“Beautifully capturing the wide-eyed but enthusiastic Australian who didn’t quite know what he was getting himself into, Donohoe tells tales of the rallies, Romney and the reality of pounding the pavement to get your man over the line – all with great comic timing.”
“It’s a fascinating, ethnographic undertaking that also happens to be very funny. Donohoe’s attention to the many quirks of the American system, from its citizens to its leaders, is perceptive and good-humoured, a refreshing approach to a subject that tends to inspire cynicism.”
“It is joyful to be in the presence of someone who is unabashedly passionate. Evin Donohoe makes no apologies for his obsession. This is so much more than a comedy show; it’s a story of a personal journey. It’s also deeply informative. The pace of the show never drops; Evin demonstrates his skill as a performer utilizing a heady array of different story telling mechanisms. He packs an enormous amount of content into a single hour.”
It was over. The polls in Virginia were closed and the dye was cast. Everyone had done everything that they could. As exciting as the pageantry of an election night is – to watch the results come in and cheer for your side – there was nothing left to do.
With that in mind, we waited. And then, with the rest of the world, we watched.
But before we watched we totally went to this sweet Thai restaurant with Dave and his girlfriend Kelly, and Mai Tais were on the menu:
I would like some extra sac in my mai tai please.
Nothing like some Sac in your drink to take the edge off.
Over dinner we, the four of us, commenced a massive debrief of the election season. It had been just as mad for Dave and Kelly, being from Ohio, as it had for us in Virginia. Kelly told us that her grandmother was voting for Obama but for all the wrong reasons – for instance, she thought it would be nice to have a black man as president for young black men to have as a role model so that they wouldn’t just turn to crime. Despite there being all kinds of things wrong with the broad foundations of this sentiment, Kelly never found herself arguing with her grandmother because, hey, she was voting for Obama. Whatever the reason behind it, it was still a vote.
The big screen behind the bar at the restaurant was playing Fox News, and a bunch of fun yahoos and loudmouths – local-types – were sitting at the bar, playfully bantering politics back and forth with each other. As we waited for the cheque to come we all found ourselves standing behind these guys, watching the coverage on Fox News, and it wasn’t long before Dave had joined the banter. Words between people got louder – all fun still, but louder – and the guy behind the bar soon shouted out “Hey, no politics at the bar!”
“You can’t say ‘no politics’ at the bar when you’re playing Fox News at the bar!” Dave shouted back. He got a big laugh from everyone, for being correct as well as amusing, and so it was the perfect moment to leave.
The watch party for the local Democrats of the district was at the Hilton in Herndon, nearby to Reston. We signed up on the signup sheet outside and made our way in. The best way I can describe it is that it was a big dumb sweaty room. You want to see a room full of democrats? This is that room:
Wait, that was early on and the room wasn’t quite packed yet. Here’s where the real sweat begins, later on:
Sweat for Obama
I got the first round of drinks for the four of us when we got there and set about chatting to a few of the people I recognised from places like Reston Runners and around about. One nice woman told me she’d be running for local office in 2013 – her first time running for anything – and then she gave me a “99% for Obama” badge with a picture of Big Bird on it. How darling of her. I couldn’t tell whether she was campaigning or just being nice, or both.
People weren’t just sweating the overcrowding of human democrat bodies into the same space – some people were also sweating the result. I was never really in much of a tizz over it, seeing as Pope Silver had the night before given Obama a 90.9% shot of winning. After talking to a few different people and gauging how they felt about Obama’s chances, I found it was possible to successfully guess what polling aggregator they regularly read based on their level of tension. The most relaxed were easily those reading fivethirtyeight, like me. We were practically jock-like about it. Those reading Real Clear Politics were still very bullish but a little more restrained with it; those reading Huffpost Pollster were still optimistic but usually had a few counter-arguments to make in favour of Romney’s chances; and those reading Talking Points Memo were still smiling but they had this kind of crazy, frazzled look in their eyes.
As the votes kept coming in and states were getting called (amid John Conal’s screams of “Not Texas!” when Texas was called for Romney, eliciting actually quite a lot of laughter from the room) I was checking Facebook and Twitter on my phone roughly once every 0.4 seconds. Everything seemed to be going according to plan – Romney hadn’t won any surprise states on the east coast that put him back in with a shot – so what struck me, and what I couldn’t get my head around for ages, was just how much everyone back home in Australia was freaking out about Mitt Romney perhaps winning. Everything was going fine, right? Obama was cruising through, what was the problem?
And then I realised what my disconnect was: it hadn’t occurred to me that most people in Australia wouldn’t know (in infinitesimal detail) what states were likely to go which way. They were just looking at the horse race numbers as each state was called, like a sporting game, and so of course you’d freak out if you saw Romney ahead by fifty points, as was the case when the Australian Facebook contingent lost its collective mind. I took the opportunity to have my own little grandstand nerd-out and posted up the following:
Hey people! All I hear from everyone in Australia is panic! Stop it.
Tim Kaine won for senate and Obama has this locked. Ohio or Florida will carry him over, and he’s on track to win at least one and maybe both.
It’s FINE. TRUST ME.
Yep. Tim Kaine had won his senate race for Virginia. In keeping with his record of never losing any of his previous seven races but never winning with more than 53% of the vote, his final tally was 52.4%. Smooth, Tim. Smooth.
Gerry, Gerry, Gerry…
Another guy who won his race was Gerry Connolly, going into bat for his third term representing Virginia’s 11th Congressional District. Here’s the welcome he got when he came to make a speech:
After his speech, John Conal floated the idea to the event organisers that he could sing the national anthem if they wanted. They all knew John – and more importantly, they knew he could sing (like, really sing) from an apparently masterful rendition of Happy Birthday he gave at a local party when he and Bridget were going to events together in early October before I’d hit the ground in America.
Word came back through to us that John would be singing the anthem. The event organiser asked him if he’d be ready to go soon, and John responded casually with “Yeah sure, just give me a few minutes to warm up.” He grabbed a glass of water for a bit of hydration and wandered out into an empty stairwell, returning literally less than five minutes later. Then he got up on stage and belted out an absolutely cracking rendition of Star Spangled Banner that captivated the room. When he came down off stage I asked him if he’d ever performed Star Spangled Banner before. “Ha ha, nup” he said. Yeah. Sometimes I forget that he trained as a singer for just seven years and that he can just do that if he needs to.
Do You Remember Where You Were…
We’d managed to catch up with Bridget for a little bit once she’d finally made it to the watch party (she’d been volunteering all day at a polling place and had stayed back late), but the room was reaching capacity, the drinks were actually quite expensive, and we needed a breather. Dave, Kelly and myself headed out to the hotel bar, where there were still crowds of people gathered around screens watching the returns, and grabbed a beer in a quieter setting.
After a few minutes an almighty roar went up from the function room where the Democrats were. Obama had just been called the winner in his race for a second term, and where was I when it happened? I was in the bar.
It was excellent.
Not long after John found us and we celebrated: hugged, high-fived, cheered, all the fun things. When the bartender asked John what he wanted he said “Four more years, thanks.” If she’d been on the ball she would have responded with “That will be 1.1 billion dollars, please.” (“Oh, uh, yeah… I left my wallet in the car, I’ll be back in a minute…”)
And that was that. We’d done it. We’d won. We had helped to achieve what we had gone there to help achieve. Virginia even went blue relative to the rest of the country for the first time in over fifty years (that is, Obama’s margin of victory in Virginia was bigger than his margin of victory nationally). Which is huge.
We stuck around in the bar for another beer or two, but it was late and everyone had had a very long day/month/year. Dave and Kelly soon bid us farewell and went off to their hotel, and not long afterwards John, Bridget and myself headed back to Bridget’s place. Barack Obama couldn’t give his acceptance speech until twenty to two in the morning because Mitt Romney’s crew hadn’t written a concession speech (perhaps the single greatest way to court disaster at the end of a campaign). I couldn’t even stay awake for it. We got in to Bridget’s, turned the TV on, and then I was passed out on the couch within seconds. I guess it didn’t really matter to me what exact words he was using. I knew what they meant:
“I won. I won. A ha ha ha brilliant I won.”
Thanks for reading this, guys. It was an absolute blast and it’s been a lot of fun writing about it and hearing your feedback. And thanks for all the support and the kind words throughout. It means a lot.
After our morning flyering shift, John and I went back to Bridget’s for a quick chance to warm ourselves up before heading out again. We walked the mile or so to Kathy’s house for our third and final interaction with this most enthusiastic and vibrant of Obama’s volunteers.
The mission today was to go to houses of registered Democrats or to voters who said they’d be voting Democrat. If they hadn’t already voted, we were to ask them if they planned on voting, remind them of their polling location, see if they needed any help getting to the polls, etc. If they already had voted we were to give them a big old pat on the back and then leave them alone forever…
Counter-intuitive to how I thought it would be, the general atmosphere and feeling on the canvass was actually quite relaxed. There was almost a sense of relief amongst the people I spoke that it was, at last, election day and that all the doorknocks and phone-calls would finally stop (for a few months, until the Virginia Governor’s race in 2013). This collective sense of ease seemed to pervade the entire sleepy neighbourhood. I found myself congratulating people who’d already voted like they’d just run a marathon, and after saying “thank you” actually telling them “You’ve done it, you made it, it’s finally over.” Most voters had in fact already voted or had a plan to vote, so there really wasn’t much to do besides stick reminder cards on the doors of people who weren’t home.
