In 2012 I campaigned for President Obama in Pennsylvania. I mention this because it was a happy, hopeful time, whereas this year’s election will be demoralizing, even if Trump loses.
I had planned this excursion two months in advance. The election was to come down, as it often does, to a handful of swing states, or battleground states. I passionately believed Barack Obama deserved to be elected over Mitt Romney, and helping this cause in Connecticut would be fruitless, as we nutmeggers vote almost exclusively Democratic in Presidential elections. I signed up to become a volunteer for Barack Obama's Vote Corps online, and was stationed in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
West Chester County leaned Republican in most elections, while Pennsylvania as a whole leaned Democrat. In 2010 the GOP won the midterm elections handily, both in West Chester and across the nation. The Obama campaign led by David Axelrod and Jim Messina studied the modern electoral map following this election, scrutinizing each county in every battleground state. They strategically spent money on campaign offices in specific counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida and Virginia. These offices, like the one I worked in, were heralded after the election for their sophisticated "ground game,” designed for base voter turnout. This is why I believe Clinton will win Pennsylvania – Trump’s ground game is nonexistent.
The fellows are the employees in the office. Some fellows, like Annie, Clara and I, do not get paid, as we are strictly volunteers who work long hours. Other fellows, like the field directors, Keith and Dan, and the field director at West Chester University, Erica, had been at the office since the summer working for a paycheck in order to get the President reelected.
Calls and visits to homes were focused mostly on registered Democrats, but there were more than a handful of Republicans I spoke to, many of whom planned to vote for Obama, and a couple whom were even able to come to the office and volunteer. Apparently, in West Chester County there were a lot of "RINOS,” or, Republicans in name only. RINOs, or as some may call them, moderates, are a dying breed. My hope is that Trump will bring out these voters, wherever they’re hiding, throughout the country.
West Chester is a microcosm of the United States, reflecting both the division between political parties and the modern American melting pot. And yet, it’s hard to be a “melting pot” when everything is distinctly compartmentalized. There are wealthy suburbs and developments, as well as large and expensive homes, which dot hillsides and are secluded from the rest of West Chester. Many of these homes congregate near golf courses. These areas were both strong Romney, though the developments had some Obama supporters.
West Chester also contains middle class suburbs and apartments. The downtown apartments were expensive, but the middle class areas in the "Borough" were less so and housed mostly industrial workers. There are factories in this area, along with many men in overalls chatting and smoking cigarettes. These places leaned toward Obama, then. Trump has bamboozled that same white working class into thinking he’d be good for them. The University was full of Obama supporters, and an entire faction of the West Chester office was dispatched there to make sure thousands of students were able to vote. Parts of the Borough were mostly made up of minorities and low-income housing. These places favored Obama, and the challenge for the office I worked in was to get everybody in the area to go out and vote.
An unfortunate symptom of Obama's 800 campaign offices, as well as Romney's 300, is the warlike atmosphere. Each volunteer that works at either office is secluded in a bunker, or bubble, of like-minded political opinions. The field director comes out of his tent to visit his volunteers now and then, offering an inspiring word to keep up soldierly morale, and then returns to his post to strategize with his top advisors. This creates an “Us vs. Them” mentality, brings polarization to its most blindingly obvious light and encourages the discourse level of a sporting event that reaches a fever pitch on election night. This is the sickness that is election season. To tell the unfortunate truth, I loved it. This time around, I don’t. This time around, that level of partisanship is not exclusive to rival campaign offices.
Karen was a black woman around the age of fifty. Talking to her showed me how important that election really was. She told me she was not interested in politics until she witnessed Obama's famous 2004 Democratic National Convention address. She had not voted before that day. She followed Obama after the event, and cried with joy the day he was elected.
