LDVUSA: How Obama made it happen

A week ago, the USA was going to the polls, and Lib Dem Steven Gauge was on-the-spot in Ohio. Here’s what he saw…

As Churchill said, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” On November the 4th 2008 they finally got it absolutely right.

As the Presidential election results began coming in, I was in the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel, Columbus, after two weeks of working as a volunteer on the Obama Campaign in the crucial swing state of Ohio. When CNN called the result and the crowd erupted, I turned round to see an African American woman, sobbing uncontrollably on the floor, with her children comforting her.

A few hours earlier that same woman had come into our office desperate to do something to help the campaign. She had been sent flying out of the door with a list of last minute names to knock up. Her story summed up for me the defining feature of the Obama campaign.

The Central Columbus Field Office where I was based along with hundreds of other out-of-state and out-of-country volunteers, was very much like a Liberal Democrat by-election HQ just with significantly more food. However, on one door there were three words printed up on a sheet of paper “Respect, Empower, Include.” Those three words were the mantra for how the campaign was to be run.

We were reminded throughout the campaign to remain positive, polite and respectful, even when subjected to the most vile racism and stupidity. We were encouraged and empowered to tell our own stories and give our own reasons for supporting Barak Obama, when trying to persuade undecided voters. Most importantly, at every single point of contact with the voters, we were encouraged to recruit people to volunteer.

Every supporter was asked to volunteer. Every volunteer was asked to recruit more volunteers. Even when there were more volunteers than we knew what to do with, we recruited more. At times it felt that it was almost more important that we recuited volunteers than we won the election. Perhaps it was.

Constant training was a key part of the campaign. Some field offices had a specific training room, where groups of canvassers would be comprehensively prepared before going out to knock on doors. As a result I worked with people from all walks of life and social classes, who had one thing in common; they had never been involved in an election before.

Even the way we knocked up the vote on polling day, had an element of training and empowerment. Instead of telling people where to vote, we were encouraged to ask the voters if they knew where the polling station was and when and how they planned to get there. Research had shown that they were far more likely to vote if they had thought about how they were going to do it for themselves.

The election on the TV screens was one thing. Barack Obama’s elegant and dignified speeches set the tone. The ground game however, was extraordinary. The political principles behind the Obama platform were perfectly replicated in the campaigning approach taken in the field.

So I don’t think that the black woman in tears in the Columbus Rennaisance was crying just because the USA had finally elected an African American as President, after decades of segregation, racism and discrimination. I think it was because, even in the last three hours of the campaign, she and her children had been able to help make it happen.

* Steven Gauge was a Councillor in the London Borough of Southwark from 1990 – 1998, PPC for Croydon South in 1997 and worked on Charles Kennedy’s General Election Tour Advance Team in 2005

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