Archive: The 2008 Campaign, Part I: Colorado Swings

In 2008, I went to Denver to work for the Obama campaign. Below is the first of two reports that I sent to California, describing the experience.

Fellow citizens,

This communique comes at you from America, which I reached via aeroplane from San Francisco last Thursday.  It’s a whole different world out here, often scary, occasionally heartening.  Visit if you get the chance, if only to dial down the WTF factor from the CNN headlines.  But I wouldn’t be letting my lease expire back home, if you know what I mean…

Chapter 1:  Denver

Colorado is ripe for tipping.  Don’t believe the polls, which are notoriously incorrect in separating likely voters (who actually vote) from all the other “likely” voters, and trend falsely Democratic.  But they don’t take account the fervor of the support that Obama is receiving here, either.  And nowhere more than in Northeast Denver, in the Five Points neighborhood.

JX Bell, the vanguard of the California contingent, had already been working here for weeks when I arrived.  The office is in a largely African-American part of town, part of the unravelling of the urban fabric in the 70s – drugs, crime and gangs – but now fairly middle-class and a fairly typical slice of any large American city.  On one wall, a triptych of paintings:  Gandhi, MLK and Obama.  Seriously.  Spend some time and it is impossible not to  believe that this is the turning point of history, that Five Points is balanced squarely atop the fulcrum, and the only ammo we have is volunteers and twenty-hour days.  The staff hasn’t slept in so long that they smile a wry smile when the subject comes up, like nostalgia for touch football games, or Saturday morning cartoons, or some other relic of the distant personal past.  They are cool and committed.  The day of prophets has come again.  They call him by his first name: “Barack”.  Righteousness is theirs.

Organization is their watchword.  When I showed up in Florida for Kerry in 2004, they handed us a warm Sprite, an obsolete voter list and a photocopied map page with some highlighting scrawled over it.  Not so here.  If Obama governs the way he campaigns, this country might one day wake up to find it has done something surprising.

I pulled my first canvassing shift  the day after I arrived.  That’s when I realized – America ain’t like home.  In three hours I met crack mothers with scars and three kids hovering behind the screen door;  an “undecided” guy who, it turned out, had actually voted that morning, but still wasn’t sure and wanted to work through the issues one by one; Mosli Gussey, who came to the door in an orange zoot suit, just what he wears at four in the afternoon at home; an unregistered 18-year old kid who suddenly wanted to vote and thought that signing my clipboard sheet would do it (a truly saddening experience that anyone could be so far out of the stream of that which is).   A family of four registered voters, African-American, swimming in the southern latitudes economically, that supported McCain.  I wouldn’t give much for their home insurance rates if their neighbors found out.  They’ll be receiving a follow-up visit from campaign staff, you bet.  Plenty of heartening stories, as well: faces that lit up when they found out that the white guy with the paperwork was from the Obama office. The lady with the oxygen feed in her nose who could not get to the office for a yard sign, but will now receive one. Etc.   Old black women who have never voted in their lives are now registered.  Good folks living their lives. The bulk that – with all that it entails – make up the meat, potatoes and broccoli of the American experience.

They think that their time has come.  They’re right.  Sure, Obama will horribly disappoint every one of them, in some way, by summer. Not only because of the mess he will inherit from Bush, either. The Presidency comes with power and a pulpit, but also limits.  All the T-shirts, buttons and signs in the attic saved for their grandkids will look plain silly once he has signed compromise legislation that they do not like, or failed to move quickly on civil rights, or a federal minimum wage boost, or carbon emissions.  But today? None of that matters.  The Devil is faltering and they got him on the run.

Side note:  Let’s not confuse this for a paean for the common folk (I’d hate for it to be misunderstood as one).  But they’re the the center of gravity in this republic, like it or not.  And it’ll be just as true when I canvass tomorrow in Colorado Springs whose main cash crops are an Air Force base, Focus On The Family, and meth labs.  Or the well-off white suburbs in the surrounding counties that will go McCain regardless of his personal shortcomings on daily display, his poisionous pandering polemics, or his Glamosaurus Wrex of a running mate.

Second side note:  Elections, grass roots, majorities, minorities. Barbeque, red bull and yard signs.  Nothing that we don’t have in the Bay Area.  Is this place really that different? Hells, yes.

