Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Historic Election

Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?

As simplistic as my simulation was, I trusted it when it told me that Pennsylvania would be important. So I got in touch with the campaign and they assigned me to volunteer in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, about 3 hours' drive from New York City. I drove there on the Saturday night before the election, stayed in a hotel, and spent Sunday canvassing. I drove back to New York for work on Monday morning, and then on Monday night I drove back to Wilkes-Barre to get out the vote on election day.

On election night I celebrated with the campaign staff, then drove home at midnight for work on Wednesday. It was a tiring span of days, but a fascinating and thrilling experience.

The campaign headquarters in Wilkes-Barre looked like you'd expect it to look, with donut boxes here and there and campaign literature piled high in the corners. Cheap gray carpeting receded in the sickly light of exposed fluorescents. There were two inflatable mattresses in the office, and a lived-in smell that said they got used.

Two of the volunteers had British accents. This struck me as curious, and after playing it cool for most of the day, I finally asked, "So, how do you come to be in Wilkes-Barre?" It turned out they were Londoners. Two months earlier, they had relocated to small-town America specifically to help elect Barack Obama.

On Sunday there were as many as 20 out-of-state volunteers, most of us from Manhattan. On Tuesday, far fewer people took the day off work, and that left a lot of work to do on election day.


I was standing before a screen door with my knuckles poised to knock, but I wasn't knocking. First of all, the screen door had no screen, and this confused me momentarily; second of all, there was an argument going on inside the house, and I sensed I should wait for a lull before I knocked.

A lull. I knocked. The inner door swung open, and a woman turned to me and said (through the nonexistent screen):

"HE says he's going to raise taxes!"

The way she took the pronouns for granted, it was as if I'd been standing in the room all along, refereeing the argument like

I made firm eye contact (tricky; she was cross-eyed) and said, "Not on you and me, ma'am." Half-true anyway, I thought. And today I'm rounding up.

She was tall, chubby, blonde, young, gap-toothed, and pretty.

"HE says" (more playfully now) "he's a foreigner!"

The eye contact had evidently made an impression. (Maybe too much of an impression? How much of this was HE picking up on, I wondered?)

I shook my head slowly - slowly enough to maintain eye contact. "No ma'am. No ma'am. He's an American."

I felt she was ready to tip. I held out my campaign flyer. "Please vote today. Obama for America." She took it with a smile and shut the door.


The man on my list was out in the street working on a white Pontiac Trans Am, circa 1977. Nice car. A stereo on the porch played "Don't Stop Believin'." Awesome song. The upraised hood blocked my view of the man himself. As I walked into his field of view, he said, "Keep that stuff. Give it to somebody needs convincing. If he doesn't win, we're all doomed."

Maybe this state is going to come through after all.


Plains, Pennsylvania; county of Luzerne.

My canvassing partner looks as if he belongs in this neighborhood. He's wearing Carhartt pants, a flannel shirt, and a ball cap that says "No Beer, No Work." He has a rugged, sunburned complexion and a Carolinas accent.

This is not so much a neighborhood as it is a settlement. Or an outpost. At any rate, here we are, in the swampy foothills of the Appalachian mountain chain. All the names on my list are Irish. It's mid-afternoon, and kids are walking home from school, clambering over the slightly raised railroad track that evidently leads to a school building I never saw.

The town of Plains was settled as a "patch." Patches were small mining towns affiliated with particular coal mines. Sometimes patches were entirely owned by the mining company: general store, scrip, all of that. In Plains, we're standing in the heart of Pennsylvania's anthracite Coal Country. Mining operations declined precipitously in this region in the 1950's, partly due to the Knox Mine Disaster which took place in nearby Jenkins Township.

Patch towns were usually just three or four hundred people settled near the mine. Today, our assignment in Plains is twenty or thirty sagging wooden homes and a few grimy apartments lining three or four paved and unpaved roads. I have no idea what people do here for a living. The town is so small it resembles a movie set, and as my partner and I walk down the center of the street watching grey curtains drawn aside in the windows, we feel a little like we're walking towards high noon.

The kids have made their way home and mostly that's who we talk to. At one house, two little girls tell me excitedly that their mom has voted for Obama today. "Great!" I answer. Then I glance at the house next door, which is full of McCain-Palin signs. Two little boys, 9 or 10 years of age, are standing on the porch giving me the finger.

