SixFifty

lessons from America

The man behind the news

Hunter and Tyler are cool guys and great hosts.  When I was in Denver in August, I was invited to have dinner with Tyler’s parents.  This time it was Hunter who suggested we have dinner with his folks.  I had briefly met them in a bar the previous night, but the loud music prevented real conversation.  So I was excited to get the opportunity to chat properly to them.  Doubly excited because Hunter’s dad is Ernie Bjorkman, a very well known and highly respected local TV news anchor in Denver.

The hospitality and the conversation were both fantastic last Sunday, and I learnt a lot.  Amongst the many things we talked about, two points that Ernie mentioned that really stood were:

1) This parallels between Jimmy Carter’s candidacy in 1976 and Obama’s now: the outsider status; the running outside / against Washington to the same extent; the optimism of the message; the calmness from the candidate; and the heights of passion and energy of the activists.  Certainly, ordinary people hadn’t been as fired up since the 1976 campaign.

2) The difficulty in keeping journalists reporting the presidential race in as completely balanced and fair way as possible.  This wasn’t necessarily because of any inherent bias or sloppy reporting. Instead – as Ernie described it in his news room – the younger journalists especially were more likely to get swept up in the rhetoric and huge crowds of the Obama campaign and so lose their objectivity.  He was the one who had to sometimes rein them back in and ensure the balanced reporting that was expected of the news team.

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October 31, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , | Leave a comment

An early vote for Obama

When I was in Denver, I fulfilled a long-held ambition …..

Sadly – and to clarify – no, I did not vote.  This isn’t my ballot paper and nor did I get to fill it in (despite asking very nicely).  This Denver ballor paper belongs to Hunter, who showed it to me over the weekend; before he completed it and early voted in a polling station near his work. 

My ambition though had been to see an actual ballot paper close-up and just get a sense of it.  You can read the instructions as to how to fill it out, and also the beginning of the list of presidential candidates in the state of Colorado, by clicking on each of the photos below.

  

The ballot paper starts with the presidential race, then the Senate, then the local Congressional one.  And then the countless local council races and locally elected positions, like judge.  And that’s just on the first ballot paper ….

As modelled by Hunter below, there are in fact two large ballot papers for the voter to fill in.  

The second ballot paper is for the ballot initiatives – the referendum on specific measures amending the local/state constitution or mandating the local authority in charge to do something or spend money in a certain way. 

Despite the fact that I am about to stump for one of these ballot initiatives, I have my scepticisms.  Especially in a presidential race as hard fought and epoch-making as this one, local issues rarely get any kind of prominence or generate wide debate.  Voters often will not know much about what the candidates stand for; or even who they are.  And these initiatives often (and the Cincinnati one is a happy exception) end up being exceedingly negative; with the campaigns trading negative adverts and mud being flown everywhichway.  It doens’t have to be like this.  But as things stand I’m not sure what good it might do to export this ballot paper featue – and the strand of greater direct democracy it entails – to the UK.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, On the Campaign Trail | , , , , | 3 Comments

Gunning for the same side

Here in Cincinnati, the first political ad that came on the TV was an anti-Obama one about gun ownership / control.  It was paid for by the National Rifle Association – the organisation headed until recently by Charlton “you can wrench this gun from me over my cold, dead body” Heston.  It shows the fascinating prioritisation of issues in Ohio rather than the more liberal big cities of Denver and Minneapolis I’ve been to. 

However, there is a danger – as Obama found out to his cost with a remark in the primaries of “guns and bibles” that was spun and taken out of context – that you can unfairly stereotype based on views of gun ownership.

The first house I went to after arriving in Denver was of Stephen, a friend of Tyler’s, who comes from Maine and recently moved out west.  Stephen is a proud gun owner.  So proud he showed the guns off to me over dinner.   He has a rifle and a small gun (don’t ask me what type).

I felt quite uncomfortable with the closeness of these weapons and the way they were being so nonchalently handled.  I thankfully avoided having to do my own pose with them.  It just isn’t part of my culture.  But I do have to admit there at the same time I was a tiny bit fascinated by the guns. 

For Stephen, it is all very different.  He grew up in Maine hunting and using guns. And he sees having a gun in his home as a necessary element of personal protection, without having to rely on the cops who might not get there in time (his rationale). 

However, both of us are Obama supporters and on the progressive side of politics.  We share other values and political beliefs too.  Just not the gun thing.  An instructive lesson for me, and one that will no doubt be useful in my interactions with people in Ohio.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America | , , | 1 Comment

Oh me, Oh my, Ohio

It’s Thursday evening so I must be in …. Ohio.  Just flown into Cincinnati airport.  For the pedants amongst you, the airport is actually just across the river, in Kentucky, so actually I haven’t yet set foot in the state of Ohio.  But I will very shortly. I am making use of the free wifi – that’s a first in a US airport, certainly that I’ve experienced.  And Meghan has just arrived, video camera in hand.  And so it starts: that added dimension to my trip of fliming, as well as a welcome and fun travelling companion and fellow political animal. 

