Charlotte Taylor (OI) came to HBS after working for the Obama campaign and the Treasury Department. Last week, she returned to the county she directed as a campaign coordinator for Obama’s 2008 run to get out the vote, and shared her experience with the Harbus.
Nearly four years to the day since I had left Stark County, Ohio, I landed at Canton-Akron airport with the same goal in mind: to get Barack Obama elected as President of the United States. I arrived at the Obama for America field office at 11pm, knowing full well that it would still be buzzing on the eve of Election Day. The decision to return to Stark County for GOTV (“get-out-the-vote”) was an easy one. Four years earlier during the 2008 campaign, I’d spent six months organizing its neighborhoods and volunteers. The city of Canton is still much the same, with many empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings in the once-bustling downtown area. But small signs of recovery are noticeable, with several new restaurants opened since 2008 and a recently renovated main street. Ohio is one of the few states with unemployment below the national average, and with one in eight Ohioans employed by the auto industry, the success of President Obama’s auto bailout has proven to be a key issue in his support.
At the office I found my friend Morgan Wilson, who I had recruited to join me in Ohio in 2008. She was now running the campaign for Stark and Wayne counties. Morgan was on the phone, exhausted, rattling off the names of the voter-protector staff members assigned to each polling location, whose job was to make sure that no one would be wrongly turned away from voting the next morning. We gave each other a hug but were quickly interrupted by a middle-aged African American woman and her daughter entering the office shouting, “I need help! They changed our polling location this year, and I’ve been talking to all my friends today and they’re not planning to vote. If folks feel they are not welcome in the area where this new polling station is, then why would they feel comfortable going there to vote?” Morgan nodded knowingly, “Yeah there’s been a lot of re-districting in the black communities this year and we know it makes things difficult. Why don’t you come with me and I’ll give you some information.” And with that, Morgan calmed the woman down and gave her the number for the campaign’s lawyer hotline, explaining that if anyone felt uncomfortable or were given a hard time at the polls, then they could call for support. On the wall I saw written the campaign’s 2008 motto: “Respect, Empower, Include.”
My alarm went off at 6am on Election Day and I woke up FIRED UP and READY TO GO! I reported to my first staging location out in Jackson Township, one of the suburbs of Canton, and was handed my first ‘walk packet’ for the day. My walk packet included a map of a nearby neighborhood, a list of Obama-supporters that lived in the area, and a stack of campaign door-hangers, which reminded voters of their polling location and other basic voter education information. The goal of knocking on doors on Election Day was simple: to engage with previously identified Obama voters and to ensure that the campaign’s supporters go to the polls to cast their ballots.
The first few names in my walk packet were not home, so I left a door-hanger and went on my way. On my fourth door, I was greeted by an older couple in their seventies. Although passionate in their support for President Obama, they were hesitant about casting their ballots; it was a cold wintery day outside and they were concerned about the type of identification requested and the potential for long lines. I saw my opportunity. I asked them why they supported the President and reminded them (in case they’d somehow missed the countless reminders on TV and radio) that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. The couple was persuaded. They walked to their car to head to their polling location. Mission accomplished! This process repeated itself several more times throughout the day, although often the end result was a promise to vote later that day. In these instances, the campaign hopes that a verbal, face-to-face promise promotes accountability amongst supporters, relying on an earnest belief that people stick to their promises when they can.
As the election results came in later that evening, it became apparent that Ohio – and the country – had reelected President Obama. In the days that followed, the victory would be attributed to demographic changes and a well-organized Democratic voter turnout operation. Both of these explanations seem true of Ohio. In Ohio, African-American turnout increased from 11% to 15% of the electorate in this election cycle. Obama won 97% of that vote. The Latino vote increased to an all-time high of 10% and the President won 71% of that vote. The historically high youth turnout in 2008 was replicated, with President Obama receiving an even larger proportion of the 18-29 vote. As the L.A. Times put it, this election represented the end of a world dictated by the straight white male vote.” There had been a fundamental shift in the electorate, with the minority voter-base increasing by 2% from 2008.
Although my involvement in the 2012 campaign was limited to GOTV weekend, I am proud that I played a tiny role in reelecting a President that I believe in. On the flight back to HBS I was reminded of President Obama’s message at the Inauguration Staff Ball four years ago:
“Here’s the thing that’s most important to me: that you take the spirit, the culture of this campaign, and you keep applying it not just to campaigns. That sense of possibility, that you guys can do anything, that you can re-imagine the world, that you can lead not by trying to manipulate your way or push down somebody else to get your way, but instead lead through the force of your example, and your discipline and creativity. I just hope that you carry that with you everywhere you go…”
As I finish my degree at HBS and move on to the next challenge, I hope to keep this guiding message with me. On election night, President Obama reminded us that winning the election is the beginning, not the end, of the hard work needed to tackle our nation’s most difficult challenges. And I, for one, am still fired up and ready to go.