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Kevin's Election Night 2012

The excitement of being a freshman at Northwestern wasn't enough. The half a dozen extra curricular activities weren't enough. Kevin was moving to Chicago in a presidential election year and as November 6th approached he was increasingly worried that it might all happen without him.

Kevin wanted a ticket to the election night celebration so he began by trying to discover if he had any connections. When those connections dried up he took matters into his own hands.

The campaign was looking for volunteers to help get out the vote in neighboring Wisconsin. In exchange they promised he may qualify for a ticket to the election eve party.

On the Saturday before the election before dawn he walked the mile or so to the meeting place at Ryan Field. He boarded a bus for Madison Wisconsin and was instantly hooked on campaign politics.

Being a part of the ground game was impressive. The organization and sophistication was apparent to this first-time volunteer.

He was one of only 8 students from Northwestern that filled four 50-person buses. In route they were given extensive training about how to approach the people on the list. Kevin was given a clipboard with names as well as questions to ask each person contacted.

His clipboard had names of Obama supporters and he was armed with information about their polling place, polling hours, Election Day registration rules and even questions about whether a voter had to show an ID.

When they arrived in Madison they were broken up into teams of five. They were given a campaign car, with a campaign cell phone, a campaign gas card and a schedule. They were given campaign snacks and every step of the way was carefully mapped out.

Kevin would knock on a door, confirm that he was talking to the person on his list and then he would ask who they were voting for. If they said Obama he went into action. If they didn't he smiled and wished them well and moved on.

Most people were very friendly and very committed to voting. All but a handful were willing to share their voting plans that included local candidates as well. Some assured him that nothing could keep them away from the voting booth the following Tuesday. The most common response he got was, "you can count on me."

After a full morning of walking the streets they reconvened in the center of town to enjoy a fully catered lunch before getting new assignments and new papers for the clipboards for a second shift.

Kevin didn't return until late Saturday night. He felt confident that this swing state would go for the president. Apparently the campaign wasn't willing to rest on Kevin's assurances alone. The following day Obama visited the state bringing Bruce Springsteen along with him.

Kevin did secure an invitation to President Obama's election night party in McCormick Place in downtown Chicago. He hooked up with a couple of other freshman who had also gone to Wisconsin and arrived at 6:30 in order to secure a good position. After checking their coats they were directed to join a long line in a holding room. He was told that the people at the front of the line had arrived at 2:30 that afternoon.

Eventually the line started to move and they all proceeded into the convention center's main room after passing through security.

The stage sat alone in what initially looked like a giant empty warehouse. They poked their heads in the Obama Store, grabbed a quick bite to eat but quickly realized that they needed to stake out their space. The center floor around the stage was reserved for "special guests." Kevin was only a "guest" which meant that he was held to the perimeter. While this might have impacted his potential TV time, he was plenty close and liked his position. In fact his position was near a long line of televisions. It became obvious that the best seats in the house were reserved for the hundred plus TV cameras.

From their spot they could see reporters doing their stand up reports and they watched an interview with Chicago Mayor and former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel. They passed the time by watching the election coverage which was projected on two big screens positioned overhead. The screens showed six different channels but unfortunately no audio. Instead they blared patriotic music and a lot of country songs for most of the night. The music was upbeat and it certainly did its job to keep the crowd energized throughout the night.

Without the audio, however, they couldn't hear the analysis and had to rely on the TV graphics to figure out what was happening. Every once in a while they would turn up the CNN sound.

Eventually the returns started to come in and every time they saw news that favored Obama or another Democrat, the room would erupt. At one point a state was projected for Romney and then everyone booed. When one of the networks called Pennsylvania for Obama we felt it might be an early night. Then they called Wisconsin (that felt particularly good) and Iowa and the night started to pick up steam.

They stared intently at Ohio willing it to turn blue. As they waited sometimes they would cut away from the news feeds and show videos with highlights from the campaign trail from the last couple of weeks. At 10:15 local time NBC was the first to call Ohio and the election for Obama. No surprise, everyone went absolutely crazy. People were high-fiving and hugging (including some security guards) and proceeded to start dancing to the music which was turned up a couple notches.

Now there was just one thing left to do—await the president's arrival.

I figured it was going to be a short night because the election was called relatively early but apparently Romney was willing to accept the network projections because it would be more than two hours before Romney emerged and Obama's appearance didn't begin until after 1 in the morning.

As every hour went by the room became more and more crowded. The crowd also kept inching forward and jockeying for the best view of the podium. We were in great position at the front of the guest section. At this point we could barely move. There was no leaving our spot because it would have been impossible to return. As time went on they became confused about what was taking so long. With no sound on the TV screens they had no idea at what point Romney actually conceded. People started to get tired and very thirsty (water was provided out in the lobby but no one dared move). They also had very little access to the outside world because everyone was competing for limited cell phone connections. So no text messages, but Kevin was able to call both his mom and dad to give a live reporting of what it was like.

At one point they noticed that they were letting some regular guests into the middle section that had earlier been limited to special guests, so they took a risk and made a dash for that entrance. But, by the time we got there it was closed it off again. That forced them to traverse back through the crowd to their old spot having to endure more than a few glaring looks.

Finally Romney appeared on the screens to give what may have been his shortest speech of the campaign. While waiting for Obama, a handful of people fainted. By the end of the night they realized that they stood for six and a half hours with no bathroom or water breaks.

The screens switched to more campaign videos, and they knew they were getting close when staffers passed out American flags, and turned the music up a few notches. They were trying to keep everyone awake and energized despite the advancing hour. Then a stage hand emerged to attach the presidential seal to the front of the podium.

By the time the president emerged the crowd had certainly lost a bit of bounce to its step, but nevertheless, they managed to rally for such an historic moment. The president seemed a little tired as well, but like the crowd he dug deep and found new energy with the powerful content of his speech.

Kevin and virtually everyone else raised their phones into the air to capture the moment. Once he finished the music came back on (after a noticeable silent minute) and the confetti shot out of the cannons blanketing the entire middle section.

Kevin wrote, "I don't think I'll forget that image with the confetti falling down and the President and his family waving to the crowd in the middle of the stage. I can't imagine what the room would have been like if we'd lost, but the jubilation and excitement that filled that convention hall throughout the night made me more excited about politics. It was awesome being able to strike up a conversation over politics with the person next to you or behind you and talk about the returns, or what they did to earn their ticket. As we made our way back out, and somehow managed to snatch a taxi after waiting in coat check for a while, I reflected a little and knew that I definitely want to continue to stay involved in politics and have an impact. As I now set my sites on hopefully attending the Inauguration on MLK day, it's hard to stop myself from wondering what role I'll play in 2016."

November 6, 2012

© Greg Harris, 2012

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