"Who was the most miserable person in the Olympics this year?" asked former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk of the assembled hundreds at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gardens on Sunday afternoon in Raleigh, North Carolina. "It's the guy who thought he had the race won, and he lost by one one-hundredths of a second to Michael Phelps!" Kirk exclaimed. "We gotta be Michael Phelps!" The crowd roared in reply.
Three cast members from The Wire -- the greatest show in television history (tied with Deadwood) -- next took the stage. A fiery Sonja Sohn told the large crowd, "When you look at The Wire, you see how institutions fail." Passionately, she advocated for Barack Obama because, in her view, he was the candidate who would not continue to ignore those who fall through the cracks. "He said to me, 'I am my brother's keeper,' y'all!" Sohn reminded the crowd.
Seth Gilliam, who had to follow Sohn's powerful address, had a simple but clear message about the importance of voting and the importance of persuasion: "If you don't vote, who will? No one! Who knows your mother like you? No one! Who knows your father like you? No one!" If you do not act, or make an effort to influence the world around you, he urged, nobody will act in your stead.
The thoughtful and soft-spoken Gbenga Akinnagbe went last, and had a personal observation shared with us offstage about his experience with the British health care system decried in a recent dispatch by Republican volunteer David Goldman. He'd recently sprained an ankle, and the U.S. citizen merely waited an hour on a busy Saturday night in London. He was treated for free, "and all they wanted was my name."
At the conclusion of the rally, the mass throng marched the three-quarters of a mile from the park to the nearby community center's early voting location. Cars honked in support, drivers waved, marchers waved signs, sang and even danced their way to the polls. The feeling was that of celebration and purpose. As voters voted and left the polls, the adjacent baseball field filled up with picnickers. Loudspeakers played music as a raft of hot dogs hit the giant grill. It was a stunningly blue, warm Sunday afternoon, and the party was on.
As is our usual custom, we stopped into the state headquarters for both campaigns, in Raleigh. We went to the Republican HQ first, and as we suspected, it was almost entirely empty of workers. The large room holding many tables of sophisticated phones had two lonely women sitting together making dials. It was Saturday in the early evening, with college football playing on the dial room's TV. Georgia comfortably led LSU in a game the Bulldogs eventually won.
No communications people were there to talk to, but what was there to say about the ground effort? With ten days to go in a pure tossup state, two dialers? In the HQ? What comment could spin that?
The Democratic HQ across town was much busier. When Republican offices are empty and shutting down, 7:30 pm in an Obama HQ or field office is only just past the halfway point of the workday. In one large wing of the building, the Voter Protection group huddled away. Amid alarming reports that many early voters were submitting ballots with straight party votes but NOT votes for president, as that is a separate part of the ballot (reports ranged from 25,000 to 100,000 such votes cast in the early going, an worrisome number), the team concentrated on making sure the word would be spread throughout election offices.
(At all three early voting locations we visited while in the state, we heard election officials emphasizing to voters this discrepancy, so we're optimistic that the education is happening. Still, this is a design flaw that bears watching, as North Carolina is going to have some very close races this year.)
When did Republicans realize North Carolina was a real battleground, we asked Paul Cox, North Carolina Deputy Communications Director for Barack Obama. He chuckled and said it was probably when former Republican presidential nominee and husband of Senate incumbent Elizabeth Dole was quoted at a Greensboro rally as saying John McCain had better come to the state if he wanted to win.
With only a short time to go, the Obama campaign is tightening up with information and statistics, and most of our questions for numbers were met with referrals to already-published newspaper stories. Still, when asked what kinds of numbers the data-obsessed field teams were seeing in the early voting precinct-by-precinct statistics, Cox said "in terms of the early vote, we feel very comfortably that we're in a good position."
While there was no way to predict a win, Cox gave off the vibe of a man who was liking what he saw in the numbers. With more votes cast already at the halfway point than in all of 2004, and registered Democrats holding a huge double-digit lead in those ballots, the campaign here is already in full fledged GOTV mode.
"Election Day started last Thursday," Cox pointed out. The work of Obama's 50 Campaign for Change offices around the state is paying off. "We had a fairly critical mass" of offices and organizers back in late July. Echoing Obama campaign officials and volunteers from coast to coast, Cox noted that "the primary was a huge boon for us, just a huge organizational boon."
The closeness of the state, and the thousands of volunteers that now operate out of the once-bedroom community of a place like Cary, NC, Cox noted, "is a testament to demographic changes in North Carolina. Explosive growth has brought in more progressive voters."
Even where Obama has no field offices, there are dedicated cores of volunteers everywhere in the state. Citing mountainous Avery County in the far western region of the state, Cox noted that while there wasn't an office, there was a dedicated "Change Crew," the North Carolina twist on "Neighborhood Team Leaders." This core of volunteers is solid and motivated, he said, and they meet every week to plan an agenda, make phone calls from home, and make outreach to their neighbors on behalf of Obama.
"We're reaching communities never reached by a (Democratic) presidential campaign," said Cox. This allows the campaign to effectively focus on "sporadic" Democratic voters, a term we've heard in office after office after office across the nation. Any sporadic Democratic voter has probably heard multiple times from this campaign, especially if he or she lives in a battleground state.
North Carolina Republicans did not return multiple invitations for comment.
Now I have a confession. Even Brett doesn't know this. I hope it doesn't lessen the professional work we're trying to accomplish in chronicling this historic election on the ground, but if it does, I'll live with it. There is something stirring in America.
Back at the rally, after the march had left MLK Gardens, I'd gone back for the car while Brett took photos, and I spotted a very old black man in a sharp Sunday suit walking slowly at the very back of the huge march. He hadn't yet arrived at the voting center, and I decided to find him when I got back.
I wanted to go talk to him, to ask him what this moment meant to him. He was a guy who you take one glance at, and know, that guy's seen it all. I wanted a quote. I had my journalist hat on. I thought, this will be great.
So when I got back to the voting location with the car, I went to find him in the line. Eventually I spotted him, and was ready to walk up the few feet between us and introduce myself when I stopped in my tracks.
A young black boy, no more than eight years old, walked up to this man, who was at least eighty. The boy offered the man a sticker, probably an "I Voted" sticker, but I couldn't see. The man took the sticker and paused. Silently, he looked down at the boy, who was looking back up at the man. The man put his hand gently on the boy's head, and I saw his eyes glisten.
I didn't ask the man for a quote. I didn't need to. I walked over by myself, behind the community center, and I sat down on a bench next to the track, and wept.