Fall Break on the Campaign Trail
The tireless Woos who braved a hurricane to get out the vote in Ohio.
As an international student it might seem kind of strange that I spent fall break in Ohio working on a US presidential Get Out the Vote campaign. As a few people in my class remarked, it wasn’t as if I was going to personally get anything out of the results (other than maybe some left over bumper stickers), but as someone who has always followed US politics (thanks to “The West Wing”) this seemed like a great chance to see politics at the grassroots level.
Our trip out to Ohio didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts. At the last minute we were moved from volunteering in Columbus to Cleveland – based on how close polling was and the needs of the campaign. That was kind of a drop in the ocean compared to the fact that our departure morning was October 30th – the day Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey. Undeterred, we drove through a beautiful mix of torrential rain and gusting wind at 5AM toward the Buckeye State.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cleveland other than that I hoped to avoid any Drew Carey sightings. The city has the uneasy tension of a place coming to terms with the changes America’s economy has experienced over the last decade. The leaden skies and driving rain matched the mood of a city that seemed a little worn out.
In total thirteen Princeton students came to Cleveland, and their diverse experience reflected our class as a whole pretty well. In my car alone we had a former labor union leader, an NSC director, and someone who had worked on democratic support during the Arab Spring.
As a non-US citizen I wasn’t really sure if I’d be allowed loose on the streets of Cleveland to knock on doors. It seemed kind of anathema that some Irish guy should be telling Americans how to vote in a presidential election. Luckily for me, not too many people wanted to get out and knock doors while freezing sleet came down.
In terms of seeing democracy at its most elemental, canvassing was pretty amazing. I’ve spent the last few years working as an international election observer and it was really interesting to meet Americans who were extremely open in talking about what their country means to them, and what they need from their president. The hospitality of people was impressive, and many residents invited us into their homes out of the rain. One of our luckier teams even got homemade cookies.
Working with our local and out of state volunteers was also a hugely rewarding experience. Some of our elderly canvassers could barely walk without assistance but were still out on the streets in terrible weather knocking doors because they wanted to see progress in their community. Our out-of-state volunteers were truly tireless, and a particular mention has to go from our team from Columbia University, who knocked thousands of doors over three days – even going back to a neighborhood where police had been chasing a gunman.
Two things truly stuck out for me from our time in Ohio. The first was being lucky enough to be on the national conference call with President Obama on the car ride back to Princeton. Hearing the president tear up as he thanked the campaign staff was a powerful moment, and a real vindication that what everyone who worked so hard on the campaign had achieved. We were only there for two weeks, but for a lot of the campaign staff this journey has spanned years of their lives.
The second was the level of camaraderie, work ethic and community within the campaign staff. I have rarely seen a group of strangers work so hard, give so much for each other and keep smiles on their faces despite such extreme working hours. By the end everyone was dog-tired but people still managed to dig deeper and work harder. Whether that was a classmate doing her midterm at four in the morning as she fielded Get Out The Vote calls from all over the city, or small acts of kindness like driving out to rescue a stranded classmate whose car battery died.
Fall Break wasn’t really a break, and a lot of us came back more tired than when we left, but none of us would have done things differently. Seeing people with such vast reserves of experience devote themselves so fully to envelope stuffing, sticker counting and phone banking made me realize how privileged I am to be surrounded by people who truly live public service. Two months into the program with a group of people who’d never met each other before, it felt like a watershed moment for our class. After all, everybody has to fall asleep brushing their teeth at least once in their life.
Article written by Peter Blair
Over the last few years Peter has worked in the West Bank, Guinea-Conakry, Côte d’Ivoire and also Atlanta, GA (mostly with the Carter Center) on a mix of election observation and conflict resolution. Most recently he served as the Observer Project Coordinator for The Carter Center in Nepal, dealing with everything from security coordination to team bowling. Outside of work he loves playing guitar, football (soccer), squash and golf. He is also a big US sports fan and can be found rooting for the Braves and the Pats.