Last Thursday, I spent the day in the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, Pennsylvania. But I wasn’t briefing the media on Air Force One in advance of campaign events with President Joe Biden and Democratic Senate hopeful (and longtime Braddock mayor) John Fetterman. I was walking block to block with a group of women, canvassing for Planned Parenthood Votes.
Their conversations in the streets and on front doorsteps told me a lot about how abortion rights are resonating with voters and offered some lessons for how Democrats should talk about abortion rights in communities like Braddock moving forward.
A self-described football mom, Robin Young is a fast-talking, fast-walking canvasser who absolutely loves Pittsburgh.
A self-described football mom, Robin Young is a fast-talking, fast-walking canvasser who absolutely loves Pittsburgh. She lights up when she talks about the days spent preparing for Steelers kickoff and has enough food recommendations to fill a guidebook. She is the mother of two grown boys and a veteran canvasser, having door-knocked for the first time back when former Sen. John Heinz was up for re-election.
But on Thursday, she was all business. Clad in black boots with rainbow fur, she tirelessly marched up hills, navigated wrong addresses on her phone, shouted to open windows of apartment buildings about how important voting is this year and plowed forward through a whipping afternoon wind to hit more than 100 houses. Robin is part of a paid canvassing program Planned Parenthood Votes is running in 10 states across the country, including Pennsylvania, to talk with voters who may need more information and an extra push to vote on Election Day.
The risk to abortion rights in Pennsylvania is real. If Doug Mastriano, the Republican running for governor, has his way, Pennsylvanians will see severe restrictions on abortion access signed into law sooner rather than later.
But even with that threat to their rights, Braddock voters seemed to have more on their minds than abortion. They worried about child care and health care and whether they had jobs. Robin knew that. Every time the door opened, she told me, her goal was to “meet people where they are.” And I watched her put that into practice over and over again.
As soon as Amanda Rivera stepped outside to speak with the canvassers, it was clear she had her hands full. Two children peeked out from the window and engaged in a quiet tug of war with the doorknob from the inside while she tried to answer questions. When Robin noted that John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro are going to protect health care and women’s rights, Amanda perked up and talked about how there were lots of reasons people had abortions and how she thought it was “ridiculous” for that right to be taken away.
But she also shared that she was the mother of four children, and while her husband was able to bring home $400 a week, she couldn’t afford the cost of child care. This in turn made it difficult for her to work and for her family to pay bills.
Canvassers I spoke with throughout the day said the economy and health care were issues that often came up during their conversations.
And Amanda isn’t alone. Canvassers I spoke with throughout the day said the economy and health care were issues that often came up during their conversations.
But these canvassers also didn’t try to argue that abortion rights were more important or tell people worried about child care or employment that Democrats were the answer because they will use the majority in the Senate to codify Roe, a commitment that may resonate more in Washington hallways than on the streets of Braddock.
Instead, they talked about worker rights and good jobs and the importance of having access to health care. They weaved in their own stories. And they listened.
For Robin, that meant sharing concerns for her grown sons and the choices she wanted them to be able to have with their partners.
For Domenica, another Planned Parenthood Votes canvasser, that meant sharing the story of her mother, a former transit worker who would have been fired from her job if she was pregnant. It meant talking about how the Democrats stand up for both workers’ rights and women’s rights.
It’s not surprising that abortion rights were only one of many priorities for the people who answered the door in Braddock last week, and not necessarily the most important one. But worries about child care and health care and economic opportunity can all be tied to abortion rights and how a woman’s right to choose can affect her life, as well as the lives of her children and her partner.
No matter what happens in a few weeks, a few hours following canvassers around Braddock told me more about how Democrats should be communicating about abortion rights than any focus group or poll sitting in my inbox.
Meeting people where they are is a great first step, and conversations like the one between Robin and Amanda should be happening continually, not just in the weeks before an election. Getting the message right doesn’t require Democrats to bend themselves into pretzels to pick between abortion rights and the economy. It requires listening to the challenges people in communities like Braddock are going through, sharing personal stories and speaking about politicians and policies in a way that relates to their lives.
Whether it is in two weeks or two years, that is how Democrats will get the Amanda Riveras of the world to the polls moving forward.