstar at this Obama outpost, getting more people to sign up to vote than any other volunteer there.** When confronted by a bit of overt racism, she moves on to a new set of students, saying that if she got discouraged by those encounters she couldn’t do her job. A few minutes later she’s fighting back tears, which doesn’t seem entirely unrelated.
Then there are the union halls. It’s here that the issue of race is the most pronounced, with lifelong Democrats openly saying that they won’t vote for Obama because he’s black. One of the ways they have been making headway into it has been emphasizing Obama’s strong pro-union record, but they often find that it’s not enough. Depressingly, some have resorted to asking those voters, who are not thrilled about McCain either, to simply stay home on Nov. 4th.
*PSU’s black population hovers around 5 percent, its Asian American population is about 4.6 percent, its Hispanic population is 2.9 percent and its Native population is two-tenth of a percent. Penn State, which has about 40,000 students, is 82 percent white.
**At first, I couldn’t figure out why her pushiness went over so well with d-bag college students, until Sarah Koenig, the segment’s producer, described her thusly:
Here’s what you can’t appreciate about Casey on the radio. She looks like a small, brunette Brigitte Bardot, long wavy hair, swept up with a clip, thick black eyeline painted on 60’s style, huge perfect smile, knockout figure. This, in no small part, is why her registration numbers are consistently higher than everyone else’s; boys will listen to anything she says for as long as she chooses to say it. Girls too, actually.
“I’m just concerned that I might be tempted to vote twice,” one dude says, flirting awkwardly.
“Keith, you’re just gonna have to avoid temptation,” she chuckles back.