$1.5B dollars and nearly 2 years of non-stop campaigning. Thousands of hours of media coverage and millions of words of commentary and dissection. An unprecedented online campaign with Facebook fans, entertaining YouTube clips and virtual organizing like never before.
Controversies, the Bradley effect, accusations, hockey moms, and various incarnations of Joe fill-in-the-blank.
It all came to a head on Tuesday, November 4th: Election Day in America.
Wait a minute. Don’t Presidential elections come every four years, with congressional races every two years? Indeed, this election was just one among many in the arc of American history but these are historic individuals, historic times and historic circumstances.
As advertised, November 4th, 2008 was a day that will go down in our history books.
November 4th was not just a big deal in the United States; citizens throughout the world closely monitored developments in the United States as if they were voting for their very own chief executive. The outcome of the 2008 election would influence not only America herself, but also the entire world and how it perceives the “moral beacon” of democracy.
Personally, I believe the most exciting part of the election was the level of engagement both Senators Obama and McCain inspired within the electorate. An online movement mobilized by Senator Obama’s campaign brought to life many who never cared to learn about the political process, voting, or presidential candidates. A once obscure Governor Palin emerged onto the political scene, energizing the Republican base, drawing crowds at multiples over even Senator McCain. Young voters, minority voters, and senior voters came out of the woodwork to debate, engage and mobilize their fellow Americans.
The 2008 Election invigorated the electoral base like no other in recent history.
Young college students worked phone banks and canvassed through swing states on behalf of their respective candidates. Many experts believe the election of 2008 will set records for voter turnout. The previous record was ~66% in 1908, exactly a hundred years ago and coincidentally the year of HBS’s founding. At the time of submission, MSNBC reports that the turnout in 2008 was slightly above 64%, the highest turnout since 1908.
Numerous HBS students encouraged their sectionmates to “get out and vote.” In an email out to the Jeniuses (Section OJ), Max Anderson offered his diagnosis of the election and gave five reasons why he supported Senator Obama: change, symbolism, temperament, leadership, and adaptability. At the end of the email, Anderson attached a “free coffee” coupon from Starbucks as an incentive for his classmates to vote.
As if Starbucks were not enough, Krispy Kreme and Ben & Jerry’s sweetened the deal (no pun intended) by offering a free donut and a free scoop of ice cream, respectively, to voters. In Houston, a limited supply of toilet plungers were offered to voters and in Dallas, a tattoo parlor promised free tattoo removal for those “looking for a change.”
This election, however, was not just a domestic election with domestic issues at stake. I received messages from friends abroad asking me about the election and even endorsing candidates! In particular, a friend sent me an email entitled, “All eyes on the U.S. – The mood in Kenya.”
All eyes were on America as she set about to determine her 44th President.
At HBS, international students were just as energized as their American counterparts, despite their inability to vote. Aduke Thelwell (OJ Class of 2009) characterized this dichotomy by stating, “this is a vote for one of the most important leaders of the world, but only U.S. citizens get to have a voice.”
Thelwell, a native of Jamaica, did not let her lack of U.S. citizenship get in the way. She logged onto //mybarackobama.com and received a list of voters and phone numbers from the battleground state of Virginia. During her free time the evening before the election, she made 10-15 calls to voters in Virginia. Her experience was overwhelming positive. As Thelwell states, “it made me feel as though I was making a difference…at least I participated in some way.” Even though Thelwell could not actually cast a ballot, she stated, “I was able to be a part of the election process without actually voting.”
For RCs, scheduling of classes and the infamous Beer Game did not seem to take notice of November 4th – dare I suggest a kink in the HBS scheduling machine? After a three case day ending at 2:30pm, RCs still had to participate in a 90-minute session where they played the Beer Game (a brilliant but false marketing effort by the HBS administration).
For many, this hectic schedule made it near impossible to get to the voting polls in time. As Jared Leiderman (NG) states, “If a student got placed in the 5pm Beer Game slot, it was extremely difficult for him/her to actually make it out in time to vote.” A HKS dual degree student, Leiderman regrets having such a full day of classes and required coursework, as he was hoping to participate in get-out-the-vote efforts in New Hampshire.
In the end, citizens of the world made their opinions known and Americans voted.
