lessons from America

More to be thankful for

I enjoy bringing in little slices of Americana into my blog.  And on Thanksgiving eve it seems apt to bring in a turkey-flavoured one.  As I write this in my study, to one side of me hangs a print of an iconic image: Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom from Want’.  A huge turkey is being brought to a table of happy, smiley people.  Read more about the significance of the picture here.  The picture was done as a wartime reminder of what people were fighting for.  To motivate the home front effort still further.  

Times have changed, but Thanksgiving traditions haven’t.  And neither has the need to fight against want, especially in a recession.   Which is where President-elect Obama comes in.  Earlier today he made a visit to a food bank on the south side of Chicago and helped give out groceries to people queuing up.  Yes, this was a symbolic visit.  But powerful symbolism.  Obama was at the head of the foodbank, just as (unlike Bush) he is putting himself at the head of efforts to turnaround the US economy, and push ahead with healthcare reform.  And his message about compassion and service to the community was very different from what Bush would likely have come out with.  As highlighted already on DailyKos, the pool report by Tom de Frank describes that when Obama was asked why he’d brought his daughters along, he replied: “I want them to learn the importance of how fortunate they are and to make sure they’re giving back.”  

Here’s more of a flavour of the event:.

The First Family-to-be were positioned at the start of the food line; their job was to hand out white plastic bags filled with fresh chicken. Recipients then moved down the line to receive bags of potatoes, apples, loaves of bread and large boxes of staples including macaroni and cheese, tomato sauce, peanut butter, canned corn, oatmeal, Miracle Whip, mixed fruit and other items.

Obama called out: “We’re ready, let’s go, bring ’em on in,” and the distribution began.

Clearly, those lining up for food hadn’t been told they had an importangt guest helping out. this day. Many of them lit up; some shrieked with delight and hugged one or more of the Obamas. One elderly woman bowed; all seemed very appreciative. One and all were greeted with handshakes, hugs, and hearty “Happy Thanksgivings.”

The daughters behaved like troopers for a half hour or so before the cold caught up with them, and they retired for a few minutes to warm up.

One sixty-something neighborhood resident named Daryel Namdan was asked how it felt to have Obama there. “It makes me feel very special,” he said, before choking up.After shaking hands with the food bank volunteers, he came over to the pool and had this to say:

“The number of people who are getting food this year is up 33%. It gives a sense times are tough – and I think that on Thanksgiving it’s important for us to remember there’s a need for support.

“These folks were already oftentimes having a tough time, and it gets tougher now.” He encouraged all Americans of means to help out however they could. “This is part of what Thanksgiving should be all about,” he said.

Asked why he’d brought his daughters along, he replied: “I want them to learn the importance of how fortunate they are and to make sure they’re giving back.”

Then the family walked into the basement auditorium of the school, where about 200 kids from several grades were seated on the floor. When the Obamas walked onto the stage just befofe noon, the kids went nuts, leaping to their feet and cheering. “How’s everybody doing?” he asked, coming down off the stage to mingle and inquire about their Thanksgiving plans.

Tom DeFrank
New York Daily News

November 27, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Journalists lost on the field of battle(ground)

Missouri has finally lost its bellwether status as the state which has voted for the election winner the most times in a row.  Pollsters had it as a toss-up (too close to call) throughout the race, and they got that spot on.  Indeed most polling companies had a reasonably good election, many political journalists and commentators fared less well.  Not because they predicted the wrong result, but because for many months they failed to accurately report the nature of the race or inform their audience of the most likely scenarios.  For reasons good and bad, the traditional media tended to report the election as very close; presenting the electoral data in such a way that it seemed Obama and McCain were neck-and-neck, and with a lot of states still in play. 