Incidentally, I don’t know whether its my Obama buttons, my British passport, something on my immigration file (my days as a G8 summit protestor are behind me, honest guv) or the fact I booked my flight in the UK, but each of the two Northwestern flights I’ve flown have included a little excursion beforehand at the security point to have my bags and myself additionally checked.  They’ve been swabbing all my electrical equipment and testing it (for chemical residues of explosives perhaps).  They’ve also given me some lovely pat downs.  Thankfully no strip searches yet.  And I can’t really complain: it’s only a minor inconvenience.  And I’ve had friends much worse treated when flying into Israel.  

While I recover from my flight and Meghan from her long drive from Pennsylvania here, a ‘ballot measure 8’ meet up is happening on the other side of Cincinnati.  A chance I believe for students and first time voters to find out more about the electoral reform ballot initiative here in the city.  My colleague Lewis has just flown in from London and is fighting back jetlag to be there, so I should get a report of that later.  It’s all going on actually tonight, as Swing Semester Cincinnati (the same cooll outfit that I spent time with in Denver) are hosting a film night later.  They are going to be watching a special documentary on the Florida recount fiasco of 2000.  Very apposite to Ohio’s own ballot problems of 2004.  Hopefully they won’t encounter more of the same this time, but I guess it pays to be prepared.  Moreover, it is a great way to fire up activists, should they be flagging in these final days of the campaign. 

So expect more from both the ballot initiative and Swing Semester in the coming days, as I get stuck in to both.  Though tomorrow morning I have a more prosaic challenge: trying to find any kind of costume for Halloween and the ‘Trick or Vote’ fun in the evening.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , , | Leave a comment

A volunteer’s view of an Obama rally

Lightening does strike twice.  Denver has now been the venue for two record-breaking Obama events: the first the nomination acceptance at Inveso stadium, and now Sunday’s campaign rally which attracted a staggering 100,000 people.  And I have been there both times.   For the Convention I was part of the audience.  This time I was that, plus – along with a thousand others – an event volunteer as well.

We gathered in our designated group at 8am and were given our final instructions.  We were tasked with being some of the first points of contact rally-goers would have, as the made their way towards the park and the back of the queue to get in.  

  

The aim was to give everyone “sign in slips” to complete as their ‘ticket’ to get in.  But this wasn’t just a passive data gathering exercise, though it served that purpose too.  But it went further.  The idea was to engage people in a conversation and encourage them to sign up as volunteers for the campaign: willing to door knock and phone bank in the final week of the election, and – preferably – to take some or all of election day off to help with the crucial Get-Out-The-Vote activities. 

That wasn’t even the end of the key messages we were asked to get across.  For this event was primarily a push for people to early vote.  Colorado opens up certain designated polling stations the week before election day, and allows its citizens to vote in any of these locations in their county.  We had lists of early voting places in Denver County to give out to locals.  Moreover – and this is the really clever bit – a government office (the William Webb building) was open that Sunday, including the hours after the rally, just one block from the civic park where Obama was speaking.  So it was also a case of letting people know they could early vote straight after the rally, when they were all fired up.

 

So those were my tasks from 8am til about 11am.  I did have a short break and wandered along some of the ever-growing lines of people waiting expectantly and excitedly to get in to the rally site. 

 

And along with the crowds of supporters, inevitably there were people trying to promote various local / state ballot initiatives and also a handful of anti-Obama protestors. 

 

By 10.30am capacity had already been reached and so people were spilling over into any available spots. I took the chance to walk up to the State Capitol building, which was the highest point nearby and offered a great view of the crowds gathered below.  Numbers of people were taking advantage of its position and were viewing the rally from there, even if Obama must have only been a tiny dot to them.

  

At 11.30am all the volunteers gathered again at our original meeting spot and made our way over to a special entrance where we could still get access to the event.  Security was tight, with airport-style scanners and even things like apples and other items that could potentially be lobbed at Obama were conviscated on entry.   On the plus side, it gave me ample opportunity to chat with fellow volunteers in the queue – including one woman who was really putting her heart and soul (and virtually every waking minute) into the campaign; and a veteran who was proudly wearing a ‘Republicans for Obama’ t-shirt and happily defied sterotyping.