The last two days were the height of GOTV. I trekked across West Chester in every conceivable area with every possible partner. I spent the majority of the last two days with Kaelyn, Austin and Rachel in particular, though. Kaelyn was a black college student who drove us to our targets over the last day and a half. She loved holiday music and had a strong urge to tear down every Republican sign, whether state or federal, that she witnessed. Austin was a goofy white senior in high school. Rachel was a fearless, ambitious white senior in high school who wanted to be the first female President. (Hopefully she’ll be able to settle for second.) She had spent her summer working as an intern in the office.
My proudest moment for the week was an encounter I had with a man behind the apartment door I knocked on in the afternoon of Election Day. We had a long conversation on topics ranging from the national debt and healthcare to liberalism, conservatism and Keynesian economics. He told me that he was not going to vote. Such an appalling sentiment is not completely his fault, for politics is not at its apex of popularity right now. I tried to appeal to his sense of civic duty. He did not budge. Twenty-six minutes in, with my foolishly idealistic hope that I could convince this man to vote rapidly fading, I made a final attempt at persuasion: "If you won't vote for either candidate, think about how Romney would leave 31 million people without healthcare, as he vows to do by repealing Obamacare."
"So if I don't vote for Obama, I'm killing 31 million people."
He got in his car and voted.
After a nighttime trip to West Chester University just before the polls closed, we returned to the office anxious to see the results. A nervous cheer erupted from the office when Obama took Pennsylvania. People began to uncork wine and champagne and crack beers; the tension leading up to the final result was short lived. About half an hour later, Obama was declared the winner of Ohio, and therefore, had attained the necessary amount of electoral votes to become a two-term president.
The entire office was swept into emotional hilarity. Hugs and tears flowed liberally, with shouts and shrieks of triumphant expletives and joyful cries echoing through the unassuming building. Karen came to me and, while hugging me, spoke through tears: "You have a future. You have a future." Rachel jumped on me and I lost my balance and almost fell. Annie lay silently, her eyes closed, smiling on the floor.
We went to Jazmine, a bar/restaurant, to celebrate. I talked to Rachel over beers because some of the fellows bent the rules for us. We had been monitoring the election for a while and were more than content to talk policy, or gloat on the victory, or chat about some article we read in The New Yorker that reaffirmed our beliefs. There was no time for that at the moment though. This was about the thing we no longer had to compete for, a personal, but impersonal victory, a victory for all the people I had met on the trip and would never see again. There was no debate on what the next move would be; how the fiscal cliff negotiations would be handled; how the polarization would be fixed. There was only the knowledge that those who had toiled in the unglamorous alleyways of democracy, some for six months, some for a week, had been vindicated. All that needed recognition was the understanding that we were in a moment, one of those points in your personal history where you would eternally remember where you were when it happened.
President Obama emerged from backstage to address his constituency, invigorated and inspired as his oratory tends to be. He harkened back to the days of not being "a collection of red states and blue states.” The foolish idealism I identified with had returned, and it didn't matter that it would soon slip away, eventually giving in to oblivion. The President spoke directly to his volunteers: "To the best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics. The best. The best ever." This elicited an uproar from the restaurant.
Democracy was once again justified. In the words of the president, "That's why we do this. That's what politics can be. That's why elections matter. It's not small, it's big. It's important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy."
I caught a train back to Connecticut, and typed this account while rain and snow pelted the windows and roof of my silver Amtrak chariot. I passed by streets and graffiti and houses and apartments and entire states. The election and the politics surrounding it seemed a distant novelty when I considered the people on the train with me, the four college kids laughing behind me, the two middle aged women drinking across from me, the man typing furiously in front of me. No matter the antipathy toward our political system, each person I encountered during my trip had been profoundly affected by their government and the election process, just as U.S. citizens since the 1700s have deeply influenced the government they elect and the society they inhabit.
"I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We're not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America."
When I originally wrote this essay, the above quote from President Obama was supposed to be the narrative grace note. He’d fooled me into satisfaction. Who would have guessed, on that November day four years ago, that Donald f***ing Trump (who’s even worse than we’d imagined him to be) would be as close as he is right now to being the successor to our current President, that great man, full of grace.