Our oversized van was total mayhem all the way from the Days Inn in Leesburg, Virginia to Columbia University in New York City—about a five hour trip—as polls closed few-by-few and states’ results rolled in nationwide. We tallied electoral votes by hand, with only National Public Radio coverage and frantic cell phone calls to guide us, growing increasingly exuberant as it became decreasingly likely that McCain could pull out a win.
“Someone grab a piece of paper, start writing down which states we won!”
‘Ok, we got Pennsylvania!’
“Pennsylvania, are you sure, who called it?”
“Anyone know how many electoral votes Pennsylvania has?”
“Someone look it up!”
“OHIO! My mom says we got Ohio!”
“No Republican has ever won without Ohio!”
“Who called Ohio?”
When the race was called around 11pm EST – marking the moment that the United States elected its first African-American president in a landslide – tears and hugs flowed freely and our pride in America bubbled over with cheering and chanting: “YES WE CAN! YES WE WILL! YES WE DID!”
132 Columbia University College Democrats had just spent the weekend in Virginia campaigning for Barack Obama for President; three days and 364 electoral votes (and counting) later, I am still smiling ear-to-ear.
But if you had asked me over the weekend if the race was in the bag, I would have told you there was no bag. The College Democrats arrived in Virginia’s Loudoun County on the Friday before Election Day to a virtual army of McCain-Palin yard signs and bumper stickers. We ate breakfast early Saturday morning in front of the television, with pundits showing the race tightening in Virginia and commercials questioning Obama’s experience and patriotism. During our first day of canvassing, I spoke with as many folks for McCain as for Obama. Many supporters described their neighborhood as decidedly “mixed” in presidential preferences, and expressed deep concern that Virginia would remain as Republican as ever. As campaign veterans, my partner-in-canvass, Justine Lai, and I relished the challenge. ‘This was the first time I talked to non-Democrat voters on a campaign,’ says Justine of her experience on the trail, ‘so while that made it a bit uncomfortable when canvassing McCain supporters, I did get the opportunity to talk to undecided or independent voters and at least inform them of my point of view, which I do feel had some influence.’
If Saturday’s mixed crowd was challenging, Sunday was a disappointment: almost every door I knocked on went unanswered, and those who were home had already voted or had no interest in hearing my spiel. I fell into bed late that night, wearied from the grueling weekend and less than optimistic about the next twenty-four hours.
On Monday, we used our patented ‘Seth Flaxman shotgun method’ to conduct a literature drop: one person shouts out house numbers while two others sprint around in response, hanging doorknockers reminding voters that Tuesday is Election Day! VOTE! Who could really forget about such an historic election, you may ask? Beats me, but in reality little more than half of all Americans actually vote in presidential elections, so every reminder matters. Our group alone dropped literature on over 6,000 doors in just a few hours, and Loudoun County ended up with record voter turnout—certainly no coincidence! We were lucky enough to attend Obama’s last rally that evening, in a neighboring county. Obama was very late arriving, but the gigantic crowd—of all ages, colors, and creeds—waited patiently and responded overwhelmingly when finally he addressed us with inspiring stories and a final reminder to vote.
Admittedly, the final day of campaigning raised everyone’s spirits enormously. We watched volunteers flood into the local campaign office—dispatched immediately and effectively to canvass, lit. drop, drive voters to the polls, and so on on Election Day. We remembered the feeling of being surrounded by 90,000 Virginians chanting “YES WE CAN” in response to Obama’s strong and steady message of hope the night before. We jogged from door-to-door through the rainy final hours, urging people to vote and thanking those who told us they already had.
My last canvass, in a suburban neighborhood occupied primarily by immigrant families, brought a young Muslim-American woman and her daughter to the door. “I already voted, for Obama,” she told me. I thanked her enthusiastically and began my sprint onward.
‘Thank you so much for doing this,’ she called after me. “You make America a special place.” I paused and turned back to her. “You make America special,” I exclaimed. “Thank you for voting!”
In the end, Virginia was won by a comparably small margin of about 155,000 votes, a reminder that Barack Obama’s very special victory on Election Day depended on both of us: every voter who waited for defunct machines or in long lines, and every volunteer who knocked on doors and made phone calls for change.
Nate Morgante, a fellow College Democrat, said it best: “Volunteering is like being a fan at a football game: if only one person screams then there is no effect, but if everyone does there’s a huge effect. And even though one voice really doesn’t matter, we still scream because we know it’s a collective effort.”