 

It was taking so long to get us through, that the last groups of volunteers – myself included – only just made it into the park in time for Obama’s entrance.  And for the first few minutes of his speech I was stuck miles from the main stage, unable to make my way through to the area reserved for campaign volunteers.  Some of the other volunteers were cursing the disorganisation of the campaign at that point and it was very frustrating. 

Thankfully, though, everything worked out and we were able to make our way much closer to where Obama was speaking.  So I ended up having a much better view of proceedings than I had done that night in the stadium at the Convention.

  

Obama’s speech itself was – by his standards – fairly perfunctory.  There were some longer segments on the economy, but otherwise it was a standard stump speech.  I guess I had the luxury of having heard him live at the Convention.  My favourites parts of his speech at this rally were his riff on “there are no red states or blue states, only the united states of america” and an emotional bit towards the end giving some historical context to Obama’s candidacy and welcoming new generations and new immigrants to these shores.  And he gave his useful powerful closing lines, rallying the army of footsoldiers and voters stretched out before him. 

(NB. You can see the short clips I took of parts of his speech here)

As to be expected, there was plenty of cheering and shouting both during Obama’s speech, and immediately afterwards … which was all happily lapped up by the media.

 

As the crowds started dispersing, I wanted my own mementos of the day; of having been there for another historic occasion.  So cue some cheesy shots:

   

My thanks goes to the two girls who took some of those photos of me, and whose placard I borrowed.

Exiting the park, my duties done, there were other more energetic and hard-working volunteers who were doing that all important task: signing the way to the early voting polling station and encouraging people to make that few minute detour to do vote there and then.  I gave the sign-holders a deeply felt “keep up the good work” type comment, as I was impressed at their stamina and enthusiasm after such an early start to our volunteering day.  

 

October 30, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , , | 2 Comments

Reimagining the west

I’ve just spent a long weekend in the mountain west.  Denver and its immediate environs aren’t really typical of the rest of Colorado or the other western states, but I got some kind of snapshot of politics in an area trending more Democratic; or at least purple.  Colorado has a Democratic Governor and a Democratic Senator (hopefully soon two).  Brian Schweitzer, Dave Freudenthal, Bill Ritter, Janet Napolitano, and Bill Richardson are all Governors of western states.  Likewise Jon Tester, Max Baucus, Ken Salazar, Jeff Bingaman, Harry Reid and Ben Nelson are Democratic Senators, serving rural, western constituencies.

However, the perception amongst the media and voters is quite different.  As reported in a Daily Kos post earlier this month:

“Far too many voters out here in the middle, they’ve just come to accept without question that they and their neighbors are all Republicans, that their own senator or governor is just an anomaly, and that Democrats have been utterly irrelevant to their lives. The Democrats are those people out on the fringes (literally, on the coasts) of the country. Slowly, and increasingly, Democratic candidates across the region are working to change that mindset.”

The Democrats, because of past policies and strategies and personnel, have been portrayed as the party of urbanites, as opposed to the party of the rural west. As the Daily Kos article explains:

“It all came down to the Democrats wanting to take away your guns and your land to give it to some kind of bird or something that nobody had ever heard of. Once those beliefs about Democrats had been established, the rest was easy. Democrats were portrayed as only caring about urban America, and worse, wanting to impose “urban values” on the rest of the country.

The way the national Democrats, pre-Howard Dean and the 50 state strategy, approached the region left little for a Democrat out here to hang on to.  … Along the way, the Democrats that live in some places out here, who have lived out here all along, lost heart. They stopped meeting, stopped talking to each other, forgot that other Democrats even existed. They didn’t dare talk about politics in public settings. This was true even in the Clinton years, when prosperity reigned.

Since Schweitzer’s 2004 election, the purple has been spreading, and with it a growing conversation that reminds people that they don’t have to be a Republican. It’s a conversation spurred by having someone like Gary Trauner showing up on your doorstep. By having someone from the Scott Kleeb campaign call to ask what you’re concerned about in this election. By having a presidential candidate actually come to your state.”

The energetic campaigns in Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada are reminding people who might not have seen a Democrat in decades that we don’t have horns and forked tails. And that we might just have some good ideas on how to fix the mess that one-party rule has gotten us into.”

We’ve had the same problems in the UK: where the Labour party is sometimes seen as as the party of metropolitan areas and the (former) industrial heartlands, and the Conservatives are the party of the rural and outer suburban areas.  And it can be very hard to change perceptions, even when the facts on the ground aren’t so black or white (or red and blue rather).   But the right candidates and the right strategy – and even the right kind of voting system – can have a real effect: the electoral map can be re-imagined.

