Nov 03 2008

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Democracy in Action

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Duffy has put his money where his keyboard is and volunteered for McCain-Palin ‘08  in these closing days of the campaign in all important Northern Virginia.  The state will be won or lost in the counties of Fairfax, Prince William and Loudon.  For some, these may not be familiar names, but they will be on election night as commentators parse the vote here where the election may hinge.

For those of you who have never actually volunteered for a campaign, I strongly suggest that you do, regardless of your political affiliations.

Away from polls and pundits, from the ads and strategy sessions, this is the true nuts and bolts of democracy; reaching out to fellow citizens, one on one. In a society that in increasingly personalized and isolated through computers and iPods, you touch a larger community of shared ideals, make new friends, share a common cause and participate in something that is larger than any one person.  It is surprisingly fun and satisfying.

Saturday, John McCain held a rally in Springfield, Virginia, in Fairfax County, one of the “ground zeros” for campaign outreach. By pre-arrangement, I met with other volunteer leaders at 530am at the rally site. It was 36 degrees and pitch black, and to my surprise, there were already volunteers on the scene, waiting for instructions.  By 7am there were well over a hundred volunteers, lingering, waiting for team leaders to direct groups to carry out all the details that make a rally a success, from directing parking, accommodating the press, and smoothly moving thousands of supporters into the facility.

Virginia polling has been erratic and bleak for McCain, but you wouldn’t know that from the people who began standing in line at 6am for the doors to open at 9.  Most came dressed in red, symbolic of keeping historically Republican Virginia as a Red state.
Most wore some form of McCain gear – hats, T-shirts or stickers-buttons.  The “I am Joe” – in reference to Joe the plumber – was very popular. Families brought children and the air was festive.

As I was one of those charged with looking after the press, I had a chance to listen in on a host of “man in the street” interviews ahead of the actual rally. The folks at the rally varied widely in background and income.  But all seemed well informed, without sounding like a pundit with Party talking points. One Canadian reporter seemed genuinely perplexed about how anyone could support Sarah Palin, and he was treated to a series of feisty and informative answers.

McCain was slightly late for the rally, having just completed one in the southern part of VA.  Local politicians entertained the audience. Senator John Warner, who is retiring after a distinguished career in the Senate was on hand, as were a series of lesser luminaries.

What had started as a cold and blustery morning turned into a beautiful day with extra mild weather, and sunshine.

The crowd knew that McCain was coming from the roar of the motorcycles of the police escort. When the Straight Talk Express pulled in, the crowd went wild. The sound system played the theme song to “Rocky”. The roar grew louder when McCain, accompanied by his wife Cindy, daughter Meghan and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stepped off the bus and onto the platform.

Mrs. McCain made remarks and Senator Graham revved the crowd with some red meat, telling the audience not to believe the polls or media that had the election over.  The crowd spontaneously turned on the press corps that was standing directly in front of Senator McCain and started chanting, “Tell the truth, Tell the Truth!”

Finally, Graham introduced the Republican nominee.

I was only 50 feet or so away from McCain. He looked energized, feeding on the enthusiasm from the crowd, despite a very packed schedule. When he spoke, it was a fairly standard stump speech that for those of us who follow the race closely had heard before, with exhortations to get the vote out.  The applause lines still rang true.

If there was one word to sum up the event, and the GOP faithful in general, it was determination. None of the multitudes I talked with believes this will be an easy election, in Virginia or the nation at large. All know the odds.

But each of the folks believed that McCain was the superior candidate and that an individual vote could make a difference.   That is why they waited in the cold for hours to see McCain and show their support. That is why they volunteer for the Get Out the Vote effort, to make calls or knock doors.  The walk-in volunteers continue.  Out of the blue, people come in for an hour or two to make calls or knock doors. Win or lose, these folks have no intention of giving up until the polls close.  It is that kind of energy and enthusiasm that makes this part of the democratic process so exciting.

Yesterday was a 100 door, door-knock for me. Building off the Bush operation from ’04, the McCain camp is very targeted in its voter outreach, with teams given precise lists of houses to contact, with likely winnable GOP votes.  Many weren’t home.  Some didn’t like being interrupted in the middle of football.  Some had already voted and were glad to see the ground troops out. Others were wary, declining to say who they would support.  And yes, there were a few who were genuinely undecided. One woman in particular said she had just been on line comparing the two tickets and their positions and was having a difficult time choosing.  She was even undecided on which issues were important to her.

The last days of a campaign are humbling. After two years of having pollsters, pundits and commentators, tell us by the tools of fund raising or registrations or organization who is up or down, or who is going to win, you suddenly realize that it’s all in the hands of individual voters, the “ultimate boss.”  It is at this time that voters get the attention and respect they deserve from both campaigns.

On one call I made, a voluble woman expressed her confidence in McCain winning Virginia.  “I’ve been living and voting from the same place for 40 years,” she said, “and in that time I’ve never once talked to a pollster.” They were wrong last time and I don’t see why they should be right now.”

As Virginia is a battleground state for the first time in more than 40 years, the barrage of phone calls and door knocks is disconcerting to many.  More than one voter pleaded to be taken off the call list.  Another gentleman threatened to vote third party if he received one more call from either of the two camps.

And my own participation has been balanced by the work of the Obama campaign. They have been no less vigilant in reaching out to voters. In my very “blue” Arlington County, I’ve been door-knocked by the Obama people twice.

They are exceedingly polite, prepared not only to ask for a vote, but to provide information on any Obama position. They seem to all where matching Obama gear. When I stopped them before they got into full narrative to say that I will be voting for McCain, they stop, pause, smile and say thank you and have a nice day.

Each time they have come, I have thanked them for their efforts, as they turn to leave.  That while I don’t support their candidate, I do think their enthusiasm and participation is part of the vitality of our country.  I normally get a surprised, “thank you” in return.

That is all by way of saying that democracy is not a spectator sport. It thrives and survives on the efforts of its citizens to bring energy, fresh ideas, and honored values to public discourse. So find the local office of the candidate you support.  Make a call, knock a door, drop a flier, talk to a neighbor. Stand up and be counted.

Who wins the election matters.  Doing your part to ensure a thriving democratic process matters more.  And you won’t be sorry you did.


  1. Gertrude

    A wonderful job. Super helpful ifnomrtaion.

    1. duffysoa

      glad you liked it. please come back often.

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