I took a leaf out of John’s book and decided to deface mine too.
Notice, also, the compelling “Your friends are doing it, why aren’t you?” argument at the top of the card?
One of the first houses I knocked on I ended up talking to this girl who said she wasn’t going to vote because she was only seventeen, but that she’d already been out canvassing for Obama in the previous weeks. Given that it was not long after Halloween, one of the women in the neighbourhood had apparently leveled the entirely plausible, though unlikely, charge of pumpkin-stealing at her, causing the girl to become bemused and mildly, lightheartedly, incredulous. I saw through her act, however, and concluded that all that “canvassing” was merely a front for her new pumpkin-pie start-up. When will America’s teens learn not to have so much ambition?
One woman appeared not to be home, but I ran into her on her driveway on the way back to the street. I went through my, by now, normal canvassing routine at her there in her driveway, and she just kind of squinted suspiciously at me the whole time, leaning away from me a little bit. It was like she had never been canvassed before, like she was dubious that there was really an election that day at all. At the end of the conversation, she remained: UNCOMMITTED TO VOTING.
Oh, there was this one house where I got totally friggin’ schooled on how to canvass. Much like when someone in the Reston field office phonebanked someone else currently in the Reston field office, I managed to knock on the door of a Reston field organiser and her friend, both of whom recognised me from my phone shifts at the Reston office. They were both really friendly and when I tried to go through my canvassing routine, just for a laugh, they answered both my questions pretty much as soon as I’d started asking them. And, yes, they had already voted. Then, the field organiser said “I don’t think my mother’s voted yet,” and started shouting up the stairs at her mother, canvassing her on my behalf. She had, like, five million more questions than I did. It was awesome. I wasn’t quite hearing the mother’s responses from my place on the front step, but these questions all came out in rapid-fire succession, all in a playful sing-song kind of voice because she was both canvassing and razzing her mother at the same time:
“Have you voted yet today?”
“Are you planning on voting?”
“What time are you going to vote?”
“How are you planning on getting there?”
“Do you need a ride to the polls?”
“Are you going to remember to vote for Senate and Congress?”
“Are you going to take your four year old granddaughter along so that she understands the importance of the democratic process?” (This one slew me.)
In another coincidence, on my canvass sheet was the really old guy I’d called on November 3, who told me that his wife had died recently. I knew that he wasn’t interested in voting so I wasn’t going to try and canvass him, but I wanted to knock on his door anyway and just check in to see that he was okay. I didn’t really have a plan beyond knocking on the door and going “Hi” when he answered it, but I still thought it would be worthwhile. On the way down the driveway I saw a middle-aged man come out of the house, who I assume was the man’s son. We had a very quick, subdued word in which I inquired after the voter, not revealing that I wasn’t so much canvassing him as I was intending to “check in on him.” I established that everything was more or less okay and then I moved on to the next house.
At one house I ran into a woman out in her driveway. I was asking after a voter at the house who was a nineteen year-old female, and this woman happened to be her mother. She asked me, almost offended, why canvassers and phone-bankers kept asking after her daughter and not her. I was able to explain that the campaign(s) will stop contacting you if tell them you’ve already voted, and they won’t really canvass you to get-out-the-vote if you’re registered as an independent and haven’t told them you’re voting for Obama. Any number of things, really. I told her that if she registered as a Democrat she could be subjected to the same ten phone calls a day as the rest of Virginia. She actually looked reassured. Then I asked her where she was from (given her strong accent) and she said she was from Finland, and then I told her that I’d just been in Finland a few weeks before, and then she talked to me for ages and ages and ages and not really very much about Finland after the first few minutes, and then it was really hard to get away from the conversation and keep canvassing.
And yet, somehow, I eventually did and got to the end of my list of houses. John had just finished up nearby, so we met up and walked back to Kathy’s together. Thoroughly exhausted, we thanked the organising volunteers and they all thanked us back as we witnessed another stream of volunteers enter for the start of the late-afternoon shift. We took our leave, along with a buttload of Obama badges and stickers, and headed back to Bridget’s house for a nap before the festivities that evening, our work finally done.
Now just to wait and see.
Appendix – PHOTOS
The sign outside Kathy’s house.
The fact that she’s listed the house number on the sign makes it look like a campaign poster from the future, and that Obama is actually a time-traveling president from four hundred years in the future who is, in reality, campaigning for his fourth or fifth term. Imagine if every single president we’d had so far was actually a time-traveling president from the future? That would mean that America’s future would have to have all of the same president’s they’ve had already, but have less-experienced versions of all of them. But it does mean they invent/discover time travel at some point (some future point), so well done future-America.
Election Day. Weeks of working, talking, learning, getting ready, prepped, losing sleep, having discussions, arguments, going to rallies, riding highs, lows, and compulsively reloading fivethirtyeight every twelve seconds – it all adds up to what happens today.
Of course, we all know what happened and what has taken place in the months since. I know it feels like an eternity, but, if you can believe it, it’s only been a few months since Barack Obama soundly destroyed Mitt Romney with an astonishing 97.4% of the popular vote and a total electoral college wipeout in every state except Utah. Whilst voting machine anomalies were reported in some precincts, many state and federal appeals judges, (a large portion of whom were appointed by the Obama administration during the first of his sure to be many terms), overturned the original rulings that they were faulty or had been tampered with. Reports of such ‘tampered’ machines and tales of people voting more than once continue to surface in some foreign press organisations, particularly the BBC, but nothing has been heard on the matter in America since the forced closure of Fox News.
In the brief time since his re-election, before the unprecedented mass exodus of Republicans attempting to emigrate to any other country that speaks English (many of them sincerely confused as to why they’re having so much trouble getting temporary protection visas), Obama has dissolved Congress indefinitely; declared martial law in the District of Columbia and all adjacent states; made the Environmental Protection Agency a self-governing body with unlimited power, unanswerable to the ‘Government’; enforced the practical instruction of evolution in all schools by forcing each class to kill off their own weakest member once per semester; waged a full-scale ground, air, and sea war on China, kicked off by the official recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state; directed the National Guard to confiscate all non-military and non-police force firearms (reports of skirmishes with bands of 2nd Amendment Freedom Fighters in rural areas, and Detroit, are still common); mandated (not just de-criminalised) marijuana; ballooned the federal deficit to previously unimagined levels with further borrowing from China in order to cover Reparations; instituted a review of the nation’s criminal justice and prison systems, beginning with by a mass pardoning of anyone serving time for a drug-related offense, regardless of their other crimes; raised the top marginal federal income tax rate to 52%; and, yeah, death panels. Because, death panels.
Yes. They were brighter, headier days. But before things took such a dark turn after the re-election of the, now, self-declared, Supreme-Ruler* Obama; before we were assuredly headed for a second global Dark Age, there was a sense of hope and excitement in the air that America might have the sense to re-elect a thoughtful, charismatic leader who could continue to lead the country through a further upward economic trajectory, make further inroads towards genuine equality for its citizens, and generally continue to repair all of the awful, awful damage, both foreign and domestic, left in the wake of George W. Bush (because that was totally still a thing).
Election Day Morning Day
Bridget had gotten an email from a local Democrat asking for election volunteers about a week before the election, so John and I signed up to do an early-morning (but not the earliest bit of the morning) shift handing out ‘sample ballots’ to voters entering the polling place. In Australia we would call these “how-to-vote cards”, and many an American were that morning subjected to me saying “How-to-vote card? Sorry, sample ballot? (But it does tell you how to vote…)”
John and I carefully looked up our assigned polling place on a map and then trekked out the good mile or so through the brisk early-November morning light of Virginia, all done up in coats, gloves, and hot coffees to ward off the cold. We found the primary school we were looking for and were a little perturbed to see waaaaaaay too many Democratic volunteers for mine and John’s presence to be of any real use. We began asking around for our contact, the woman Bridget had been in touch with, and found that she was assigned to a different polling place altogether.
A polling place roughly – well, directly – across the road from Bridget’s place.
We made a quick about-face and headed back the way we came, laughing at ourselves but not too much because we were still also wicked freezing. After only a few minutes we ran into our friend Dave, on his way to meet us. Dave is a friend of ours who spent a number of years in Australia but who’s originally from Ohio and who returned there recently. So just by being an Ohio voter he’d already done more for the Obama campaign than many of us were capable of and was now moonlighting in Virginia to visit us and to help out in the other crucial swing state.
Dave gave us a ride back to the shops across from Bridget’s where our ‘real’ polling place was. Luckily for us, there were enough gaps in the volunteers there for us to feel like we’d be making a difference and we set about getting to work. We introduced ourselves to our contact/precinct-captain/person and each were given a stack of sample ballots to hand out to people coming in. Printed on the sample ballot was a direction that they legally couldn’t be printed on white or yellow paper (lest they get mixed up with any real ballots). This lead to the nice coincidental touch that the Democratic sample ballots were printed on blue paper and the Republicans’ were printed on green paper, which meant that you got to hear the Republican volunteers say things like “Green is good!” and “You should go green” over and over again.