There’s a great piece on DailyKos about it.   To summarise, very few media-types were willing to take into account the effect of Obama’s ground game; his extraordinary ability – seen through the primaries – to motivate and mobilise a volunteer base and generate huge excitement for his campaign.  Take for example this Washington Post analysis from July:

It gives Obama and McCain virtually identical numbers of electoral college votes ‘safely’ in their column (168 vs 174), and a similar amount of votes considered ‘battleground’ (196).  Yet it was virtually inconceivable  even then that Obama would lose Michigan, New Jersey, Oregan, Minnesota or Wisconsin – states that had voted Democrat in the last 4 elections, but were considered ‘battleground’ by WaPo and others.  So automatically that is another 59 electoral college votes to Obama, and suddenly it doesn’t look so close anymore.  And that’s being kind and not counting Pennsylvania in that list.  In fact, in all those 6 seats not only did Obama win them comfortably – by double-digit margins – but as JedL points out “Obama’s margin of victory in battleground states was larger than it was in non-battlegrounds”.  And that was something that was being predicted from early on by those in the real know: the netroots community who were on the ground across the country, following (and being part of) the trends and calling it right.

 Jed L again:

“Showing Obama’s big advantage might not have been Fair & Balanced™, but so what? The point of reporting isn’t to be Fair & Balanced™. The point of reporting is to accurately present the truth.”

So there is a challenge for future election journalism.

PS.  It’s worth making a quick additional point.  Using the WaPo definition of a battleground state, it means only 16 out of 50 states were considered worth competing for.  So the rest, where nearly 2/3 of American voters live, were considered electorally irrelevant, or at least far less significant.  The presidential election – supposively the only national election in the US – does not live up to its billing in some respects.  Time for a change?

November 22, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A resident’s view of DC partying

On a night when the Cincinnati trio – Meghan, Lewis and myself – were reunited and the prospect of a mid-January trip to a certain political event became one step closer, it seems fitting to highlight this lively account of what it was like to be in Washington DC on election night. I don’t know the blogger personally, but it’s a great read:

” But, despite how much this election meant to me, maybe I had underestimated its force on a grand, uniting scale.  City-wide elebrations were inevitable, but what I was about to see would blow my mind. The moment Obama was crowned, (I mean announced), my friends and I ran out into the streets, along with everyone else in the neighboring bars. People were yelling and honking, but that’s any night in Adam’s Morgan.  I wasn’t surprised by anything until we rounded 18th onto U St. I didn’t know it was possible to simultaneously shout AND smile, (a huge, beaming ear-to-ear smile), but I saw it, and so I believe it. Cars rolled by and their drivers hung out of rolled-down windows, honking and cheering fanatically. Grown men skipped and bounced through a chain of never-ending high fives.  DC was speaking a new language– ecstatic bursts of song and shout and sugar-high glee.”

Continuing reading the account here.

November 22, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Obama oye – the celebrations still continue

First in Africa.  Kenya seems to be still in the grip of Obama-mania, from reports I’ve heard.  And why not? There is much to celebrate.  I also hope that the extremely popular “Obama – the musical” will transfer from its Nairobi home to London at some point.

In Rwanda, the day after the election also saw great scenes of jubiliation.  Some of those moments are captured on this video. 

What is most moving and significant on the footage is the re-emergence of a positive reaction to America and what it stands for.  That is the impact from day one of Obama’s victory, and it can’t be understated.  I was mocked, along with many others, for believing that the symbolism of his candidacy and the rhetoric of Obama’s message of hope and change was important, as well as the actual policies he might implement.  But the change in mood and perceptions that has been happened not just within a few African countries but throughout much of the world, indicates what can be achieved this way.

Here in the UK we are still feeling it too.  Over two weeks on from election day, I continue to proudly wear my Obama badges and my Obama hat. And people – especially London’s black community – continue to respond enthusiastically.  Every so often, I get an “O-bam-aaaaa!” cry as I walk past, or a compliment about the badges and sometimes a request for one.  I could have made some useful cash by buying a whole load of “yes we did”-type merchandise from the sellers outside Grant Park and flogging it here.  But that’s not my style. 