October 30, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana irrelevant no more

Somewhere just beyond the Rustbelt and not quite to the corn fields of Iowa lie a proud and peaceful people: the Hoosiers.  They have suffered and been ignored for a long time.  And they have taken this with quiet dignity. Until now they have taken the logical path of resignation and acceptance of their fate.  It is not in their character to be like some of their more noisy neighbours or even subscribe to the Todd Palin school of secessionist thought.  All they want is a bit of love and attention; a good listener; someone who is willing to put in some investment of time and money to show that they are serious in wanting their votes.   And it appears that finally, this year, they have found that one.  

Or to put it in slightly a less whimsical fashion:

“One noteworthy feature of Indiana is that it has had rather low turnout in recent elections, perhaps because neither party has really bothered to campaign there. As such, likely voter models which are rooted in past voting history may be unreliable. And according to Tom Jensen, Obama has a 68-24 lead among voters who did not cast a ballot in 2004. These are the sorts of statistics that the Obama campaign is looking at, and they’re why they remain very engaged in the Hoosier State.”  (Nate on 538:)

Chalk up one for the 50 State Strategy. Indiana is just further evidence of that old adage: uncompetitive elections and/or taking voters for granted often leads to lower turnout.  Where as competitive elections and/or actively pouring resources into campaigning and getting out the vote encourages higher turnout. Obviously we still await election day itself and the results to bear this out. So Hoosiers, it’s over to you ….

October 30, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , , | Leave a comment

Minneapolis quick update

I’m sitting in a cafe taking a quick break from phone-banking.  Did three hours this morning and my next shift is starting in a couple of minutes.   I’m based in the Minneapolis downtown Obama office and its busy: maybe 20-25 people plus more coming and going.  There’s a dedicated call centre a few blocks away, but there’s a wider variety of activities in the office I’m in.  I’ve been put to work calling older people (more likely to be in during the day) to ensure they know where their local polling station is and to encourage them to vote not just for Obama but also for Al Franken for Senate and Keith Ellison for Congress.  I’ll update on my progress later.  And on the positive reactions I’ve got from other Obama volunteers.

October 29, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , | 2 Comments

The view from Virginia

I can’t cover all 50 States on my trip, as much as I’d want to.  So instead I’ve enlisted a few people to offer their outsider perspectives on the election where they are.  We heard first up from Pennylsvania. Tonight is Virgina”s turn. I’ve just received a report from a friend from London who is over on the Eastern Seaboard keeping an eye on matters election-related.  This is his personal take on Virginia, one of the key battleground states:

“I can report that the Democrats are cautiously optimistic about winning the state for the first time since the 1960s. I visited one of their phone banks in Richmond and it was totally buzzing with activity and everyone was up and motivated, and there were even a bunch of Malcolm wannabes from the UK volunteering their assistance instead of having a proper holiday. The Republicans on the other hand were less co-operative and wouldn’t talk to me.”

“I was really surprised to learn that when you register to vote you also register your party affiliation (which in most states enable you to vote in the primaries). Doesn’t that mean everyone will know how you’re going to vote? I can just imagine the outraged phone calls now. The Tunbridge Wells telephone exchange would never cope.” 

“In Virginia all voting will be on touch screen voting machines or optical scan ballot papers. The voting machines look really modern and impressive. I must say I’m coming round to the voting machines if they have proper security. Unfortunately they won’t let you spoil your ballot paper so you can’t scrawl all over it which is a real shame in my book. Virginia has banned any new purchases of them so eventually they will be phased out.”

October 29, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy, Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

A global message to Americans

One of the organisations that has best utilised the Dean (and now Obama) campaigning lessons on using the internet and mobilising activists has been Avaaz.org.  As their website states, they are “a new global web movement with a simple democratic mission: to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want. ”

They have produced a short video clip which explains the importance of the election to the rest of the world, and why people around the globe like America and want it to play a positive role in world affairs / issues.

When I initially received an email about the video and the accompanying petition, I was sceptical about how this ad might be perceived in the US.  Another ‘Guardian letter-writing in Cook County, Ohio’ episode was my first thought.  But I am more reassured having read the email fully and seen this explanation Avaaz offers:

US Avaaz members have asked for this help. The ad doesn’t tell people who to vote for, but its overriding message of tolerance, diplomacy, human rights and equality is unmistakable. If the ad hits the media airwaves, it will reach the nation’s undecided voters just as they are starting to tune in, and are determining which issues will underpin their vote.

I am yet to be convinced that their idea – of making it a global youtube hit that the US media will report on and a million or more American voters will watch – will actually work.  I hope it does, and I’ve signed the petition too.  But the video does make the case more eloquently and visually appealing than I could ever do about non-Americans’ motivations for taking an interest in these elections and the hope for a better relationship with the US ahead.

October 29, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, the world wants obama | , | Leave a comment