Voting is simple as soybeans, here in America. Lots of pieces. That’s all. Only overthinking that makes it look like something it ain’t.

Chapter 2:   The Archangel and the Disciples

Yesterday, midday, Barack Obama was in the house.

The volunteer meeting the night before drew 1,200 folks. That would be on a Saturday night at 8 PM.  Take that for commitment, Republican swine.  The training was all about getting the name of everyone who was going to attend the rally the following day and getting as many as possible to sign up for volunteer shifts.  Every volunteer at the meeting was supposed to try for twenty volunteers out of the rally crowd.  All thanks to Blair Miller for grabbing a spot on the press logistics detail (along with Roxanne and Jacob) and swoggling me onto it, as well.

You may have seen the photos. It was the largest campaign rally in the country, over 100,000 people.  They came, they behaved, they left. No muss, no fuss.  A special area was set aside in front of the rostrum for the disabled. Despite proximity to The Presence, those who arrived in wheelchairs were still in them on the way out.  The water bottle in my water was still water.  After his inauguration, I’ll expect more.

We press volunteers had the best spot in the house, bar none.  The Obama advance team were young, calm, cool with the volunteers (a rare quality for paid staff) and competent.  A few preliminary speakers, then the mayor of Denver, the governor of Colorado, the Democratic Senate Candidate Mark Udall, and finally, the Heavenly One.

These things are arranged for the cameras first and the crowd second.  Obama faced risers full of cameras across a small penned crowd while the teeming masses spread out in a fan off his ten o’clock.  He made a forceful address, a few new ripostes to the latest Mccain jabs, otherwise not much new.  Charisma and a sharply-tailored suit.  The wrap-up was a grabber, especially to those of us close enough to see him directly at short-range, but otherwise, a stump speech is a stump speech.

Candy Crowley, of CNN, seemed pretty cool.  Major Garrett of Fox, likewise.  My personal highlight: spending plenty of time with Don Ganyea.  All of you public radio geeks in the house will know him as the NPR White House correspondent since Truman or around then.  He is smart, personable as can be, and sees nothing out of the ordinary about hanging out with campaign volunteers and (fessin’ up, here) dedicated listeners. You should have seen Blair light up when she was introduced. She went all rosy.

Even this crew, veteran correspondents, were overwhelmed by the fervor that Obama inspires.  Don said that Kerry’s largest crowd was 60,000, and that was when Bruce Springsteen was on stage with him.  I took loads of photos with people’s cameras who were out of line-of-sight.  Their gratitude was sincere. This was more than a political candidate speaking – they wanted to be near Him, to tell their families and friends that they saw Him personally.  It’s hard, I tell you, not to believe.  My own photos from my iphone will be posted eventually, damn the lack of zoom.

Called eighty households later that day.  In their attempt to make sure everyone votes and, at the same time, avoid an Election Day crush, Colorado has set up a thorny system of early voting, mail-in ballots and polling places. Sunday night is fertile ground for phone banking, lots of people at home. The calls matter – I answered two questions that would likely have resulted in rejected mail-in ballots.  Obama should crush here, but nothing is certain, and now everything depends upon the Get Out The Vote effort. Without it, all the polls in the world will come to naught.  Mordor’s pall will spread over the land, the crops will fail, lights will dim and the dark will be renewed. Fear will rule the land.  You want that?  I didn’t think so.


Chapter 3:   Whose Side Are You On?

“Two years ago, a list of the nation’s brainiest cities was put together from Census Bureau reports — that is, cities with the highest percentage of college graduates, which is not the same as smart, of course.

These are vibrant, prosperous places where a knowledge economy and cool things to do after hours attract people from all over the country. Among the top 10, only two of those metro areas — Raleigh, N.C., and Lexington, Ky. — voted Republican in the 2004 presidential election.

This year, all 10 are likely to go Democratic. What’s more, with Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia now trending blue, Republicans stand to lose the nation’s 10 best-educated states as well.”  –  Timothy Egan, writing in the NYT.  Well, then.


Chapter 4:  In Which The Author Returns To The Fray

Back to the trenches.

from America, USA,   Jeff