On Tuesday I attended an Obama victory party hosted by one of the main Obama UK meet-up groups.  I’d never been to one of their meetings or events before, so was a first-timer.  Over 30 people were there: a range of ages, nationalities and backgrounds.  Most were not politics nuts like me.  Some people had connections with America, or were American citizens themselves; but by no means a majority.  Among the people I chatted to were a guy from the Ivory Coast, a Labour party organiser from Stevenage, a woman from Missouri who had ran a local Obama campaign office there, a Bostonian performance artist with her English partner, and a retired couple who had gone out to North Carolina to do phone-canvassing and volunteer recruitment that final week of the campaign.  One woman had flown back to her native California so she could vote in person and just experience election day – and the result – firsthand.  There was even someone else who had been in Grant Park, Chicago for election night.  She had her prayers answered in the same way I had in Denver back in August – a ticket for the main event received at the last minute thanks to someone’s generosity.   As well as toasts to Obama, another part of the evening was for people to get up and tell their election stories to the group.  The event took on the air of a revivalist meeting, as one-by-one people (including myself) recounted their journies and emotional highs.  

Tomorrow (Friday), I meet up with Meghan for the first time since Chicago: to do a last bit of filming and no doubt to swap tales of UK responses to Obama’s victory.

November 21, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Dean on 60 (Senators) and 50 (State Strategy)

On a day when many Senate Democrats, by failing to sanction Joe Lieberman, gave a big ‘FU’ to the party activists and netroots who spilt blood, sweat, tears and dollars during the 2008 election cycle, it was heartening to see one senior Democratic politician show them a little of the respect they deserved. Howard Dean gave several phone interviews to bloggers and new media journalists, answering their questions in an honest, open and informative way; or rather as best as he could considering his role was still to defend the indefensible.  Read the full interview and comments here, or Nate’s summary here.

Howard Dean is of course the architect of the 50 State Strategy, so it wasn’t a surprise to see the conversation turn eventually from Lieberman to this.  Nate reports Dean as saying:

 “The 50-state strategy is really an empowerment philosophy more than anything else. You can’t empower people in Utah or in Texas if you don’t show up there. Whatever I’m going to do next is based on empowerment and the 50-state strategy is an empowerment strategy.” Dean suggested that states such as Georgia and Texas might be attractive targets for Democrats at the presidential level in 2012. At the same time, Dean said, governance in a majority requires a different timbre than party-building.

November 19, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My DC political pilgrimage

It was has become something of a post-election tradition of mine, I spend a day walking along the Washington Mall: visiting monuments to past presidents and the current seats of political power; reflecting on the election results and what it means. 


This year was no exception.  Like last time, glorious sunshine accompanied my stroll through DC’s famous sites.  But unlike 2004, the political climate was substantially changed for the better.  Then I was coming to terms with the depressing reality of not just 4 more years of Bush, but extended Republican control of both Houses of Congress, and a Supreme Court that was likely to become more more conservative.  I was looking for glimmers of hope where ever I could.   This time, hope seemed to be radiating brightly: from the steps of the Lincoln Monument, all the way along the Mall, and even to the railings of the White House. 

And not just hope, but progressive activism too.

Overlooking the Reflecting Pool, on those famous steps, Avaaz had set up their boards for people to write their “yes we can” messages of goodwill to Obama and reminders of the global change that hopefully his victory will herald. 

Less than 3 days before, and apparently spontaneously (and without precedent), a crowd of over a thousand DC residents had gathered by the famous White House railings to celebrate Obama’s victory.  Now outside the White House, students were marching up and down the street calling for American foreign policy to be more proactive in halting genocide in Darfur.   And at the far end of the grassy Mall, by Capitol Hill, a ‘tent city’ had sprung up.  Again the issue was Darfur – which has far greater prominence than here in the UK; where the Aegis Trust and its student groups are some of the few who are very active on it.  These tents had been bought and decorated by groups across the US and were to be sent on to provide shelter for families in the Darfur refugee camps that have sprung up for those forced out of their homes and villages.


My pilgrimage was a restorative one.  It was also a chance to marvel at the historic achievement of Barack Obama and everyone who had supported him.  Everywhere I went, to slightly misquote Tony Blair, “the hand of history was on my shoulder”.  Here were the memorials to the great Presidents and one day Obama might join these figures. There were two really emotional moments for me.  The first was sitting on the Lincoln Memorial steps, close to the spot where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech.  The second was at the railings of the White House, thinking that shortly an intelligent guy, an inspirational speaker, a pluralist – and yes – a black man whose father was African, was about to become President and occupy this building, a seat of global power.  “Yes we can”. “Yes we did”. Indeed.