Election Day ended with Americans casting a resounding “yes” for Senator Obama. Voters came out strong, loud and clear. Previously disenfranchised voters hit the polls, often braving 2 or more hours in long lines to exercise their privilege and duty as U.S. citizens. Democracy and our country will be better because of it.
Even after the election results were posted, many members of the HBS community continued to grapple with the significance and consequences of Senator Obama’s victory. Long after midnight, for instance, over 50 members of the African American Student Union [AASU] remain gathered from earlier celebrations at Gallatin Lounge, attempting to process what November 4th meant for them individually, for African Americans as a community and for America in general. As Lauren Hale (OC), AASU Co-President stated, “It means the world to me, not only as an African American, but also as an American.”
The fact that Senator Obama, an African American male, would soon be taking the helm of the highest elected office in the Western world was colossal to Damien Hooper-Campbell (OC). Hooper-Campbell, also an AASU Co-President, states, “This is the most important moment of my life to date.” He equated Senator Obama’s leadership to some of the greatest leaders in the past century, such as John F. Kennedy, Ghandi and Martin Luther King.
As an African American male, Hooper-Campbell referenced the negative portrayal that was a fact-of-life while growing up. To Hooper-Campbell, however, Senator Obama’s election represented a “quantum leap from the Cops, Boyz in the Hood imagery” to a new image of the African American male so magnificently embodied by Senator Obama.
Hooper-Campbell could not believe that Senator Obama’s victory was real, comparing the realization to his HBS admittance, saying, “It is like when I pressed the button in the HBS admit email to make sure I got into HBS. I hit the button again and again, making sure it was real. I still cannot believe it (Senator Obama’s victory).”
Victory in one camp often means defeat in another. Although HBS polling revealed a 90.7% preference for Senator Obama (see 10/27/08 issue), a small minority supported Senator McCain. As Zachary Clayton (OI), Co-President of the HBS Republican Club stated, “John McCain ran a competitive campaign that managed to persuade over 31% of those dissatisfied with President Bush to vote for him. Ultimately, the tough economy proved too much of a headwind.” Looking towards the future, Clayton pointed to many tough problems that will face Obama’s administration and stated, “Obama has to govern from the center to be successful.”
November 4th has come and gone, but of course, the election process is not entirely over. Due to the quirky American Electoral College system, the election of Senator Obama does not become official until December 15th when the actual 538 electoral votes are cast, 349 likely in favor of Senator Obama and 163 in favor of Senator McCain (at the time of submission, 11 electoral votes from Missouri and 15 electoral votes from North Carolina were still up in the air).
If the electoral college system makes your head spin, consider the popular vote, where Senator Obama received 52% of the votes while Senator McCain received 46%. Fifty-two percent may not sound like much, but that number represents the largest Democratic margin of victory since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Moreover, the Presidential inauguration does not occur until January 20, 2009. That day will mark the official end to campaigning and the beginning to actual governance.
Looking back at the long and brutal campaign, it is quite ironic that former President Bill Clinton once called Senator Obama’s run for the presidency the greatest “fairytale” that Clinton had ever seen.
In truth, Senator Obama’s political rags-to-riches story reads much like a fairy tale. And even though Senator Obama’s story is more exotic, the individual stories of his wife Michelle Obama and running-mate Senator Biden embody many of the same rag-to-rich characteristics. Although different, these three stories reveal elements of struggle, sacrifice and ultimately triumph.
Senator Obama’s win signifies that the American Dream is still alive and well, despite lingering racial tension and a rising gap between America’s wealthiest and poorest citizens. Even though it may need some fixing, America remains the land of opportunity, the same land that creates the possibilities written by Horatio Alger and made flesh by leaders such as Benjamin Franklin.
Overcoming all odds (namely the established Clinton and GOP political machines), Obama demonstrates the very best of the American spirit. His story is a story that will inspire generations of Americans to come. It is a story that proves achieving success on one’s own merit and along one’s own terms is still possible; that situation and circumstance do not necessarily define one’s own destiny.
This gives us hope in the American spirit; hope that the very best of America is yet to come and that together, we have a chance to shape her future.
In the following, I attempt to capture portions of my day on November 4th, 2008, thus providing a play-by-play commentary of events as they unfolded.
