Yes We Did / Campaigning for Obama

Here it finally is: my account of what I’ve been doing in Ohio. I apologise for not having written anything while I was actually in North America, but the campaign was pretty busy and I did not have a computer with me. I hope my facebook friends could guess what I was up to looking at my status updates.

So, what was it like? First of all, I had picked a rather complicated (cheap) way of getting to Columbus: a flight from Vienna to New York’s JFK airport via Amsterdam (Schiphol), and then a Greyhound bus from midtown Manhattan to downtown Columbus. This meant that I first had to get from JFK to Manhattan using public transport (which takes around an hour and a half), get a bus ticket, and then spend the entire night and morning on the bus. The upside was that I had a little time to meet with my friend Josef from Canada, whom I had met at a French course in Brussels (the one just before going to the College of Europe) and who is now studying city planning at Columbia University.

I arrived in Columbus around noon. The Greyhound had given me the chance to catch a glimpse of cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and a lot of pretty boring countryside and highwayscapes. I did manage to get some sleep, so that I could start doing campaign-related things once I arrived at my field office on East Rich Street.

Columbus is actually a nice city: a million inhabitants in Franklin County, quite an impressive skyline for a city that size, and three nice neighbourhoods close to downtown: the German village, where 19th century brick buildings give a somewhat European feel, the Short North, where you can find many bars between downtown and the Ohio State University campus, and Bexley where I lived with my host family, the Sellmans. Bexley is a separate municipality that starts around five kilometres outside downtown. It’s a very nice area, a garden suburb: tree lined streets and lots of big houses with nice yards. I felt very lucky to be staying there, especially because my host family are real europhiles: Karen and Jerry met when they were on exchange in Switzerland, and their daughter Megan is married to a German guy, so their cute baby Miriam is bilingual.

An average campaigning day looked like this: I’d arrive at the field office between nine and ten in the morning, to stay there or to head out to a field office somewhere else in Franklin County (often Hilliard, where the grassroots field office was in a pretty cool garage). Until around 4 pm., we were mostly calling people (if we caught someone at home), asking them who they were going to support: if it was Barack, we’d ask them to vote early (which was possible for almost a whole month by mail or in person) and whether they would have time to volunteer. In the late afternoon, it was canvassing time, going from door to door basically asking the same questions. And we were quite successful: on the last few days before the elections the lines at the only early voting location in the county were up to 6 hours long (90% voting Obama) and we almost didn’t know what to do with all the new volunteers; as a consequence, during the weekend before the election, more experienced volunteers like myself (you become a ‘veteran’ within a week) were helping out with coordination rather than doing the main volunteer activities, calling and knocking on doors. At that point, I was happy to leave them to the newbies, as some voters were being ‘hit’ more than twice a day. In general, I really enjoyed canvassing though: you get to talk to all kinds of people, from wealthy professionals to people living on social security, from Somali immigrants to gay couples sharing nice suburban homes. Some other things I did were less exciting but also necessary: folding brochures and writing postcards to voters, for example, are pretty mind-numbing activities. After getting back from a canvas, after 6 pm.. there were often some idle hours during which we would relax a little and grab something to eat. Then, data would start pouring in from field offices across the county: the results of the phone calls and canvasses. Data entry is essential: the best canvasser is useless unless her findings are processed in time, so that it is known who has been called or visited yet and who hasn’t, and where Obama supporters can be found. I’d spend the rest of the night doing data entry, usually finishing off at around ten or eleven. An exception were the final days before the election, when I often stayed until after midnight.

I’ve been using the term ‘we’ a lot. Who were ‘we’? Volunteers and some interns from all across the country: there would always be a large group of locals from the Columbus area, but they often stayed for just a few hours, so a large part of the hard core of volunteers were from out of state: lots of New Yorkers, Californians, people from New England and a handful of Southerners. This is one of the effects of the electoral college with its principle of ‘the winner takes it all’: their states had essentially been decided already, so for those who wanted to get Barack elected it made much more sense to come to Ohio (or another battleground state). At the Rich Street office, I was the only continental European, although there were quite a lot of Brits: around six who were there for more than a week, and a group of eighty (!) Labour Party canvassers who flew in for the last four days. In terms of age groups, we were also very diverse: students, professionals who had taken some time off, and quite a lot of pensioners. It was amazing to see how much a polarised election like this one can inspire people to become politically active: the number of volunteers was staggering, far greater than anything you would see in a system with proportional representation. Part of it also had to do with George W. Bush’s horrific legacy and Barack’s charisma of course, but I would still estimate that American elections mobilise far greater amounts of political activists than European ones (at least on the continent).