However, there was one thing that did trouble me on my trek through DC.  And it was the same in 04 too.  The Lincoln Memorial.  The secular, pluralist nature of my political pilgrimage clashes against the religious and authoritarian symbolism of the building.  The Memorial is treated as a  ‘holy of holies’, a venerated shrine, a temple.   You ascend these vast steps to pay homage to a towering figure seated on a throne.  Lincoln as god’s presence here on earth, it almost seemed to be saying.  The ultimate in (non)separation of church and state.  Try unpicking that one!  But the aspect that made me feel most uncomfortable is the hallowed, reverential atmosphere inside; the closed, dark interior; the relative lack of space (physical and metaphorical) or light for questioning, for different views. 

If the Lincoln Memorial seems to represent one major strand of America, then the Jefferson Memorial represents another.  A more democratic building in every sense: rounded; open on many sides; light streaming in; different paths, entrances and perspectives for people to take.  The building, and the words of Jefferson inside, convey and inspire the tolerance and pluralism of the nation. 


Fittingly, as the sunset over the unmistakeable DC skyline, my journey came to an end.

NB. A slideshow of all these photos and more can be viewed here

November 18, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, On the Campaign Trail | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Election Reflections 2004 – a view from my past

In the course of reflecting upon my post-08 election experiences, I came across an old article of mine.  I had written it back in November 2004, after my short trip (holiday rather than campaigning) to the US over the election period.  The article in full is below.  Some of the memories may be painful, but that defeat was for so many people – including me – a catalyst and a continued motivator for the political activism that has brought us to where we are now.  I’ll leave others to judge whether my words were at all prescient and prophetic, or just naive.  Irrespective, this piece shows some of the roots of my journey and thinking (and passion for covering the presidential election) that has come to fruition this year.  

‘Cause we made a promise we swore we’d always remember

No retreat, baby, no surrender
Blood brothers on a stormy night
With a vow to defend
No retreat, baby, no surrender        
(lyrics: Bruce Springsteen)


Listening again to a webcast of ‘The Boss’ singing the anthem to John Kerry’s campaign and then introducing the candidate to the 80,000 strong crowd in Madison, Wisconsin, takes me back to that place: five days to the election; “hope is on the way”; and I am standing somewhere towards the back of the rally fervently waving my Kerry-Edwards placard and trying desperately to believe. To believe in the candidate; to believe in the American people; to believe in a Kerry victory. After what happened last time, there could surely be “no retreat, no surrender”…. .

Until the first polls closed, the majority of people inside the packed bars on Capitol Hill were nervously optimistic. But, after a couple of hours of disappointing results, I began to see the flip-side to my decision to spend election night in a city that voted 90% Democrat. The only big cheer came when Barak Obama’s victory for the Illinois Senate seat was announced. There was genuine passion and support for Obama; possibly more so than for Kerry himself. When Bush was declared the winner in Florida, people started drifting out of the bar and those that remained became increasingly sombre. At a party organised by the Center for Voting and Democracy, the mood by this stage was decidedly flat – to such an extent that it was almost soporific. It was as though there had been a collective draining of energy at the realisation of the result. I wasn’t ready for defeat yet and went to a diner to continue watching the coverage. People were still looking at big TV screens, but much less intently now. For this numbness – an overwhelming sense of shock and disbelief as much as anything – had set in. One exception was a distraught college student, sobbing uncontrollably as her boyfriend tried to comfort her. She had been a Kerry activist, campaigning (to no avail) in Virginia for much of the past year. The rawness of the emotion was a reminder not just about the hard-fought nature and closeness of the campaign, but also about what seemed to be at stake.