By law we weren’t allowed to be within fifty feet of the polling place so we were covering the major paths of entry. The area outside the polling place had two major thoroughfares and John, Dave, and myself all ended up on one side together. It wasn’t long before we got chatting to the two Republican volunteers on our side, a man and a woman in middle-age, one of whom was sporting the most glorious grey moustache. They were kinda’ friendly (though notice I didn’t use “really”) and approachable, and it wasn’t long before we were trading a few lighthearted jokes with them. Despite being from opposite ends of the political spectrum, having to hand fliers out to those who often don’t want them puts you in the same boat and bonds you together as a group. Even in one of the greatest civil expressions of political divergence it’s possible to partake in – supporting opposing candidates in an increasingly partisan country on the day of a presidential election – we were able to find common ground.
With the three of us on one entrance and three people on the other, plus a little “home base” table with more sample ballots and our very own voting rights lawyer, I figured this would be a good time for a coffee run. I took orders from everyone (well, all the Democrats) and ventured off to the Starbucks for a round of coffees and then the Dunkin’ Donuts for donuts to dunk, disappointed but not really surprised anymore to see that Fox News was blaring on the Dunkin’ Donuts TV. I figured that at least a donut place might be some kind of sanctified, untouchable final bastion of American friendliness.
Back at the polling place some volunteers on the other entrance had finished their shift, so I swapped sides and got stuck into it, offering sample ballots to all and sundry.
Highlights! Things of Note!
Directly behind the polling place was a public, indoor swimming pool. We very quickly learned not to offer a sample ballot to anyone carrying a sports bag or dressed even remotely athletically. Many would even hold their sports bags slightly higher up in front of them as a social shield, hiding behind it with a slight, apologetic smile, a quickened pace, and the briefest of eye contact.
The other people flyering for the Democrats on my side were a pair of high school girls, who I fairly quickly set about cracking jokes with. It turns out that whilst they supported Obama, they were actually there that day as part of a high school civics assignment – they had to volunteer at one event for each of the major campaigns. They’d actually been at the Romney rally that I’d been at the day before, doing crowd marshaling. The chief advice from their civics teacher? “Don’t touch the crazy people.”
Over on John and Dave’s side, some crazy guy who was about six-foot eight-inches tall turned up proudly showing off the “Mitler” badge he’d made, depicting Mitt as Adolf. It was not only full-on, but I was genuinely astonished that, whilst tasteless, I had not previously been exposed to this pun.
So I offer this one guy, probably in his late-forties, a sample ballot, likely by saying something innocuous like “Democratic how to vo- sample ballot?” He storms past me, refusing the sample ballot with the cunning strategy of ignorance, and I let out an automatic, polite “not to worry”, like I’d been doing with everyone. The guy stops, turns around, leans right at me, leering even, with his face, and glares meanly (not “angrily”, meanly) at me for a solid two or three seconds – which is really quite a long time to be doing something that socially weird and aggressive. After holding it for a few seconds, saying nothing, he breaks it off and keeps on towards the polling place. I’m having real trouble pinning down his motivations or figuring out what he thinks I said. The closest I can get is a broad label of “Angry Republican dude? (Maybe? What the hell?).” I don’t know where he thinks he’s from, but in America it’s the voters who get intimidated, not the other way around.
The voting-rights lawyer guy that the Democrats had on duty there really wasn’t very busy at all. He had nothing to do, which was awesome, a good sign for this polling place – no one was having any voting issues. In fact, he was sufficiently mild-mannered, friendly and bored that he spent a good ten or fifteen minutes just chatting to me, distracting me from handing out a significant number of sample ballots and therefore potentially making his net contribution to the whole operation a negative one.
Incidentally, the reason there probably weren’t a lot of voting issues was because we had a good old, Aussie-style, pencil & paper polling place. The lines never extended outside the building and no one seemed to be having any issues. One guy, on his way out, shouted “thanks!” at me and I shouted back “No worries, any troubles voting?” and he said “Pencil and paper – you can’t go wrong.” True, that. (I recently talked to an American woman in Sydney, who was recently also made a citizen of Australia, tell me that she couldn’t believe how easy and simple the voting process was here. She thought she was being tricked and that the real polling place was down the road somewhere.)
There was this awkward kid who looked about thirteen years old flyering with his Dad. He looked like he really didn’t want to be there. Ha ha ha ha ha.
We actually had an Aussie come through to vote. He’d been living in Virginia for about twenty-five years and was now also a US citizen, but he still had the broadest Australian accent. He asked us if voting was still mandatory in Australia. We told him the good news, and there was a muted shout of “That’s the way it should be!” from him as he walked away. He was cheery, but it was not a long conversation.
On John and Dave’s side, the Republican volunteers offered a sample ballot to a middle-aged African-American woman, who responded with a dismissive, understated “I don’t vote for racists.” Whoa. Whoa.
At the same time, on my side, the Republican-Dad-with-awkward-kid offered a sample ballot to another older woman, who wasn’t African-American but who had dark skin. She left a slow, dramatic pause before responding with “Don’t waste my time.” She was really drawing her words out too, full of contempt and everything. I swept in and happily gave her a Democratic how-to-vote card.
While chatting with the two girls handing out sample ballots on my side, one of them mentioned that her boyfriend was a Republican and that they generally avoided talking politics together because it drove them crazy. I proceeded to actively contribute to the hyper-partisanization of America by advising her that she should probably sort that out – as in, seek those conversations, have that debate, and then split up if neither of them could handle it. I mean, fair enough, we’re capable of interacting with and maintaining really good relationships with people of all colours of the political spectrum in our lives, but when it comes down to your friggin’ partner it really is one of those things you should get to the bottom of. I wasn’t saying “break up with him because he’s Republican”, but they shouldn’t be avoiding the topic. Then again they were in high school, so maybe they should get a free pass on having to deal with that nonsense for a little while at least.
Later in the morning I went back to John and Dave’s side to check in with them. They’d been chatting happily with the moustachioed man and his wife and now had a more relaxed rapport with them. So relaxed, in fact, that he and Dave were talking about their interpretations of Biblical Scripture from their relative Christian and Jewish perspectives. It wasn’t long before Moustache not so subtly started trying to convert Dave to Christianity. Smooth.
Then came probably one of my favourite voters that day – this impossible schmuck of a guy, well over six feet tall, walks up to all us volunteers, Democrats and Republicans, just laughing loudly and, garrulously, shouted with joy “Ho ho! You guys are shameless! Shameless! A ha ha ha ha…”. He took sample ballots from everyone. It looked like facetiousness but it felt real.
It was getting late in the morning and John, Dave and myself were already well past the end of our shift. With new volunteers coming in and with the warm feeling of a productive morning inside of us, we took leave of our precinct-captain/person and bid farewell to all the other volunteers. Dave went off to meet up with his girlfriend somewhere, and it wasn’t long before John and I were due to start our afternoon canvassing session.
Soon: said afternoon canvassing session! Our last opportunity to ever volunteer for an Obama election (Ooooooooh…)
*Seriously, America is one of only a handful of nations on Earth right now with a military large enough to feasibly achieve something resembling world domination, and Obama’s just sitting on it. He’s not doing squat. I heard he’s not even planning on using any of those nukes or anything before he heads towards full disarmament. Thanks America. Thanks a lot.
After a respectable amount of security inspections and metal detectors, John and I found ourselves some of the first people into the Patriot Centre – the University’s athletics centre and basketball court. The floor of the centre itself was reserved for VIPs but we managed to get seats right down the front near the podium.
Not long ’til the Republicans!
We landed seats directly behind the seats reserved for Congressman Wolf and his family. Frank Wolf represents Virginia’s 10th Congressional District and has since 1981. Kristin Cabral, who I met at the Obama rally two nights before, was running against him for his seat this year but lost by 20 points. He’s one of those Congressmen who’s been around long enough and is so well known in his district that he can generally win reelection without having to try too hard. Or, at least, that’s how it looks.
One big unintended bonus from getting into the centre before almost anyone else was that we could see, evenly spaced amongst the chairs all around the arena, dozens of signs that had been hand made and positioned there by the Romney campaign for people to hold up, to make it look like people had made signs at home and brought them along. It was wicked dodgy. John and I were quietly, head-shakingly impressed with the audacity and dishonesty of it. I don’t know if this practice of campaigns making “home made” signs is common to both parties, but at both of the Obama rallies I went to, at least, they were only handing out official campaign signs. The Romney rally was also handing out official signs (like the fantastic “Moms for Mitt” sign I managed to snag), but this “home made” sign thing was new to me.
My favourite of the “home made” signs was easily the one that said “Stay-at-home Moms support Mitt Romney!” A telling clue in one of the signs was that it said “NoVa for Romney!” We’d learned in Richmond that ‘NoVa’ is a common abbreviation for Northern Virginia in the rest of the state, but Northern Virginia don’t really call themselves that, so it’s unlikely that someone who’s actually from Northern Virginia to turn up with a sign saying “NoVa for Romney!”
The other thing you notice straight away is that college basketball is huge in America.
Let me explain. In 2006, George Mason University made the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Basketball. Final four – as in, not first or second. On the back of this Final Four achievement, we’d already seen that Brion’s Grille, across the road from GMU, has a full mural across an entire wall, encased behind glass, dedicated to pictures of and newspaper clippings about GMU in the 2006 NCAA Final Four:
“We were third or fourth best in the country in basketball at the college level six years ago and we will never forget it.”
All over the other walls were more pictures, player jerseys, signed posters and – I shit you not – oil and water colour paintings depicting events from the 2006 season.
They really love their college basketball. But you think, hey, fair enough, that’s, like, a University sports bar – they’re allowed to go crazy.