When I meet up with my partner to leave, he says, "Did you see the one in the tank top leaning out the window?" We turn the corner and there she is, waiting for us to come by again. She shouts and waves, and she's leaning out the window like she knows how to lean out a window. We wave and laugh and head back to the car. On the way to the car, I see a house with a green sign in the window: O'Bama 2008. The apostrophe is a shamrock.


The end of the night is a mad dash to drag people to the polls before they close at 8pm. It is long past dark, and we've been given tiny plastic flashlights to help us read our lists.

Most of the people I speak to have already voted, and some are seriously angry at being hounded yet again. A few simply close the door with a dour shake of their heads.

In some cases the people I'm speaking to don't support Obama, but instinct tells me they have stayed home today and not voted against him either. I'm beginning to feel optimistic.


By 8pm, everybody had returned to campaign headquarters in Wilke-Barre. We were standing in a group watching MSNBC on somebody's computer screen. By then, Obama had won only three electoral votes, and McCain was ahead. So far, no surprises. Then, just a few minutes after 8:00, NBC called Pennsylvania for Obama. We did it! A cheer went up, and everybody started hugging and even crying.

At that point I quickly set up my computer and re-ran my simulation to assess the new state of play. That morning, the probability of victory had stood at only 58% - down from the 70% figure a week earlier because of a tightening of the polls. Even worse, in the morning's simulation, the second most likely state scenario was actually a McCain victory. However, feeding in the new information about which states had been called for the two candidates, I computed the new probability of victory as 78%, with the nine most likely state scenarios being victories for Obama. Pennsylvania looked to be a dagger in the heart of the McCain campaign.

In the new simulation, Iowa emerged as the next crucial battleground, and interestingly, just a few minutes after Pennsylvania was called for Obama, the national campaign texted the Wilkes-Barre staff to say that we should now be calling voters in Iowa to get out the vote. (The polls in Iowa were open until 10pm.)

I leafed through the Iowa cities in my printout until I found Marshalltown, near where I used to live back in 2004. At that time, a lot of Mexican immigrants were living in Marshalltown, working on nearby farms and hog-processing plants. So to prioritize, I looked for Mexican names and started calling them. On my first call, a woman picked up and said:


Shit! She only speaks Spanish! "Ah. Si. Mmm, puedo, hablar, con Maria, por favor?"

"Si, momento"


"Uh, por favor, señora, por favor vote(?) usted por Obama, hoy? Antes del diez?"

(Laughing) "Si, gracias, ciao señor."

Fortunately, there wasn't much time to make calls to Iowa. Soon New Hampshire became the first Bush '04 state to flip, and when Ohio flipped it was pretty much over.

At that point, the group made its way to a neighborhood bar, where we celebrated the victory. I was told that the Wilkes-Barre team's mission had been not only to win the county, but to turn it decisively back to the Democratic party. This they did: the tally from Luzerne County was almost 70-30 for Obama. I may have been right about Obama doubters staying home.

At 11 or 12 o'clock I finally got back on the road. Driving through the night with the radio on, I listened to McCain's thoughtful concession speech, and then came Obama's victory speech. It was tremendous, and audacious, drawing a line across history through three points: Lincoln. King. Obama. Several times I enthusiastically took my hands off the wheel to clap, not even realizing what I was doing. My only disappointment was that Obama relied so heavily on the words of Lincoln and King, without introducing any memorable poetry of his own.

When I stopped at a gas station in a small Pennsylvania town, teenagers were zooming through the parking lot whooping and waving to me with shouts of "OBAMA!". When I returned to the city at 2am, Union Square was a giant party.


My last stop in Wilkes-Barre had been at the local Denny's, where I fueled up for the drive home with some steak and eggs. While eating, I spoke with Rebecca and a couple of friends who had worked hard for Obama's victory. I also texted with an African American friend in California. Americans en masse had finally made the ultimate overture to him, and I sensed rather than read, in the constrained messages filling up my phone's two-inch screen, that my friend's relationship to his country will never be the same. And that shift, multiplied a millionfold, in turn means that our country itself will never be the same.


Anonymous said...

just reading this and you probably should have been a writer rather than a physicist. . .

JasonZimba said...

Thanks! --J