My own personal quest to make sense of it all revolved around a pilgrimage through downtown Washington DC that I undertook over the following three days. First up was the Lincoln Memorial, bustling with visitors and school groups; all keen to have their photo taken next to the imposing figure of Lincoln, or on those famous steps. The Gettysburg Address is carved into the wall and the language and symbolism of both words and building is unmistakable: patriotism; strength; freedom through war; and invocations of God. This sacred place is seen by many Americans as the spiritual centre of their nation.

Next stop was the Jefferson Memorial. It may have only been a short and picturesque stroll around the Washington Basin, but it seemed much further away in terms of its current place in the identity and hearts of the population. There was virtually no one there, bar a few small groups of Japanese tourists. The location – overlooking the water and surrounded by trees – engendered a sense of tranquillity and suggested the prioritisation of thought and reflection over action. It was a conscious manifestation of Jefferson’s Enlightenment philosophy. Inside the Memorial, inscriptions and displays emphasised Jefferson’s belief in the quest for knowledge and “light” (reason); science and its advancement; and freedom through education and peace – all couched in more inclusive religious language. This Memorial, together with the Roosevelt one just along the bank, seemed to speak to a very different America than that which had voted Republican the previous day.

So there they were: the competing visions and legacies of Jefferson and Lincoln – the struggle for a nation’s identity. As a glance at a map of the electoral college results shows, there is a clear geographic dividing line between these two Americas. This split has much to do with the direction that people want their country to go in. One direction points towards the coasts and a more secular, socially liberal society and (post-)modern lifestyle. The other direction points towards the Bible Belt and a more faith-based, socially conservative society. Many Americans straddle the two. But this does not negate the central premise: McWorld or ‘the Word’ – where is the US heading? With Bush’s re-election the latter, at least in the domestic sphere, seems to be in the ascendancy.

However, my visit to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum – to view the original flag that inspired the composition of the national anthem – indicates that the country’s schism may not yet be critical. For patriotism (or what may be better described as nationalism, with all the negative traits that that term evokes) is still very strong in the US. It almost always has been, but now post-September 11th it is even more of a dominant and unifying force. The museum’s most prominently displayed exhibit was the huge flag that was erected on top of the still-smouldering Pentagon the day after it was attacked.

A few hundred metres away, one of the most recent additions to DC’s ‘museum-mile’ is located: the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Perhaps it is no surprise that the US and Israel have become even closer allies recently. For 9/11 has become, in purely psychological terms, akin to America’s Holocaust – an emotional scar; a potent part of the nation’s identity; and a key dynamic in its present and future paths. Yet, just as in Israel, the political climate that this has created has left many questions unanswered, or even not able to be asked, and has stunted discourse on foreign policy and patriotism. A ‘never again’ mentality has been adopted which seems to legitimise a more insular and zero-sum approach to politics, where the aims are above all to protect the interests of the State and the American people, often to the detriment of anyone else. Despite the efforts of the anti-war movement, it was only really with the emergence of Howard Dean and then John Kerry belatedly, that an alternate policy – one promoting a more multilateral worldview and consensual approach – reached the mainstream.

The final section of my pilgrimage took me to the outside (the gates, fences and other security-paraphernalia) of the three most politically hallowed sites: the Supreme Court, the Capitol Building and the White House. I had been to the latter on the eve of the election, but the “bye, bye, Bush” chants that I had heard then took on an added poignancy in my mind when I returned several days later. The election result may have shown a country divided 51:49, but all three branches of the government seem likely they will be under the increased control – or at least influence – of a highly partisan and ideological group of people.

I am particularly interested in the challenge of how to move US politics and public opinion back to the centre-ground and to a more socially liberal position. One possible game plan – inspired by Jefferson – is that Democrats / secular members of US society need to articulate their messages and politics in faith-based language, in order to be listened to and influence the mainstream (more religious) citizens. You have to be pragmatic, and somehow embrace the other, if you are to have any lasting impact on the country’s course. That is the challenge ahead.

