In a neighborhood of suburban redbrick homes in southeastern Pennsylvania, Gurnoor Tucker has just visited a house where a man in a red muscle shirt barked that his vote would be for Trump. Tucker is coming up to a porch where a young woman will say she’s eager for Nov. 8, and another where a guy with a golden retriever will soon shut the door in his face.
Regardless of the reaction, he smiles while asking people if they know where to vote on Tuesday. If no one answers the door, he leaves a post-it as a reminder to cast a ballot.
Tucker was supposed to be at a competition with his dance team this weekend. Instead, he and 85 other Columbia University students trekked about 140 miles west of Manhattan to Reading, Pennsylvania, for four and a half days of advocacy during their Friday to Tuesday school holiday. They’re stumping for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, senate candidate Katie McGinty, and congressional candidate Christina Hartman. Forty-three pairs of canvassers are knocking on about 80 doors a day — or 3,440 in total.
“At this point, it’s not just choosing a candidate for their policies, it’s choosing the type of culture we want for the next four years,” Tucker said. “Like Obama always says, democracy’s on the ballot. Love is on the ballot. There’s so much else just aside from the candidates, and it would not be right of me to sit out on this one, because I believe that the best way to make change is to go out there."
Elections activism is a tradition that began decades ago at Columbia when undergraduates demanded a break from school over election weekend because they felt it was their responsibility to be on the streets motivating voters. Now Columbia University Democrats (CU Dems) continues the legacy.
“I think that the civic duty of Columbians, in terms of history, would be more in line with promoting Jill Stein or someone like that,” said Matt Malone, a junior at Columbia. “Why I’m here, and I’ve gotten the sense why a lot of other people are here, is less that we feel like Hillary is the savior of all saviors and more that avoiding Trump is our main goal."
While Laura Tutunikov, also a junior at Columbia, agreed that preventing a Trump presidency was her first priority, she added, “I do really believe in Hillary. She’s very experienced and very competent.”
Reading is the fifth-largest city in Pennsylvania and is situated in Berks County, a highly competitive area in a swing state. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 962 votes in Berks, while Obama won by almost 17,000 in 2008. In the primaries, Clinton lost to Bernie Sanders by just over a thousand votes and Trump dominated the county.
Tucker said CU Dems chose Reading for their annual campaign trip because it’s a city “where we feel like our contribution can actually make a huge impact.”
CU Republicans didn't endorse Trump and the group was not out canvassing.
Columbians aren’t the only ones who have inundated Berks. On Sunday, a bus of students from D.C.-area schools came to canvas for Clinton. With so many volunteers lately, some residents are getting annoyed.
“These people have been targeted really hard, like really hard,” Columbia sophomore Zina Precht-Rodriguez said. “A lot of people I’ve talked to have just been aggravated by the fact that I was there. And someone even said yesterday, ‘I was voting for Hillary, but you guys have come to my door so many times that I might not now.’"
“A lot of people have called it harassment,” she added.
In situations where she’s felt unwanted, she’s tried to explain why she traveled out of state to their stoop.
“I was like, I’m really, really sorry, and I could totally understand why you would be annoyed, too," she said. "But in retrospect it’s because your vote really matters, and it’s really tight. And America is watching you.”
The volunteers are approaching registered Democrats to remind them to vote on Tuesday. They’re not trying to convert Trump-Pence supporters to the Clinton camp. But neighborhoods are politically mixed and people move, so households that used to be Democratic have now switched parties. The students have seen a lot of Trump-Pence signs.
Tucker was canvassing with a friend on Saturday when he noticed how many locals openly supported the Republican ticket.
“It was a little bit of a culture shock,” he said, “because we knew that there were a lot of Trump supporters out there. There are people who are angry with the country, the way it is. But just seeing it in front of us —seeing regular suburban people who could have easily been our neighbors had we lived here being vocal Trump supporters — I have to say, it was really surprising."
Things get interesting when the canvassers happen on an undecided voter. Tucker said that’s their big opportunity to nab another ballot punch for Clinton. He mentioned one man whose wife was all in for a female president, but who was still choosing which candidate would earn his vote when Tucker rang the doorbell.
“It’s definitely harder to pitch to the men — pitching them Hillary Clinton, and not only that, but there’s two other women on the ballot with her as well,” he said. “It’s not like that man ever said anything rude, but you can tell there’s definitely a discrepancy in how he views candidates and how his wife views it. My expectations are that no one in their right mind who respects women and believes in women’s rights should ever even consider supporting Trump. It should be a clear decision.”
Sometimes the canvassers stumble upon a Democrat who’s voting Republican this election cycle.
Malone and Tutunikov remembered one older man who told them he was disillusioned with Obama and wanted something different. Tutunikov said she followed up with questions about what she perceives as Trump’s disrespect toward women.
“He was like, ‘Yes, he’s a racist and a sexist, but I want change. I want a raise at my job.’ Things of that sort,” she said. “He was saying that he knows what will happen if Hillary is elected, but he doesn’t know what will happen if Trump’s elected, so he’s going to take the gamble because he’s 60 and doesn’t have much to lose.”
Despite the occasional run-ins with people who oppose their views, Columbia’s canvassers said they’ve been treated mostly with respect, and sometimes with open arms.
Tucker, who’s a Sikh and wears a turban with a beard, met an elderly woman on Saturday. He said that like a grandmother she reached toward his face and patted his cheeks.
“She looks up at me and she’s like, ‘Oh my god, you’re so beautiful. I’m so glad you’re on our side, that we can have so many people working for the same causes I believe in.’ And that just warms my heart,” Tucker said.
All of the students come from different backgrounds. Malone is a math and linguistics major; Tutunikov also does math with a second major in economics; Precht-Rodriguez focuses on American studies. Tucker splits his time between economics and history.
“We’re training ourselves to become leaders of the future,” Tucker said. “The world is constantly changing, and our generation, millennials, we’re in this weird place where we’re on the crux of leaving the institutions and starting to join the real world, where we shape these institutions. And so it’s super important for us to get involved, be civically engaged, understand politics, understand what issues are important, understand what different communities are facing. Because one day it’s going to be our responsibility to keep this world great, or to make it better.”
To politically apathetic or disillusioned millennials, Tucker said, “if you can’t find ways to enact change, you’re not looking hard enough."
Tucker added that, "everything's a work in progress. And if we’re in our 20s and we start now, well, think about how far we can get when we’re older.”
Precht-Rodriguez talked about what her activism will mean to her if she wakes up to a Clinton victory on Wednesday, which would mean she helped elect the nation's first female president.
“That is a huge deal to me, and if it’s not a huge deal to anyone else, then that’s kind of crazy.”