Then you walk into the Patriot Centre at GMU, and this is what you see hanging above the court:
Well heck, I’m sure I’d be pretty pleased if I made the final four in Survivor…
The commemorative banner of their 2006 NCAA Final Four appearance hangs between the Virginia State flag and the freaking Star Spangled Banner, and it hangs above them both. For a country as openly and unabashedly patriotic as the United States of America, this is huge.
They really love them their college basketballs.
Well, Back to the Republicans
Having a spare seat next to us near the front, it was only a matter of time before some cheerful Republican sat down next to us and started talking to. We were soon obliged with a friendly guy in his early thirties. He was studying a Masters in Economics in Boston but had also spent a few years living in Utah. He’d taken some time off of work to come to Virginia and visit a friend who was working in one of the local Romney field offices, and do a little volunteering himself while he was at it.
Now, after overhearing all of these conversations in the queue this is the first time I was actually talking to someone. After all my previous speculation about how I would present myself if I ever went to a Romney Rally, I decided to present myself as, essentially, a blank slate: My line was that I was an Australian-American (true) in Virginia to visit some family (true), that I didn’t know much about American politics (not true), but that I was interested in the election (true) and had decided to go to rallies for each party just to “check it all out” (semi-true).
Man, when you take someone who has opinions, and you more or less tell them that you currently have no strong opinions either way, you better get ready to hear some opinions.
It’s amazing – when I presented myself as a blank slate like that, this guy was soooo ready to present his free and unfiltered opinions, in an attempt to win me over to his point of view. Even given that John and I didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic and that we weren’t asking a lot of questions, he was still very eager to talk.
We talked for a while (there was still two hours until the rally started), but here were the major points that stuck out:
He spoke derogatorily about how easy it is for a woman to have ten kids and then just suck down on (or “mooch off of”, I can’t remember exactly) welfare cheques, while the rest of us have to work. Yeah he said that.
Illegal Mexican immigrants are using emergency rooms in America to drain off of our healthcare system and sending the majority of the wages from their six-dollar-an-hour jobs back to Mexico. (Destroying the economy in the process.)
He told us that you can get all kinds of awesome free food by volunteering for the Romney campaign. He’d been eating pretty well these past few days, let me tell you.
Then he started pointing out and ogling the “talent” on the Patriot Centre floor.
So, yeah, in short, his thesis was “Immigrants and poor people are destroying America.” Followed by “Food’s nice” and “She’s hot.” Cool. Yep. Got it. Can we please get him a Masters in Economics, stat?
Between this man’s comments and the ones I’d heard outside in the queue, I realised the overriding difference in substance between the way people spoke at the Obama rallies and the Romney rallies:
At the Obama rallies, there was a tendency to focus on making the people at the top do their share, letting the Bush tax cuts expire and investing the money in America; whereas the people at the Romney rally were blaming the people at the bottom for the ills of the country.
There was this recurring notion that people were only poor if they deserved to be; and that if you give people healthcare subsidies and food and housing subsidies and unemployment benefits that they’re just exploiting it and sucking down on the wealth from everyone else, and they’re not going to get out there and do anything for themselves.
And sure, some people will find a way to exploit the welfare system. People will find a way to exploit pretty much any system or bureaucracy that reaches a sufficient size (especially one that involves financial aid). ‘People’ can be bastards. But just because there are a few cheats, as such, is that any reason to completely philosophically refute, defund, and disband a system that does a heck of a lot of good? The criminal justice system isn’t perfect either – some people manage to exploit it and some people go free when they shouldn’t. Should we get rid of it because it’s not 100% efficient, or should we work to improve it?
Anyway, then we a saw a woman on the floor wearing this!
Anyone but a Democrat?! Quick, call Tony Blair. He has such a lovely voice.
Being close to the railing, an official on the centre floor started shouting up at me, John, and our new best friend, asking if we’d like to trade spots with a couple of VIPs on the floor who wanted to sit down.
We got to the floor too late to get a spot right on the rope line, so there’d be no opportunity to touch Mitt Romney on the hand, look in his eyes, and ask if his hair is real (and if I can stroke it, just once). There was, however, enough space on the floor for John and I to have a private conversation, the first time that had happened since we’d lined up about six hours ago at 8am. We were able to trade notes, observations, and have a bit of a giggle before taking a walk around the floor.
Pretty much everyone at the rally was white. Every Black or Asian or Hispanic person I saw (and there were not very many) I couldn’t help thinking “What the hell are you doing here?”, even though that’s… not… really a great thing to think. People are allowed to support who they want to… I guess… And hey, Mitt Romney ran strongly amongst white males – by the same demographically driven token, any Romney supporter could look at me and John at an Obama rally and say “What the hell are you doing here?”
As you can see by the way we were dressed, we really didn’t fit in. I looked exactly like a Goddamn Democrat. The place was flooded with guys in their early twenties dressed like guys in their early forties, and guys in their early forties dressed like guys in their early forties who are also douche bags. It was like Young Liberals on steroids. And there I was with my one-day stubble, wearing jeans, sky-blue Chuck Taylors, and my beat-up leather jacket. Democrat? Yeah. Democrat.
By the time the rally began, it was pretty clear to everyone around us that John and I didn’t belong, but that didn’t stop practically everyone from trying to hand us bundles of Romney/Ryan stickers and American flags. We ended up with two flags each, mostly waving them frantically at each other, teeth gritted, from a distance of roughly two feet.
It Finally Begins…
So, you know how in the final scene of Braveheart, where they’re torturing Braveheart, and everyone in the crowd is cheering like mad but then his two friends are there in the crowd just standing there looking horrified but trying to keep a low profile?
That’s pretty much what it felt like being at the Romney Rally.
Oh I’m sure the Secret Service loved us – two guys standing more or less motionless, just glaring at the candidates as each one spoke, not smiling or applauding. At all.
The order of speaking went more or less like the previous Obamarallies did – people spoke in ascending order of importance, starting with some local officials, then moving on to two Congressional candidates (each one running against one of Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran), Senate candidate George Allen (running against Tim Kaine), Ann Romney, and then finally Mitt himself. (Fun Note: Literally none of the candidates we watched speak at this event went on to win their election.)
The only glaring difference was that there was no one to sing the national anthem. There was no national anthem! It was almost as if… as if the Republicans felt they didn’t need to try as hard to ‘look’ American.
The first official to talk opened with a truly deft misrepresentation of the truth, admirable in its audacity. He shouted out “Obama was here at George Mason two weeks ago,” referencing the rally that I’d actually been at “and he didn’t fill the Patriot Centre.”
Then he pointed up to one side of the arena and said “When Obama was here, all those seats up there were empty. Are they empty now?”
The crowd shouted back “No!”
He did that two more times – pointed up to each bank of seats and shouted “When Obama was here, those seats were empty. Are they empty now?!” And the crowd shouted back “No!”
And well, yes, it was true. When Obama had been at George Mason two weeks before, he hadn’t filled the Patriot Centre. It was totally empty, in fact, because he was out on the football field. He had filled a football field instead.
Still, it was technically true, so you gotta’ hand it to them.
There was an enormous focus on military veterans and veterans’ issues. For example, there were callouts to the crowd from the early speakers like “Cheer if you’ve ever served!” and “Cheer if you have family serving!” This could have been a function of the fact that one of the men running for Congress was a veteran himself, but it felt more like Republicans were trying to claim default ownership of the issue, as if all veterans were somehow theirs. Now I always make sure to acknowledge and thank any veteran I meet for their service, I’d met plenty of veterans who were also ardent Democrats, and it was freaking Jim Webb (a Democratic Senator from Virginia) who’d just put through the latest GI Bill, so I kind of resented this implied co-opting of this group by Republicans. I voiced this concern to John Conal who pointed out “Well, the Democrats are kind of doing the same thing with women.” … So, yes. Good point, let’s stop there.
The only point at which I nearly lost it – where I almost forgot I was there to observe, not to debate – and shouted something out was during George Allen’s speech. Was it over Healthcare? Women’s issues? Foreign policy? No. It was over the small business tax rate. Yep. Wanting to drop the small business tax rate to bring it further in line with the world average for some reason made me lose my shit. Maybe… it’s because conservatives in America so often decry the idea of having US policies influenced by what people do in Europe and the rest of the world that to see a Republican use a worldwide average tax rate when it suited him seemed like hypocrisy. Or maybe… it’s because that worldwide average tax rate includes the tax rates of all countries, including the ‘bad’ ones, so maybe you should only look at the average of countries with a decent standard of living. Or maybe it’s because I was tired. Yeah, let’s go with that last one.
Besides the national anthem, the other thing they didn’t have was a Bill Clinton-type figure, offering specifics and breaking things down for everyone in a digestible, engaging way. There was a lot of talk about it in the media, and I feel like Romney’s campaign really did suffer from not having a popular party elder, an equivalent to Clinton, to campaign and explain things on his behalf.
Mitt and Me
Please hurry up and finish so I can get my football.
When Mitt finally came out, I was nearly collapsing. I’d gotten about four hours sleep the night before and had been waiting to see Mitt (and my football) for about eight hours. I remember that his entrance theme was way more rock and roll than Obama’s, but light on the whole ‘inspiration’ thing. In fact, if anyone can tell what the song is from watching the entrance video then let me know.
I was so wrecked that I really wasn’t paying much attention to what he was saying, I was mostly busy glaring at him and marveling at how Ann Romney just had to keep staring at him smiling at him the whole time he talked (as Mitt had just done for her while she talked – creepy and impressive).
