I just came home from an exhilarating (and exhausting) day volunteering for the Obama campaign in Colorado. Knocking on doors in Jefferson County, one of the most polarized in the nation (characterized as “the swing county of the swing state”), I learned a lot about my neighbors and about the new political landscape of the country.
What impressed me most was this: It was unmistakably clear that, in this squeaky-tight race, it was the ground teams who won it. So many people worked so hard for so long, and many more dropped in when they could, as I did. With millions of phone calls and countless face-to-face conversations, the ground teams worked relentlessly.
What were these people actually doing, and why was it so critical to the outcome? The core of it is this: To win a tight race, you need to identify every supporter and potential supporter in your area, make a reasonable effort to win over any undecided voters (hopefully without annoying or alienating them), make sure all your supporters are registered on time, and then once voting starts you call every number and knock on every door (feeling terrible about bugging people but knowing there’s simply no way to win in a “battleground state” without being really thorough and persistent), rinse and repeat, until you’ve confirmed that every last sympathetic soul has voted, even if you have to get them to carpools or drive them to the polls yourself. It’s a Herculean gig, multiplied across hundreds of cities and towns. One couldn’t possibly find enough people for this job, so while nobody wants to cause burnout, everyone who is willing to overwork is overworked, by necessity. They try to keep the work fun and reasonable for the drop-in volunteers, but for the core team it’s full blast from start to finish.
Everyone I met at two different Obama campaign offices, and on the street, was beyond exhausted and yet still giving it all until (and even after) the polls closed. And, to their great credit, they were also doing their best to remain, friendly, helpful, understanding, and patient with every new volunteer who arrived. In a typical work environment, this combination of extreme fatigue and high pressure would break most people to the point of being snappy and rude. Personally, I saw none of that. It was an extraordinarily positive experience in every way.
What drove these people to work so hard, with such spirit? I’m happy to report that it was not antipathy toward Governor Romney. I was pleasantly surprised that I heard not a single disparaging comment about Romney or about Republicans. No, these volunteers had a nobler motivation: a good, old-fashioned sense of civic duty — patriotism — which for them expresses as a wish for everyone in this country to have a better chance of thriving. And these rational, sensible citizens of a very “purple” state had made the informed assessment that Obama was the candidate who would best serve the interests of all people.
Of course, many of them were also inspired by Barack Obama as a human (in addition to being confident in both his policy priorities and his ability and commitment to make them happen) and that inspiration fueled the extra mile. It seemed clear that many of these volunteers may have put in some time for another Democratic candidate, but probably would not have worked this hard for a less inspiring candidate. If this assessment is true, it means that, considering the very narrow margin of victory, even a slightly less inspiring candidate surely would’ve lost here in Colorado. And, from my talks with friends who volunteered in other states (including Ohio), it seems that may well have been true elsewhere as well.
Swing state street smarts: If you want to become (or remain) the President of the United States in these times, you had better give a broad base of people some profoundly compelling reasons not just to vote for you, not just to make calls or write checks for you, but to go to the wall for you.
The US is a place where the word democracy describes the theory more than the practice. While the nation has always been a democratic republic on paper and in potential, in real life it is very difficult to achieve the actual practice of democracy in the context of an increasingly plutocratic oligarchy (de facto rule by the wealthiest few) with an electorate that is relatively uninformed about political end economic realities and thus too easily manipulated into voting against their own interests and those of their children, their communities, and their planet. This is thanks in part to failures of our education systems, and perhaps in even larger part due to a dumbed-down and deceptive political discourse exacerbated by a mostly shallow and sensationalistic 24-hour news media paradigm. But, even with those odds stacked high against the prospects of true democracy, the fact (as two Obama campaigns have proven) is that it is possible to achieve a degree of actually-functioning democracy in this country when sufficient numbers of people are willing to work hard enough for it.
And here in purple Colorado, “work hard enough” means really, really, really hard. One could feel that it shouldn’t be this hard, but it is, at least for now. Countless people gave their all, and kept giving long after all their energy was spent… and even this beyond-heroic effort was just barely enough. That’s what it takes these days to counter the influence of Big Money and Small Ethics in politics.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of the ground-team experience, and I would encourage everyone to give it a go next time around. No matter how one may feel about the electoral process, it can’t hurt to gain a better understanding of how it works.
And if you’re happy with the outcome of the election, thank a volunteer. They built that.