“Are you sure you don’t want to vote?” It was 7:05 p.m. on Election Day and my friend Crissie was making a last-minute phone call from the local Democratic party headquarters to plead with David, a 20-year-old resident of Lancaster, Ohio, to get to the polls. “I know, we’re all really tired. But this election is really, really important and what happens in Ohio is going to decide it.”
David had just returned from a long day at school, and said he was just too tired to vote, even though he supported Barack Obama. He even declined the campaign’s offer of a ride.
My friend Matteen and I were in the field office sitting on the couch next to Crissie, along with about 20 other volunteers making similar calls to hundreds of potential Obama supporters in the final minutes of voting.
“Let’s just go to his house and pick him up anyway,” Matteen said, glancing around the room full of tired volunteers. Without a second thought, he and I jumped up. Moments later, we were tearing through the streets of Lancaster in a rented green minivan with an Obama-Biden placard masking-taped to its side door. A local teenage volunteer rode shotgun, guiding us through the dark streets to David’s house, whose address we had from the voter rolls.
I knocked on the door of David’s back-alley apartment, but no answer came. I called his phone from my cell. No one picked up. In only 15 minutes, David’s dwindling opportunity to vote would be a long-gone memory.
The race to get David to vote was the final effort of a weekend-long push to make sure every Obama supporter in the area had made it to the polls. For the last three days, after making the 11-hour drive from New York City, our cadre of eight current and former SIPA students and several other New Yorkers had relentlessly pounded the pavement in Lancaster and other towns in southeast Fairfield County, Ohio — a former Republican stronghold — to canvass for the Democratic candidate for president. With the help of local organizers, we had knocked on thousands of doors. We talked to 92-year-old matriarchs, 18-year-old high school students, young parents and recent retirees. We walked through subdivisions with seas of McCain-Palin lawn signs, trying to motivate islands of hesitant Obama supporters. On the Appalachian fringes of the county, we searched for Obama voters on dirt roads that wound through coves where confederate flags hung in the windows of single-wide trailers.
It was a weekend of not turning back, of going the extra step to approach the places most unlikely to house Obama supporters.
To be sure, there were disappointments. There was the woman who told Matteen she “just can’t trust a Muslim.” There were the provocateurs who came by the campaign headquarters the night before the election and hurled racist slurs.
But more than anything, there were the rewarding moments that showed Obama had real support, in a town where everyone goes to church and the population is 97.4 percent white. There was the young farmer on a rural route who had a giant Obama sign in his yard, and gave an encouraging thumbs up from the seat of his tractor. Or the woman with a country drawl who hadn’t voted in 20 years, but said this time she was going to the polls for Obama. Or the elderly woman I called on Tuesday evening to check that she had voted. She had.
“I’m just so excited about Obama,” she said. “I’m just a-waitin’ on the results, sittin’ on pins and needles.”
Those interactions spurred us on to make sure that every Obama vote in town was cast.
So rather than accepting defeat as we waited outside David’s silent apartment, we tried one last tactic.
“Hey David!” Matteen yelled, with the familiarity of a long-time friend.
There was a pause, and a noise deep within the house. Finally, a reluctant response.
“Come on, bud, we’re here to take you to the polls,” Matteen shouted. “You only got a couple minutes left to vote.”
Soon David shuffled out with a sheepish look on his face. A tall fellow with braces, he wore sweats and white plastic slippers.
“Ah, OK. Let’s go, man.”
We careened to his polling place, and convinced the poll workers to hold the door open for one last voter — it was 7:29.
When he was finished, David grinned and gave me a firm handshake. It was the first time he ever voted.
It was only one vote, but it was a moment that epitomized the grass-roots basis of Obama’s campaign. Thousands of volunteers throughout Fairfield County, the state of Ohio and beyond had made similar efforts again and again. One and two voters at a time, they had turned Lancaster into a battleground. They won Ohio, and they won America.
So as a mix of local and out-of-state volunteers at a Lancaster sports bar watched the first black President of the United States take the stage on the night of November 4, 2008, tears flowed freely and glasses were raised because, as Obama said, we were the ones who had put him there.
“Above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to — it belongs to you,” Obama said at Grant Park in Chicago.
For once, from Lancaster to Los Angeles, from Albuquerque to Albany, we felt that there really was one America.