The one thing I do recall clearly is that you could really tell he did not believe he was going to lose. All of the reports coming out about how shocked he and his team were when they actually lost make absolutely perfect sense to me, based on what I saw that day at his rally. No one in that room thought the election was anything but a lock. I mean, sure, every candidate has to get up and say things like “We will win” and “When I’m president…”, even the ones polling at 2% in the primaries and with no hope. You have to believe in order to be able to get up on stage and campaign, you have to act like you believe when you’re campaigning… but this was a level above. It was sincere. They really did believe they’d win.
And that was the scariest thing of all. Despite all the fake homemade signs, despite the fact that most of the people in the room appeared to have traveled up from Southern Virginia (which was apparent when George Allen was calling out counties in the state and very few people cheered for the Northern ones), despite everything assuring me that Obama had the election sewn up, the Romney rally was more motivational for me, as an Obama supporter, than either of the Obama rallies had been. And not just because I was colder at the Obama rallies.
And not just because I was motivated by this great ‘Moms for Mitt’ sign.
My mom will be so happy!
Give Me My Football
Rally over, exhausted, sweating, and downright disturbed by what we’d just witnessed, John and I made our way through the centre to the table where they were handing out footballs.
Finally, we handed in our tickets and this what we got:
Expecting actual, proper, pigskin footballs (because where the hell else is Romney spending his billion dollars of campaign cash, if not on winning?), this is what we got.
Tiny plastic toy footballs. That’s what you get for having expectations.
You cheap fucks. I hate you so much. I’m so glad you lost.
The only thing that made me feel better was this delightful oven mitt I got from a vendor just a few minutes later.
It’s an ‘Oven’ Mitt. GET IT?
I suppose the real winner that day wasn’t the Romney campaign, but the people who profited from the Romney campaign by selling better merchandise than the Romney campaign themselves were able to provide.
I guess Mitt could learn a thing or two.
But it’s okay. No matter how disappointed I am with him, it can’t be more disappointed than he is with himself right now. (Oh SNAP!)
Monday November 5, the day before the election, the Romney campaign held a rally in the Patriot Centre (i.e. Basketball Court) at George Mason University. It’s no secret that I wanted to go to a Romney rally, but there was also a Joe Biden rally the same day just down the road. As much as it would have been awesome to see Uncle Joe, I wouldn’t have seen anything that I hadn’t already seen at the two Obama rallies I’d been to. Except, of course, Joe Biden. But more than the opportunity to see Mitt Romney and the down-ticket Republican candidates, I really wanted to meet and talk to some Romney supporters. I wanted to see the kind of people who turned up to see a Romney rally.
Also, Mitt Romney was promising a free football to the first 500 people in line.
John Conal and I really really wanted those footballs. I wanted to go to the park and throw imaginary touchdowns with footballs branded with the names and logo of the candidates I was actively working to defeat. I wanted some token of compensation for actually having to go and wait in line to listen to the words of a man who I patently disagree with on pretty much everything. I wanted a lasting trophy, a personal monument to the crushing defeat I would help secure, to be kept forever as a mocking reminder of the terribly flawed Romney campaign – the kind of campaign that had to promise free footballs to people to get them to turn up to rallies.
Give me my football, you bastard.
The doors were due to open at a quarter to one in the afternoon. Remembering how quickly the lines at the Obama rallies grew and how early people turned up, John and I didn’t want to take any chances. We figured we should turn up at, say… 8am – signing up for nearly five hours standing around in the late Virginian Fall with only the most fervent Romney supporters for company.
We really wanted the footballs.
This is how many people were already there when we arrived:
“We all get footballs!”
John and I had forgotten to take into account that Mitt Romney is not as popular as Barack Obama – something that Mitt Romney had obviously not forgotten to take into account when the son of a bitch realised he had to bribe people to turn up to his rally by offering them free footballs. (Of course, this popularity gap does appear to be something that Romney forgot to take into account when he chose the platforms, positions, messaging, advisers, pollsters, and running mate that he did, as well as the words that he said, constantly. His whole campaign in general, really.)
Not long afterwards (relatively speaking, so about forty-five minutes later) cameras from TV network affiliates started turning up to cover the rally and film the queue, so John and I got our faces plastered all over NBC morning news as some of the most dedicated Romney supporters out there. It was excellent. Then reporters started vox popping random people in the line. John wasn’t keen to talk to any of them but I was hoping they’d come and talk to me – just so that I could offer as many variations of “I just want to give the free market a chance, man” as possible. “I mean, we’ve already seen how well the free market manages the healthcare system and the prisons. Life-saving pharmaceuticals are totally affordable for everyone who needs them, right? And America has the highest incarceration rate in the world – what a success story! Why not extend that premise to things like education, emergency services, and the criminal justice system? Free market, right guys?”
Fortunately, for everyone involved, no reporters approached us. One woman next to us started waving right at the camera and the camerawoman said to her what was probably the most sensible thing I heard the whole day: “Waving won’t get you on TV.”
With hours left until doors opened and then hours more after that until the start of the rally, we were in for a long slog. Still, I was getting what I wanted – a surfeit of time exposed to the most fervent Romney supporters in Northern Virginia. Whilst acknowledging my specific electoral bias, I went into this rally with the intention of being as objective as possible when it came to the general jovial talk of people while they queue for rallies – the natural conversations where people say nice things about their candidate and bad things about the other one. I didn’t want to instantly penalise people in my mind for liking their candidate and disliking mine and consequently ignore the substance of what they were saying. I’d seen and participated in enough of these chats at the Obama rallies to know roughly how they go:
PERSON 1: Did you hear what [Romney] said last night?
PERSON 2: What did [Romney] say last night?
PERSON 1: He said [something terrible that quickly and aptly displayed his heartlessness, lack of empathy, and general disconnection from the majority American people].
PERSON 2: That’s terrible. He’s terrible.
PERSON 1: And we are all fantastic.
Or here’s how it might go in the opposite direction:
PERSON 1: I think that [Obama]‘s excellent, because [he has that policy initiative that is important to me and that I agree with].
PERSON 2: Yeah, [Obama]‘s excellent.
PERSON 1: And we are all fantastic.
And of course these conversations are healthy, natural, necessary, and allowed. So I wanted to be paying attention to the kinds of things they were supporting about Romney and the Republican ticket without my brain constantly screaming “You’re so fucking wrong!” at them, so I went in with objectivity and open-mindedness as my goals.
Having said all that, here’s a direct quote from the notes I made that day after the rally, in regards to the people in line with me and inside the rally: “I saw first-hand what was wrong with America.”
A ha ha ha ha… yeah.
Now, these were just the people near me and consequently are not necessarily representative of all Romney supporters as a whole. Still, these were the people at the front of the queue and ostensibly the most enthusiastic (or football-loving).
Here’s some of what happened in the queue:
It started innocently enough. The first conversation I overheard focused on Bill Clinton’s “cookie jar” analogy from the Obama rally two nights before – about how if you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar you ought turn red in the face and take your hand out, whereas Romney just digs down for more cookies. They were asking how Bill Clinton could even make a comment like that with that whole Lewinsky thing in his past… completely missing the point that he was likely referencing that whole Lewinsky thing in his past.
Someone accused Obama of throwing Hilary Clinton under the bus over Benghazi. It was amusing how indignant they were on Hilary’s behalf, when they perceived that it was Obama who was slighting her.
After a couple of hours this one guy behind us started playfully speculating as to who the undercover Secret Service agents were. John and I were in the first ten people of the queue but hadn’t said very much and we weren’t really talking to anyone. Given the general undercurrent of excitement among the Romney supporters, this lack of activity was kind of suspicious. John was, in fact, looking downright surly sometimes, and also wearing a big coat and sunglasses. So this guy turns to John and says “What about this guy? He’s pretty big, he hasn’t said much… reckon he’s Secret Service?” Everyone laughed a little, including John, who then said “Heh, yeah… have you ever seen a Secret Service agent with a beard?” … Which is exactly what an undercover Secret Service agent would say in that situation! This other guy laughed a little bit more… and then he dropped the matter entirely and immediately started talking to someone else about something else.
A small, loud, energetic woman standing behind us (who a little while later made the superstar-asshole comment of the day – of the whole day) was claiming, loudly, that Mitt was actually more moderate than the positions he was running on and more moderate that most people thought he was, and that he really wasn’t so bad. I thought it unusual that Mitt had moved so far to the right, and so openly, that he had to use dog whistles with his more moderate voters.
That same woman got a real kick out of saying “Time for some R & R” – as in “Romney/Ryan.” Cute. (It actually was a bit cute.)
People attacked the amount of time Obama’s spent on vacation, conveniently forgetting the amount that George W. Bush took. (Bush had over a thousand days vacation in two terms and Obama’s up to less than a hundred days in his first. He’d have to take about two straight years off to catch up.)
Oh, that was another fascinating thing – not a single person, the entire day, mentioned President Bush. Not a single person, be they a supporter or a candidate. Never. Not once.
At one point I realised that I’ve now spent more hours of my life waiting in line for political rallies than I ever spent waiting in line for roller coasters. Maybe I’ll just spend the 2014 mid-terms campaigning at the Baltimore Six Flags.