Equally, I believe that the discourse from the campaign trail – the vociferous opposition to the US administration’s pro-corporate stance; elements of its domestic agenda; its aggressive conduct of foreign policy and its disregard for human rights and the environment – needs to continue. A number of the Americans I met on my trip were vowing to do so; and more will hopefully once they recover from the pain of defeat. That is my desire too. I may not have been confident of a Kerry victory, but I still did not spend much time envisaging a second Bush term; something I must now reluctantly accept. We must wait until 2008, if not longer, for a change of course. In the meantime, it is in our interests to help nurture effective alternatives to Republican policies and politicians; and also to support grass-roots movements in their work educating and empowering Americans. By doing so, and by remembering the importance of voting, we shall not have surrendered – no matter what happens during the next four years.

November 17, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America | , , , , | 1 Comment

Only in America

Coming to the end of my stash of candy hoarded from Halloween’s ‘Trick or Vote’ fun, I came across a packet of m&ms.  I was just savouring the first few, when I noticed a sticky note attached to the back of the wrapper. 

Halloween candy with a message

….. only in America.

Obviously one of the households in suburban Cincinnati which I had been canvassing that Halloween night wanted kids (or their accompanying parents) to go away thinking about higher matter than ghosts and gobstoppers.

November 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Accounting for the slow voting and counting

Hooray, I feel over the worst of the jet lag.  Never had it so bad, but then I don’t normally have such a crazy schedule and lack of sleep on ‘holiday’.  So after a few days of quiet from me and my blog, I’m back in business.  

And happily, this election isn’t over.  Missouri hasn’t been officially declared yet (though McCain will win it and the state’s totemic ‘bellweather’ status will shrink).  But the big news is the big 60 is still theoretically on for the Democrats in the Senate.  Al Franken and Norm Coleman are locked in an almighty battle for Minnesota’s Senate seat, with a recount virtually guaranteed given the 200-odd votes separating them.  The Alaskan Senate seat is also going the distance, but is even more remarkable; with long-time incumbent, convicted felon and race leader Ted Stevens seeing his narrow lead completely disappear and go into the negative as more votes are counted.  And there will be a run-off for the Georgia Senate seat in December, as it has finally been confirmed that Republican Saxby Chamblis did not gain 50%+ that was needed to won the seat outright.

In my many conversations with people since returning to London, it is clear that one of the things we Brits have trouble fathoming out is why the way US citizens vote and how those votes are counted is so problematic, slow and open to partisan challenges.  We get upset – and the media in frenzied fits of hysteria and pique – when the results aren’t known within a few hours; when there have been technical difficulties with voting machines and some ballot paper confusion (Scotland 2007); or when the count doesn’t start til the next day and a pleasingly high turnout makes the process take longer and carry on late into the night (London 2008). 

There are four aspects I want to comment on: (i) the voting lines on election day (ii) State differences (iii) post-election counting (iv) the continued role of parties and money.  This post will deal with the first one, and I’ll return to others later.

First up those queues.  Listening to election day coverage on the car radio on the drive up to Chicago was a surreal experience.  It was like dial-to-dial traffic reports; except it wasn’t traffic hotspots that were being broadcast, it was polling station queues and reported problems.  CNN and other major networks set up hotlines that you could call; and most of interviews throughout the day were done with people on location at some of the trouble spots.  My favourite reports came from Virginia and the Carolinas, where along with other more serious issues, they encountered problems caused by damp ballot papers jamming the machine.  Apparently, it was raining outside and drips of water were falling from voters’ faces, hands or clothing onto the ballot paper and the machines couldn’t cope. 

However, this election day voter disenfranchisement was a dog which didn’t bark – at least not as vociferously as had been expected.  There were ridicuously long lines in some places, and voters in a few areas had to wait 6-8 hours.  And that isn’t acceptable.  And there will undoubtedly have been a few places where the distribution of polling stations and voting equipment was purposely gerrymandered to unfairly disadvantage the other side – usually that means not enough resources in African-American or other high density, low income neighbourhoods.  And if there had been a close result nationwide, some of the reported problems might have received much further scrutiny. 