Obama speaking in Columbus

The peak of excitement (before election night itself, of course) came on Sunday before the elections: on November 2nd, Obama himself came to Columbus to speak to a crowd of 60,000 at the Ohio State Capitol, and I was working the section for disabled people together with many of my friends from the Rich Street office! Now I had already been working at the rally on October 24th, where Michelle replaced her husband who was visiting his grandmother in Hawaii at the time, and I did end up on the seats right behind her and get to shake her hand there, so I was used to something. But the rally at the State Capitol beat that: it was so much more massive, and Barack himself was there! He gave a marvellous speech, and I got a really good look at him because the disability section was close to the stage. I especially liked this part of his speech:

Yes, government must lead the way on energy independence, but each of us must do our part to make our homes and our businesses more efficient. Yes, we must put more money into our schools, but government can’t be that parent who turns off the TV and makes a child do their homework.We need a return to responsibility and a return to civility. Yes, we can argue and debate our positions passionately, but all of us must summon the strength and grace to bridge our differences and unite in common effort - black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American; Democrat and Republican, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, disabled or not.

Some of my friends stood even closer and got to shake Barack’s hand after the rally, and I somewhat regret that I was not as eager to get to him. I got to talk to John Glenn, however: he was the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, then became the Ohio Democratic senator for 24 years, and returned to space at the age of 77. The cool thing about it is that my father and uncle also got Glenn’s autograph back in the sixties when he was on a world tour and stayed in the Hotel des Indes in The Hague, across the street from the house that my grandmother still owns. Two days later it was November 4th: election day. I had a really nice task, get-out-the-vote canvassing. This entailed knocking on doors of voters whom we had identified as Obama supporters to make sure they did vote. This was very rewarding work: I was in an African American neighbourhood, and it was touching to see how much the election meant to people. Some even thanked me for what I was doing. It might sound strange, but hearing someone say “Thanks for doing this” makes your work a lot more meaningful. After a day of knocking on doors, I reported back to the Rich Street office, where we watched the first results coming in. Then we headed to the election night party that was organised in a big hotel downtown. When we entered the hotel, we heard frantic cheering upstairs, so we ran there as quickly as we could, to find that Fox News had announced that Obama had won Ohio. We quickly joined the celebrations, as this was basically the final decision: at that point, John McCain would have needed several upsetting wins in Democratic states to make up for the loss of Ohio. I still regret that we didn’t get to the hotel one minute earlier though: it would have been more exciting to be watching as the results were being announced; now it was kind of like running into a pub in the Netherlands thirty seconds after the Dutch football team has just scored a goal in overtime during the World Cup final. The rest of the night was great, with parties at several locations and happy people everywhere. Some people (including myself) were also too tired to properly celebrate though; that was a pity.

Reunion in Canada

I left Columbus on Thursday to go to Canada: this year was my last chance to catch my friends from my 2005 exchange at the University of Western Ontario in London while they were still there. We had a little residence reunion which was great, and I spent another four days hanging out with my friends (thanks again Mal and Emily for letting me stay with you!!). I then went to New York city, where I stayed at Josef’s place for a couple of nights, checking out museums and exploring the city, and spent the weekend at my cousin Ashley’s in Amherst, Massachusetts. On Monday (November 17th), I took the bus to Hartford, where my uncle Kees picked me up to take me to New York in his bus. Unfortunately, I had caught the flu during the weekend and had a fever, which made the flight back to Europe from that night not very pleasant. By the time I got back to my parents’ around 24 hours after leaving Amherst, I had developed a light pneumonia, which I’m still recovering from as I write this. Although it ended with some pneumonia, my four-week trip to North America was absolutely great: I made tons of new friends, experienced the US from the inside, shook hands with the future first lady, talked to an astronaut, saw the current president-elect speak, caught a glimpse of Brian the Backstreet Boy (Sarah and I ran into his arrival at a concert venue in London), and attended a public interview with Paul Simon in a bookstore in New York (he also sang and played the guitar!). Worth it!

Author: Adriaan Bayer, For more information, please, visit Adriaan Beyer´s Blog

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