There was this one awesome guy behind us. Early twenties, slightly overweight, longish dark hair, a thick neck beard, and obnoxious as hell. He was saying the most fantastic things. Like how leaving troops behind in Iraq or Afghanistan is no different to America having troops stationed in Germany. Or that he wanted to revive the auto industry of the 60s and bring back the Pontiac and the Plymouth – he hated hybrid cars, you see, except for the Prius, because it still had gas as a “back up” if things went wrong. Yep. Or my favourite was when he whined the exact following: “You can’t live without sugar. It’s haaaaaaaard… Unless you want to go full Amish. Or Mormon.”
Everyone was really pissed off at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (for praising Obama on the Hurricane Sandy response). Like, they were just flat out mad. Once again – no mention of Bush or Hurricane Katrina.
Which finally brings us to…
Revealing Comments? Yes please!
This was one of the worst things I heard all day, and easily the worst while still outside the Patriot Centre. The small, enthusiastic woman behind us was chatting to a few people. I heard her say “You know, I grew up in a fairly well-to-do household, my parents both had health insurance and we never really struggled too much. So maybe I don’t have the best perspective when it comes to this stuff, but…”
And I thought, hey, that actually sounds like something that someone says right before they say something reasonable. Maybe she’s about to say something reasonable. That’d be cool.
“But… If you don’t have healthcare…” she pauses for a second, then continues “shouldn’t that be motivation for you to work harder and improve your station in life? So that you can have nice things like health insurance?”
Um… whaaaaaat? What?
And then that heretofore hilarious guy (who wants to bring back the Plymouth) pipes in with “Yeah, exactly. And if you don’t have health insurance you can always go to the emergency room. Or you could just go on a payment plan. And anyway, the treatment you get isn’t going to vary whether you have insurance or not.”
Um, yes it is. They won’t treat you if you can’t pay for it. That’s why you need insurance.
And payment plan? What? For a six-figure medical bill when you’re only making twenty thousand bucks a year? Sure. Payment plans fix everything.
In that moment, of overhearing this exchange, I was actually confounded by the sheer lack of perspective and soul-crushing lack of empathy being displayed by these people. There was an implication that people didn’t have “nice things” like proper, decent healthcare simply because they weren’t willing to work hard enough for it – and that implication is only made possible if you also believe that a “nice thing” like healthcare (or, as I like to call it, Helping People to Not Die) is a privilege that needs to be earned and deserved, not a basic human right that it is incumbent upon every decent society to provide to everyone (if not for free, then at least not prohibitively expensive and exploitative).
I’m used to hearing it from Republican politicians, watching news coverage, etc., and knowing that these candidates couldn’t be in office and hold those positions unless there were millions who agreed with them. Simple. But just knowing this in the back of your mind is a totally different experience to hearing these things come out of the mouths of actual human American people voters, not just the politicians. It was sobering and odd to hear the people on the ground saying it.
And into the Rally…
At about midday a couple of people came down the line handing out claim tickets for the free footballs. We could pick them up at a special table after the rally. Despite wanting that freaking football immediately (not least so that I’d have something to play with inside the Patriot Centre besides an iPhone) I was just happy to have it finally locked in. I really wanted that football.
“Throw it to me, Mitt! I’m RIGHT HERE.”
And that concludes Part One of the Romney Rally. Not long after we got our tickets, the doors opened and we went on in, and you’ll hear all about it in the next post.
One final question, but. You know how there’s all that talk of “If [Republican Candidate] wins I’m moving to Canada” every four years? There was certainly a lot of misunderstandingfrom Republicans this time around about Australia not being the Socialist Paradise we so clearly are, with some Republicans threatening to move here after Obama won. But I really want to know: Where can dissatisfied Republicans legitimately threaten to move to when their candidate loses? Or, rather: Is there a westernised country that is more conservative and further to the right than the United States? I’m really asking here. Like, for instance, how’s South Africa doing, what’s going on there?
Having gotten home so late after the Obama/Clinton/Matthews megafest the night before, John Conal and I missed our scheduled canvassing shift that morning in Reston that we hadn’t actually known we were scheduled in for. Luckily there was work going around the clock and there are always more doors to knock on, so we just rocked up to local field organiser Kathy’s place at around midday. She sorted us out with some coffee and snacks (there were water bottles and every kind of fruit and snack you can imagine just lying all over the place), and then it was in to some training. The mission this day was to be knocking on doors of confirmed Obama supporters and making sure they had a plan for voting day and that they knew where their polling place was.
Firstly, have an “I” statement prepared. If someone’s undecided or only leaning towards voting Obama, you should have a personal statement ready to go about why you support the President and the Democratic ticket. For example, Kathy’s was “I’m a sixty-eight year old grandmother, and because of Obamacare more than sixty thousand young Virginians have health insurance because they’re able to stay on their parents’ plans longer.” (John and I were tempted to co-opt hers and open every encounter that day with “I’m a sixty-eight year old grandmother…”) Making it personal and about why you’re there knocking on their door can be a better way to relate to someone and persuade them than just launching talking points at them. I’d already been doing this somewhat instinctively when canvassing for the PAC (talking about why I was over from Australia to help out) but Kathy’s explanation helped to crystalise the idea and if I’d had that advice earlier it probably would have made my execution and delivery a bit cleaner.
The plan was to get people to make a plan to get to the polling place on election day. Kathy told us that when people are actually made to say out loud what time of day they’re planning on voting then, psychologically, they’re more likely to get out and vote. If people know that they’ll just vote “some time” then it’s very easy for a busy day to get away from them, or something, and they might just skip it. But if they’ve made a commitment out loud then they’re more likely to stick to it.
Kathy was also very careful about not being perceived as imposing or perhaps impolite – subtle things like asking people “Have you thought about what time you might get out to vote?” rather than directly asking “When are you voting?”
They generally like to send people out in pairs to knock on the same doors together (it’s friendlier! …and also safer) so John and I got sent out on the same beat. Our ‘patch’ that day was about two miles from Kathy’s house so we were faced with the unenviable and surprisingly infuriating task of negotiating Northern Virginia’s pedestrian pathways to get there. We didn’t get before far before finding what was literally a blockade in our path.
And it gently whispered to us “Buy a car, asshole.”
We spent about a mile walking on the road shoulder, our Obama badges and campaign paraphernalia in full view, hoping that no wreckless Romney-supporting motorists with particularly good eyesight and sharp reflexes would happen to drive by. Instead we just got a few supportive honks. When we were heading back to Kathy’s after hitting all our houses we found some footpaths through the forest, but they weren’t on our maps so we maintained, then and now, our sense of righteous indignation.
And so we went on our first direct canvassing shift for the Obama campaign. Here’s some stuff from that:
It was… fantastic getting to wear my own clothes, given this is what I had to dress like for Virginia Jobs Now:
“Let me tell you some important things about democracy.”
I never felt quite comfortable trying to talk with people and persuade them whilst I felt uncomfortable in my clothes, so getting to wear jeans and a jacket was a massive improvement. Heck, if Bill Clinton gets to wear a leather jacket whilst stumping for the President surely the volunteers can too. Canvassing for Obama is more than just a political exercise – it’s a sartorial adventure!
For all houses on our list that didn’t answer the door, we had huge door-cards to leave on the handle or by the entrance. The door-cards had all the polling and election day information, as well as information on who they should be voting for. I happened to have a sharpie left over in my pocket from a Halloween party in Richmond when I drew a giant handlebar moustache on my own face and so John Conal decided that the OFA campaign hadn’t gone quite far enough in their design and persuasion:
John did something like this for pretty much every door card.
One of the first people to actually answer a door told us that other people had already been by to ask about their voting plan a day or two before. I made some genial, deprecating comment about the Obama campaign just being a bit “hyperactive” in trying to get the vote out. Moments later I had to ask John to remind me not to call our own campaign “hyperactive” in front of the voters again. (Even though it totally was hyperactive. But hey – hyperactive, apparently, wins elections.)
One guy answered his door and had a strong British accent. Immediately forgoing any sense of trying to campaign at him, I just enthusiastically started asking questions about where in England he was from and what he was doing in Virginia. It turns out he was from West London originally and I was all like “No way, I lived in West London for six months!” and then eventually John Conal got things back on track by actually doing what we were there to do – ask him whether he knew where his polling place was and what time he was planning on voting. He’d already voted so that was that. After we left, John Conal mentioned the massive amounts of makeup this guy had been wearing. I just somehow hadn’t noticed it at the time, but thinking back I remembered that he had been wearing some very heavy, very colourful makeup. And a car parked outside his house had the word “FAIRY” somewhere in the personalised license plate (personalised license plates are extremely common in Virginia). I guess in addition to having the shirtless-muscly-old-bald-guy vote, Obama has the makeup-wearing, potentially-supernatural British vote all stitched up.
As we walked from house to house, John and I spent an inordinate amount of time discussing what we’d do in the very first hour of a zombie apocalypse. What our plan would be. Given that we were away from most of our friends and family in a faraway land filled to the brim with guns, this fun regular mental exercise – one that I imagine most in my generation have indulged in at least one time or another – took on some interesting variations of the usual plans we come up with. For starters, we had to figure out how we’d get our hands on some guns, something that’s not really as feasible in Australia.
One young woman answered her door wearing a bright orange “Latinos for Obama” shirt. It was her husband who was on our list to talk to, but this portended well. It turns out that her husband was actually away fighting in Afghanistan (and had, incidentally, already voted). She thanked both John and I for getting out and volunteering, and said that she would have been doing the same herself if she didn’t have two young kids to take care of. John and I went overboard in reassuring her that she didn’t need to feel bad at all. Gosh, you just want to be able to help out someone in that situation, if only for a little while. We were almost on the point of blowing off our canvassing duties and offering to look after her kids for the afternoon, just in case she wanted a break. It would have been a feasible offer if, you know, it hadn’t also been a way creepy offer, having come from two random guys who just rocked up on her doorstep. Instead we thanked her for her support and thanked her for her husband’s service.