Yet it should be remembered there was no meltdown. As far as I am aware, no counties had to take emergency action and extend polling hours to cope, as happened in several states during the Democratic Primaries.  Part of this is attributable to the unprecedented rush for early voting (in those states that allowed it), which relieved the pressure to some extent on 4 November.  Ironically, it was often those people most worried by election day problems that had the longest queues, as they – and many of their neighbours – early voted.   Lawmakers are so impressed by the success of these early voting initiatives that there is a prediction they will encourage all states to bring in some form of it for 2012.  The other reason for the lower level of problems was probably because of all the hard work, on-the-ground organising and observing put in to making voting fairer. See ProjectVote for more.

The other factor to bear in mind, which is news to a lot of Brits, is that long voting lines doesn’t need to signify a ‘third world’ (I hate that term) democracy – at least not in a negative connation.  It doesn’t have to mean that the US is some hapless banana republic when it comes to electoral administration, though there are room for many major improvements.  Neither does it have to mean that American citizens are imbued with a civic delight and an enthusiasm to vote irrespective of the hardships of waiting in line for hours akin to those uplifting scenes in post-Apartheid South Africa.  Though this year, for this election, that actually did feel an appropriate analogy; especially looking at the faces of those who were in the queue at my polling station well before the doors opened. 

One key reason for the lines, and one we don’t realise, is just that the process of voting takes a lot longer than it does here.  It’s those lengthy ballots, voting not just for president, senator and congressman, but for local politicians, judges, sheriffs and varied other elected positions. And then often a range of statewide and local ballot initiatives (referendum) too.  Democracy takes time.  At least several more minutes per voter.  And then it is often not just a case of going in, making a couple of pencil marks, folding up the ballot paper and depositing it in a box, as we are used to.  Voters may have to scan their filled in ballot paper through the machine, ensure that is done right, then deposit the paper version in a box.  All this takes time, slows down the number of voters that can be processed through the polling station, and can easily and quickly result in queues building up.

November 14, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, Uncategorized | , , , | 2 Comments

Ground game gains

I haven’t yet had a chance to search for turnout figures state-by-state and to look at whether battleground states had noticeably higher turnout (or experienced a greater % increase in turnout since 2004) compared to non-competitive states.  However, what I have found is a neat post on 538 using exit polling to analyse in swing states whether the side which contacted the most voters won. 

The upshot: yes, the ground game is important and is one of the factors why Obama did so well in certain states. Of the 12 battleground states polled, in all but West Virgina more people had been contacted by the Obama campaign than the McCain campaign.  And of the 12, Obama only lost in West Virginia and Missouri (just). 

Nevada, Colorado and Indiana were all places where Obama actually did much better than polls had predicted.  These were states with by far the highest reported gap between people being contacted by Obama campaigners and McCain campaigners.  Conversely, in West Virginia and Wisconsin there was the smallest margin between voter contacts and Obama did less well there than polls would have suggested.

Nate offers some good interpretations of the data:

“Wisconsin was also relatively close, perhaps because Obama redirected its legion number of Illinois-based volunteers from Wisconsin to Indiana a couple of weeks in advance of the election.”

“Although Obama’s field operation was good, Kerry’s was pretty good too; the difference [this eledtion] may be that while Bush’s field operation was also good, John McCain’s was not.”

“It is possible that Obama’s field operation was more efficient than Kerry’s, as the contact rate gap was larger in battleground than in non-battleground states. I have heard multiple stories of voters in states like Indiana receiving as many as three or four in-person contacts from the Obama campaign on Tuesday. This is a sign of a campaign that knew where the tipping points were, rather than (say) sending volunteers to Michigan on Election Day just to play it safe.”

So putting resources into local organising and gotv activities does work.  But Nate’s final point also shows the limits of a 50 State Strategy when push-comes-to-shove in the closing days of a campaign. The choices still have to be made and under a winner-takes-all system it mitigates against pushing for every last vote in places you are likely to win anyway.

One additional comment from Nate worth mentioning, as it helps explain why Democrats (and the same could be said of the Labour Party) need to work extra hard each election on gotv efforts: 

“Democrats are in fact relying upon lower-propensity voters like youth and minorities. Therefore, it is more incumbent upon the Democrats to have a strong ground game to turn these voters out.”

November 10, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , | Leave a comment