Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Campaign Trail Mix

Manchester, NH* - Greetings from the Hillary Clinton campaign trail in New Hampshire where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, the children above average, and reality is whatever you want it to be at any given hour. Being embedded deep in the ground (or on the ground, as the case may be) here in the Granite State I’ve been going door to door, making phone calls, and eating as much food as possible that’s being thrown my way all in the name of helping to sway those undecided Democrats and independent voters that Hillary is their candidate for President.

In my first few hours after arriving, I knocked on doors and was told by weary residents that they had had enough solicitations for the day and couldn’t talk to me. I knocked on doors and was promptly informed that the voter I was there to see had passed away (and therefore would not be voting for Hillary). I knocked on doors and was surprised that the majority of folks who were home actually welcomed me with a warm smile and an invitation to explain why I think Hillary is the candidate to vote for.

My second morning began with a rude wake up call at 7AM when myself and a group of 10 Hillary volunteers were out-represented and out-shouted by a group of at least 10 times as many Obama supporters rallying behind Diane Sawyer from Good Morning America. It’s a good thing that candidates aren’t elected by Nielsen ratings.

After that my day was a blur of more canvassing – traipsing around Manchester and its suburbs in melting snow to reach out to Clinton supporters and undecided voters alike. And then came an evening of surreal politics. On my first night I had befriended a group of like-aged volunteers, who it turns out were Chelsea Clinton's close friends. They invited me to a young professional’s event to convince undecided voters they should vote for Hillary. An hour later I found myself seated next to Mayor Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, a rising political star (and well-known for, um, some unpolitical activities) on my left, and Terry McAuliffe, former chair of the DNC, on my right, having two separate conversations with them at once. I also met an undecided voter, still undecided with 12 hours ‘till the polls opened despite having been wooed by all the candidates for months. After speaking to him for a few minutes I asked Mayor V to chat with him while I went and got the Mayor a beer. Thirty minutes later they were still talking (and the beer was finished) and they only stopped because we were on to Hillary’s final rally before the big day.

Traveling with Chelsea's friends and Bill Clinton’s personal assistant has its advantages, including getting to bypass traffic to get to the rally, and heading straight into the auditorium through the back entrance and right onto the stage where Hillary would be talking. After Hillary's energizing speech before a few thousand supporters (given while I waived my sign, danced, nodded, did the mambo and generally had a good time in the background), I walked backstage to wait to meet Hillary, Bill & Chelsea capping a pretty much perfect evening.

But of course, the evening hadn’t ended – it had just begun. Back to the campaign office I went, and to my status as just another volunteer, to work until 1:30AM getting things ready for Election Day. Three hours later I was back, the big day finally having arrived and with no time to waste to make sure voters got to the polls to vote for Hillary. By 5AM Hillary volunteers were dispatched throughout New Hampshire like newspaper deliverymen, hanging signs on peoples’ doors reminding them to vote. 4 hours later I was out knocking on doors reminding people personally to get to the polls, and later in the afternoon I was at the polls, holding signs and talking to undecided voters who had to make a decision in the 100 or so feet it took for them to get from my sign to the voting booth. And then from there it was a race to the last town with the polls still open - 30 minutes outside of Manchester - to knock on a few more doors because we heard that the race was closer than expected and every single vote counted.

At last, the polls were closed and the counting had begun, and after two hours of keeping ourselves occupied with music from Hillary's rally CD played on repeat and interspersed cheers of H-I-L-L-A-R-Y we were slapping high fives, hugging, dancing, cheering and clapping when the networks called the race for our candidate, even though she had been considered out for the count by the media only a couple of hours ago.

In my three days in New Hampshire, I know I made a difference. I know that people chose who to vote for based on our interactions. The undecided voter I had met at the bar the previous night was at the election night party and came to me to tell me he finally made his decision to vote for Hillary on his way to the polls in the morning after reflecting on our conversation the previous evening and on how Mayor V was so passionate about Hillary that he ignored everything else just to talk with him for so long. I found out that one town I had canvassed just that day to remind people to vote had voted in Hillary’s favor by a mere 16 votes. And the single mother who I spoke with at the polls who had to be younger than me with a child on Medicaid and health insurance that she was about to lose voted for Hillary after our conversation.

I also know I played a part in something bigger - the "movement for change" coined by Obama but an apt description of Hillary's campaign as well. It could also be called simply democracy at work. Together, Hillary and Obama's teams (along with some good weather) inspired a record turnout at the New Hampshire polls. My efforts along with the thousands of other volunteers who descended on New Hampshire the last few weeks led to a healthy debate of ideas and discussion as to who should lead our country next, with only minimal digging into the barrel of dirty and negative politics on both sides of the aisle.

Coming from a state (Maryland or New York, take your pick) that typically has much less say in the nomination process than New Hampshire, I’m amazed at how politics here play out as we imagine they should. The candidates’ roll up their sleeves and put out their hands and become accessible to people so politically unconnected that they couldn’t get a legislator’s third deputy secretary to bat an eye in their direction if this were Washington D.C. Small armies of paid staff and volunteers go door to door and phone call to phone call trying to persuade each individual voter that their vote counts; and everyone acts with a mission and sense of purpose that they’re involved with something bigger than themselves. It certainly makes me wonder whether it’s fair that a small percentage of voters in the early primary states get to experience the wonderful phenomenon of democracy at work to the exclusion of other states in the Union.

And now it's back to New York City where I have a pile of school work waiting for me along with a bed that sounds a whole lot more inviting. Exhausted. Exhilarated.

*This posting was written mostly in New Hampshire and edited upon my return