Right before getting to the last address on our list, John and I stumbled upon the most glorious eyesore of a house. Four stories tall, sprawling, multiple architectural styles all jammed together – and it was having an open-house inspection. We went inside to have a look around and ended up talking to a very friendly real estate agent who miraculously seemed to know none of the answers to the questions we asked. “When was it built?”, “Has anyone ever lived here?”, “Who owns it now?” were all met with a friendly smile and a slightly uncomfortable delivery of “I don’t know” from the real estate agent. This place was enormous. Every third room had a bar in it; there were about a dozen bedrooms; an indoor and an outdoor pool; and a weird semi-circular room at the top of a three-storey spiral staircase. After checking out about half the house I stopped being able to imagine what I’d use each successive room for – I actually don’t possess enough wealth for the parts of my brain that would know how to furnish a house that large to be active. I’d fill half the rooms with couches and then the rest of the house would become a series of intertwining, informal bowling alleys.
At the top of the spiral staircase. This is usually where the Russian mobsters hang out.
The Basement Bar. One of about four or five bars in the house.
Random, nondescript fancy room.
When we knocked on the door of our final house, down the hill from this giant house, the woman who answered the door (after spending a comfortable and reassuring amount of time verbally bashing Mitt Romney) told us the story about the house – the story that the real estate agent had undoubtedly known but had been unwilling to share. It turns out it had been built by a Saudi Prince in the mid nineties – he pretty much had a huge house custom-built close to Washington DC for hosting parties and entertaining dignitaries and officials. It certainly did have a kind of “embassy” vibe to a lot of the interior. However, he’d had to return to Saudi Arabia for some reason or other before it was completed and he’d never gotten to live in it. It remained unoccupied for years, except as a late night drinking spot for local teens (whom I cannot blame – I was tempted to go back there that night with a six-pack and a boombox). Eventually, for some reason, the house caught fire and was partially burned down. It had only recently been fully repaired and renovated and the Saudi Prince was just trying to get rid of it altogether, which he was being forced to do at a significant loss. It was just under four million US dollars, if you’re interested.
There was totally a house on this block flying a confederate flag. Now, that kind of thing was common in Richmond (indeed, someone in Richmond told us that some people were wearing confederate flags ironically now, the way someone might wear a Chairman Mao t-shirt) but up here in Northern Virginia it was pretty rare and made that house look way crazy.
Our first day canvassing for OFA was a smashing great success and a lot of fun. And maaaaan Virginia is pretty in the Fall.
At time of writing, the election is over. Barack Obama has won a second term with 332 electoral votes and what will likely be a three point margin in the popular vote once all of California is counted. Florida was, again, being a fussy bitch but, mercifully, this time the outcome there was not determinant. A flight attendant on the plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles, after pouring me an apple juice, pointed at the Obama-Biden bumper sticker on my laptop and, smiling, said “Yes we did.” This thing is over.
There was very little time or opportunity towards the end of the campaign to keep a full update on the blog of what was happening as the activity itself was so intense, and I’ve been on the move ever since the election. But rest assured that I have pages and pages of notes and plenty of real actual memories, and I’ll be getting it all out over the next week – how the end of the election went and what John Conal and I were doing in the final days. Whether you want more insight into the Obama ground game, whether you’re an election junkie who just ain’t ready to quit yet, or whether you just like how I do my thing, this blog will be live for a few more days.
Still to come are stories of a lot more canvassing, Mitt Romney’s final rally in Virginia, getting the vote out on election day itself, and the election night watch party. But for now we return to the Saturday before the election, a chilly night in Northern Virginia where John, Bridget and myself went to see Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Dave Matthews, only one of whom remembered to bring a guitar and none of whom remembered a saxophone…
All the Sexy Presidents are Democrats (except Carter)
The Saturday night before the election, the Obama campaign held their final event for the state of Virginia. At this event would be Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Dave Matthews, only two of whom have experience running a superpower nation. It was set out as a standard campaign rally, much like the one at George Mason University, only this one would be at a giant, open-air stadium normally reserved for concerts. In the end they had 24,000 people attending. Having already seen Obama once I was still excited to see him again but it was Bill Clinton who was to be the real draw card for me this time – at the very least to add to my tally in World Leader Bingo (remember, US Presidents count for two).
I find myself talking about these guys – Obama and Clinton – in the same sort of language I might use for musicians I like, but that’s what these guys essentially are and, more importantly, that’s how the campaign presents them – as rock stars. They have mass popular appeal and people want to ‘see’ them live. Watching a US stump speech is akin to watching a charismatic band play half a dozen songs, not least because they’re trying to find the right balance of substance spliced with dollops of humorous banter. They’re trying to connect with you. There were even warm up acts (Gerry Connolly and Tim Kaine) and an actual musical support (Dave Matthews).
Bridget was able to get the three of us special tickets for the event through the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. These tickets were the colour blue and we didn’t quite know what that meant. We knew that they were somehow more special than the tickets generally available to the public (white tickets) but we didn’t know how much more special. There were red tickets floating around as well and we didn’t know whether to feel superior or inferior whilst standing in line next to the people who had those. The red ticket people didn’t know either. We were kind of eying each other off the whole time. As we got near the front of the queue, heading in through security, we ran into Kristin Cabral, the Democratic candidate for Virginia’s 10th Congressional District and former Harvard classmate of Barack Obama’s. She was very friendly and we had a good chat consisting mostly of me answering basic questions about Australia. After talking for a bit we found that she and her staffers had red tickets, so it wasn’t looking so good for the blue tickets. Still, as a colour, in general, blue is far superior to red so I had that to hold onto. I don’t know what the organisers were thinking when they devised their ticket ranking system.
Nor do I know what they were thinking when they devised the event in general. Getting in was a bit of a polite shamozzle. We’d made sure to arrive suitably early just so that we could spend as much time as possible freezing our arses off in the late Virginian fall as possible. People were working the queue, as before, selling badges and other merchandise. I’d since found out, by talking to the field organisers at the Reston OFA office, that the people selling things on the queue were not selling official campaign merchandise nor were they in any way officially affiliated with the campaign. It turns out they’re selling all kinds of pro-Obama gear but it’s usually made overseas – the people at the Reston office were all “Hey, way to create American jobs you guys.” Also I’m sure it’d be tough for either candidate to get tough on China when China is producing so many shirts saying such nice things about them.
There was one guy selling shirts that said “Women for Obama” but there were conspicuously none that said “Bill Clinton for Women.” Missed opportunity dude.
Mega queue. Mercifully, this was the queue extending away behind us.
In the line I overheard this one guy – he was loud, and kinda’ pleased with himself, and slightly overweight, and he had a fine stubble on his face – saying “So these people said to me ‘Why are you here? People like you, you can ruin these events for everyone else.’ And I said to them ‘Hey, events like this are designed for people like me – I’m an undecided voter, I’m exactly the type of person they want coming along to this, I’m who this is aimed at.” It hadn’t really occurred to me that too many undecided voters would turn up to watch a rally live, but this guy was right – but only to a certain extent. Events like this were designed for him and aimed at him, but not only him, and certainly the messaging to undecideds is more intended to be carried through TV and the news, rather than directly at their faces in a live capacity. The campaign wants to win over undecideds and to bring them along to the events, to maybe persuade them and get them caught up in the excitement, but they’re also working very hard on getting the base fired up – getting people who are already going to vote for Obama to volunteer and to get their friends to vote. There’s enough message to go around for everyone, both undecideds and committeds.
As suspected, once we finally got inside the blue tickets were better than the white tickets but inferior to the red tickets. We were in the seating bank directly behind the open floor in front of the stage – the rope line area (man I couldn’t wait to watch Bill Clinton work a rope line). Still, we were fantastically close to the podium:
Who makes these giant flags?
Once we had our seats I went for a hot pretzel and a coffee, which took almost as long as queuing for the event itself. Having a few (thousand) moments in a line to myself (again), I was finally able to notice the front of house music they were playing over the speakers. It was the same set of songs used at the GMU rally on October 19. Aside from one Arcade Fire song, ‘We Used to Wait’, (a song whose inclusion I still can’t unpack the meaning of, if indeed there is any besides its awesomeness in general) the music consisted of good American pop and rock classics with a healthy amount of soul thrown in. Maybe it was some cynicism kicking in, but as far as I’m concerned they could just as well have been playing someone loudly saying “We are definitely American” through the loudspeakers over and over again.
Back in our seats, before the event kicked off, I got to meet Brian Moran. He’s the brother of Jim Moran (the Congressman representing Virginia’s 8th district) and the Chair of the Virginia Democratic party. Of course I was freezing my hands, ears, arse and balls off to the point that I had no idea of who I was talking to until after he’d gone. As far as I was concerned Bridget had just waved some guy called Brian over to have a chat, and I hadn’t made the connection until waaaay later, even after Bridget took a photo of us together and made a big deal out of it. The temperature that night was in serious danger of upstaging everything.
“I’m so happy to meet you, dude-I-don’t-know!”
