Tuesday 4 November 2008

Election Day Special: Letter from America: Kirsty Callaghan

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The world's media might have decamped to the US for today's election, but at Containing Multitudes, we have our own roving reporters. AMS student Kirsty Callaghan is in Florida for the election, and she sent us back this first-hand account of the Obama campaign in Kissimee:
Yard signs dot neighbourhoods, campaign ads fill commercial breaks, news schedules are filled with stories of candidates’ state-hopping and polling data. The election is well and truly upon us.

Tuesday will see voters electing candidates to a number of positions, with a ballot paper that can take up to ten minutes to complete. The electorate will also decide on Amendment 2 to the state’s constitution, similar to California’s Proposition 8, which would define marriage only as between one man and one woman. If the amendment achieves the support of sixty percent of voters, it will become part of the Constitution of Florida.

Despite the plethora of positions to be filled - members of Congress, local Sheriffs and Supervisors of Elections - it is unsurprising that the Presidential race is the most discussed and debated. Here in Florida, one of the 'battleground states', the outcome is of particular interest. Florida is one of a handful of states for which the result is not already a largely foregone conclusion (although polling in even some of the traditionally strongly red states, like Indiana, is indicating the possibility of major gains for the Democrats). Candidates are keen to keep campaigning here until the last moment: both Obama and McCain and each of their running mates having visited the state in the past week. As home to a high proportion of Latinos, who have tended to vote Democrat (with the exception of Cuban-Americans, who tend to vote Republican), Floridian campaigning materials and ads in Spanish are widespread, such as Obama’s ‘¡Basta Ya! Unidos Por El Cambio’ (‘Enough Already! United for Change’). The state’s large retiree population has also been targeted, through initiatives like ‘The Great Schlep’, a movement organised in part by the Jewish Council for Education and Research, in which young Jewish Americans have visited their grandparents in Florida to encourage them to vote for Obama. The state has gone Republican in all but one of the last four Presidential elections, with 2000 being one of the most memorable and fiercely contested battles in the state’s history, eventually coming down to a ruling by the United States Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. Polling data currently indicates a lead for Obama of a few percentage points, although McCain-Palin yard signs in more rural areas and a notable presence on car bumpers show that they are not without support here. Only Tuesday night will show us which way the state has swung.

I took the opportunity to visit the Democrats of Osceola County Obama Office in Kissimmee three days before the election to witness some of the campaigning first-hand. Nilsa, a mother of ten (four her own, three adopted and three more raised by her!), originally from Puerto Rico but resident in the US for 50 years, has been volunteering at the office since the beginning of August. I asked her, a first-time campaigner, how and why she got involved this time. She first explained that her children have now grown-up and she has recovered sufficiently from recent heart surgery. When she was invited to volunteer, she initially spent just a few hours working in the office, gradually getting more and more involved, to the point where she now feels out of place at home. As we spoke, the campaign office bustled around us, with phones ringing, yard signs being carted through the building and a whiteboard saying that home-cooked food for those working on the main volunteer floor upstairs would be greatly appreciated. The diversity of Democratic support was demonstrated by the variety of materials around the office and the parking lot outside, with posters and bumper stickers bearing slogans like ‘Women for Obama’ and ‘Arab-American Democrat.’ One of the volunteers sported a ‘Teamsters for Obama-Biden’ t-shirt.

Nilsa, in discussion with another volunteer, said that on election day they would be providing water to all the voters in line at the Polling Places – Republicans, Democrats, whoever – “we don’t discriminate”. Long lines have been a great issue even in the days up to the election, with many voters taking the opportunity to vote early but still having to wait up to ten hours in line. Nilsa spoke of her desire for a new kind of President: “we need an intellectual, a smart man. I’m going to send him a lot of Puerto Rican food – rice and beans!” Asked about how confident she feels, she said “I’m not singing yet. I’m behind the curtains, gargling warm water with salt… We don’t look at the TVs or the polls – we can’t.” And if Tuesday goes well? “We’ll be cleaning up, celebrating and continuing our progress.”

“Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could stand. Martin Luther King stood so Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so our children could fly” – from a leaflet in the campaign office.

It’s 00:15 Eastern Time, November 4th 2008 – the first results in the US Presidential Election 2008 have just come in from Dixville Notch, New Hampshire - a small village of just 21 registered voters, which has not voted Democratic since Humphrey in 1968. McCain: 6, Obama: 15. So the election begins…

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