8:45am: Over breakfast, I catch glimpses of The Today Show and see Senator Obama, Michelle and their two daughters at a voting booth in Southside Chicago. Minutes later, Senator Biden walks into a Delaware voting booth with his mother to cast his own ballot. Of course, the timing was meticulously planned in order to maximize airtime. Another precise and calculated move by the Obama Campaign.
1:26pm: I walk out of a classroom in Hawes and overhear a student on the phone trying to locate an Obama “thumbs up” t-shirt. Obama shirts are generally a hard find, but today, they will be close to those Tickle Me Elmo dolls on Christmas Eve.
1:50pm: CNN reports election problems such as long lines and wet ballots in New Orleans, LA. Apparently, voters stood in long lines in the rain, thus getting their ballots wet. Wet ballots and scanning machines equate to bad news. The proposed solution? Drying the ballots prior to running them through the scanning machines. Pure genius. I flip over to Fox News and catch a glimpse of a news crew confrontation with several members of the Black Panther Party. The scene then breaks to Governor Palin, who voted in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska sporting a brown hooded jacket. She appears relaxed and confident.
4:05pm: Oprah Winfrey celebrates first time voters and encourages everyone to get out and vote. Winfrey is a public supporter of Obama and confessed her emotional reaction to casting an early ballot over a week ago. Winfrey urges her audience, “get out and vote today. No more excuses.”
6:45pm: I walk by Gallatin, where the African American Student Union (AASU) is setting up for an election-viewing extravaganza. Sadly, the rest of HBS is completely silent. Where are the future leaders who will make a difference in the world on the eve of the most meaningful political event of their lifetime? I ask questions but do not have all the answers. I cross the river and make my way into the Harvard Kennedy School [HKS] Forum, possibly the most exciting viewing destination in Cambridge. The electricity and buzz in the air is completely contagious and I feel fortunate to straddle the river between HBS and HKS as a joint degree student.
7:05pm: CNN releases the evening’s first poll results: Vermont is the first state in the blue column while Kentucky goes red. No surprise. CNN beams Jessica Yelin using new hologram technology and the early polls show many states leaning toward Senator McCain. The crowd at HKS grows anxious and uneasy.
8:15pm: A spattering of states throughout New England goes to Senator Obama. The crowd erupts into thunderous applause and cheering. Oklahoma and Tennessee go to McCain. Lisa, my wife, joins the festivities with me at the Kennedy School.
10:21pm: Obama has 207 electoral college votes, McCain 135. Thirty-nine minutes until a cluster of Western states release their poll results, including California’s prized 55 electoral votes. Senator Obama needs 63 more electoral votes to reach 270.
11:02pm: A CNN Newsflash comes up on the big screen and reads, CNN Prediction: Barack Obama Elected President. It all gets blurry from here. The crowd rhythmically chants “Yes We Can!” while people share hugs, laughter, and tears. I am overwhelmed by the news, the energy and the excitement.
11:28pm: Senator McCain delivers a splendid speech in Phoenix, Arizona, urging his supporters to join him in congratulating Senator Obama. McCain states, “we must move beyond our disappointment” and work in a bipartisan effort to address pressing issues. Over my shoulder, I see a group of HBSers that just arrived from a Boston celebration at the Fairmount Hotel with John Kerry.
11:42pm: HKS professor and Director of the Center for Public Leadership David Gergen calls Senator Obama a “National President” with support not only in typical blue states, but also in parts of the South, Florida, New Mexico and Virginia. David Gergen is possibly the best political commentator on television.
11:59pm: Senator Obama delivers a humble but forceful speech in front of a crowd of one-hundred thousand Americans at Chicago’s Grant Park. He is flanked by bulletproof glass. In the audience, a tearful Jesse Jackson stands proudly to witness the historic speech. In roughly 15 minutes, Senator Obama unites Americans and urges them to prepare for the long road ahead. As Senator Obama so eloquently stated, “This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change.” America is just embarking on what promises to be a long journey.
12:25am: I stop by the African American Student Association (AASU) festivities in Gallatin Hall. Over five tense and emotional hours later, over 50 AASU members and their friends were still awe-struck at the events that had transpired before their very eyes. Despite a long evening, a portion of the group continues the celebration at Z-Square. These are times to celebrate and cases will not get in the way.
2:08am: I sit down in front of my computer, processing the images, words, and events of the day. Witnessing history is one thing, but documenting it is another.