Then it kicked off. Given that I’d only been to one of these things before it was amazing how… standard it all seemed. They played a few campaign ads and videos on the big screen; then some local volunteers talked for a bit; then the pledge of allegiance and national anthem (this time sung by a former Miss America); then speeches from Gerry Connolly (Congressman for Virginia’s 11th district) and none other than Tim Kaine. It was exciting, but at the same time it felt a bit old hat. It could have been that they were preaching to the converted, or it could have been that I was very cold.
Dave Matthews to the Rescue!
And then Dave Matthews played. Probably seven or eight songs. I hear he’s a pretty big deal but I have no strong love, or dislike, for him. He played some songs and they sounded nice, and a few people dotted around here and there were kind of excited, and I just kind of zoned out a bit and sat on my hands. It was a good addition to the night in terms of tone and content but it did draw it out even longer (we didn’t wrap up until after 11:30pm) and I’m not sure what difference it would have made in overall attendance if he hadn’t been there. Still, it was a nice treat, a nice thought, and the Democrats do need to roll out world-famous artists and musicians as often as possible, if only to gently and perhaps gloatingly remind everyone that Republicans have immense difficulty finding any world-famous artists and performers who actually support Republicans instead of just asking them to stop using their music at rallies and in advertising please. (A nice function of the fact that artists are generally possessed of higher than average levels of empathy.)
The Big Dog
After a suitable pause (to give everyone time to recover from freaking Dave Matthews!!!) Bill Clinton came out on stage. Slick Willie. The Big Dog. Here’s the pop he got:
It was, unsurprisingly, cool seeing Bill Clinton. Despite his voice being totally gone through overuse he did not disappoint. He opened with – croaked open with – “I’ve given my voice in service to my President.” And, yes, he was wearing a leather jacket. He displayed that same persuasive wonkishness that has been his hallmark this campaign – his primary focus was on how great Obama’s budget and tax plan was versus how awful/non-existent Romney’s was. Obama even referred to him as “Our Secretary of Explaining Things.”
And he was funny too. He described Mitt Romney’s repeated falsehoods as akin to a little kid getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“When I was a kid, if I got my hand caught in the cookie jar, where it wasn’t supposed to be, I turned red in my face, and I took my hand out of the cookie jar. You’ve got to give it to Governor Romney. When he gets his hand caught in the cookie jar, he just digs down for more cookies.”
I perceived just the slightest hint of self-referencing in his comments, which worked beautifully – even in campaigning, he was able to acknowledge and make positive use of his prior indiscretions. It simultaneously humanised him, humanised his point, and gave him the moral high ground.
The Prop in Chief
Bill Clinton introduced Barack Obama directly. They hugged and patted each other’s backs because they’re super best friends and they spend the final scene of every episode drinking scotch and smoking cigars together on the balcony outside their law firm. President Obama came out to a bigger pop than Bill Clinton and he had the same entrance music that he’d had at George Mason last month. It made me wonder whether he actually likes the song or whether the campaign were just trying to find the most inspirational/aspirational song possible and he was actually sick of it by now.
Obama gave a stump speech similar to the one he had at GMU, only this time there was a much greater emphasis on getting the base fired up and getting people to volunteer and knock on doors. At GMU he was still in the process of climbing out of his post-first-debate polling slump and was pitching much more to the centre of the electorate and attacking Romney more – this speech, at Jiffy Lube Live, was much more akin to a locker room speech from the coach right before the Big Game.
The most memorable moment was when he referred to himself, in the closing days of the campaign, as “sort of a prop.”
“You know, I was backstage with David Plouffe, some of you guys know he’s sort of a mastermind of campaign organization and we were talking about how as the campaign goes on, we become less relevant. I’m sort of a prop in the campaign. He’s just bothering a bunch of folks, calling, asking what’s going on.”
It was chiefly a rhetorical device to emphasise the importance of voters, volunteers and activists in the closing days of the election, but I also saw it as an elucidation of the difference between campaigning and governing. Despite being an important figurehead in his own campaign, he’s essentially powerless to get re-elected by himself. At this stage he doesn’t have to actually do anything besides put himself out there and shake a bunch of hands.
Which brings us to the rope line. They both stayed behind for ages and shook heaps of hands and talked to heaps of people, but the Big Dog was working his way along the crowd way slower than Obama and spent longer out there. Seriously, Bill Clinton cannot get enough of working a rope line. It was awesome. It’s just nice to see someone so happy.
On Saturday morning John and I turned up at the Obama office in Reston, prepped to canvass. In the best kind of oversight possible, the OFA Reston office did not have enough canvassing packs to cater to all of the canvassers who turned up that day. Too many volunteers – what a wonderful problem to have. With that, John and I went back to the phones for another shift. For John, it was just another round of calling people. For me, it was a second chance.
Now past the volunteer-gathering stage (which clearly went better than expected), we were now into full-on voter planning and information. We were calling democratic voters to make sure they had a plan to get out to the polls on election day, that they had the right ID, and that they knew where their polling place was.
The lovely guy who was taking us through the day’s script made us especially aware of a voter ID law in Virginia that they’d only recently been made aware of – if it’s your first time voting in Virginia then you need to have a photo ID at the polling place. As he put it, “For a country that loves Democracy they certainly do make it hard for people to vote.”
This, necessarily, involved calling some voters who already had a plan. But, with them, we had to call them and really double check that they knew what they were doing. It may seem excessive – and it is – but it fits into the no-stone-unturned strategy. Any voter who’s going to get turned off by one phone call too many (and, c’mon, it’s Virginia – you must be used to it by now) is not really someone you could have relied on in the first place. There’s more value to be had in sincerely making sure that people are turning out to vote and know what they’re doing than in potentially alienating the one or two voters who may get put off by a second or third call on a Saturday morning.
John seemed particularly sensitive to this. This wasn’t just because the coin had flipped and I just happened to be getting more amenable voters on the phone than he was (which was awesome, and HA HA), but because he related to the people who were upset at getting a random election call on Saturday morning. My first thought was: “Hey, you guys, suck it up, you live in Virginia, and although it may be annoying, you have a disproportionately large say in who governs a super nation of three hundred million people for a while, so live with it, okay?”
My second thought I actually voiced to John. I asked him, well, if Barack Obama himself had called these people and asked for their vote do you think they’d be as upset? He countered by asking if they’d still be thrilled if Obama himself called them five times a day. Me, personally, I’d be thrilled, but I took his point. Touché, sir.
And, look, hey – if people are angry when you call them on the phone, that’s not actually your fault. It’s not like they were happy, satisfied, well-adjusted people in all of the moments leading up to your cataclysmic phone call and you just happened to send them crazy. They were, very likely, angry people already.
Still, calling the crap out of people and telling them to vote has a net positive effect at this point, so that’s what we did. Here’s some more stuff from the phones:
Someone in the Reston office actually got a phone call from someone else phone banking in the Reston office. Being a registered Democrat, of course they were on the list. All I heard was peals of laughter bursting out from the other end of the room as this one person inadvertently phone banked and canvassed another person at the same time. Eye contact was involved. Eye contact.
There was a really tough call when one really old guy told me his wife had died very recently and he wasn’t interested in voting – he said wasn’t interested in much more than sitting at home and watching TV all day. Specifically friggin’ heartbreaking.
We’re told not to leave a message when we call someone, even though early on in the campaign (like, August) leaving phone messages was something that would happen. We haven’t been specifically told the reasoning behind this, but I’m guessing that in August there are fewer volunteers and a smaller density of calling, so leaving a message is okay because that’s likely the only phone call that person will get all week and will be the only point of contact. But at this point there’s such a huge focus (oh, enormous focus) on verifying contact with each individual voter and making face to face contact, so if you’re leaving a message then that means you don’t know whether you’ve really reached them or not and you risk, even in the current climate, overbombardment. It’s also kind of impersonal and sucky
I’ve found that calls with older voters – let’s say 70+ – either go really badly or completely freaking amazing. There is no middle ground. There are some who can’t hear you at first and then are cranky in general or are kind of rudely set in their ways and abrasive about it. But then on the other side you get some people – and it is mostly women, though not always – who are just the sweetest old people you’ve ever spoken to. They understand why you’re calling and they take their time on the phone with you. In some cases they’re volunteers themselves. Even when younger people are Obama supporters there’s sometimes a tendency to want to get you off the phone quickly, a kind of impatience. The older voters will thank you for what you’re doing and tell you why they’re supporting the president. Give me that any day. Still – still – there is still some involuntary sense of relief any time an 80+ voter on the list doesn’t answer their phone.
I realised a lot of the other phone bankers were being much… blunter with their dialogue. They’d get through the main points of the ‘script’ in a matter of seconds, where I might pussy-foot around with all kinds of back and forth polite yet largely ineffectual “How are you?” type statements. The people I overheard would hit the major points – “I’m calling for Obama to speak to neighbours in Virginia”, etc. – in a matter of seconds and then moving on the important voting stuff. I’m aware now (after may fantastically well-received and near redemptive final phone banking session) of just how much chance plays into the kind of response you get on any given shift, but these people still seemed to be talking to more people on the whole. The script isn’t so much a script as it is a conversation-map. It gives you the topics and a rough order – after that just go crazy and do what comes naturally, just make sure you hit the important stuff. Maybe that’s why they were having more success in general (being direct and not wasting people’s time) and I was having a better time with older voters, with my long, rambling, pleasant, self-apologetic sentences.
Finally, here is some total Armageddon phone charging gear: