Approaching the Finishing Line: Hope and Passion in Nevada

(RENO, NV.) Politics is one of the few activities that matches sports in uniting unrelated peoples in common, competitive, exciting endeavor.

That truth struck me yet again over the weekend while my sister, my eldest son and I were canvassing for Obama in Nevada.

The thousands of volunteers pouring into Nevada from California, and also those who drove down from Oregon and Idaho and elsewhere, were often quite different from each other in educational background, ethnicity, age, class, etc., yet were united in common cause. None of the distinctions mattered, just as it doesn’t matter in competitive sports: What matters is playing up to one’s (and the teams’) potential, and trying as hard as possible to emerge the winner. And having fun while doing so.

The throngs of volunteers that converged on a warehouse in downtown Reno this weekend — about 1500 for our orientation — were typical. We came from all over, from varying backgrounds, even from different political agendas at times, but an inspiring vision and excitement united us: a world where "conservative" extremism would no longer rule and ruin our country, and much of the world, as has been the case for at least the past eight years under CheneyBush.

Obama, with all his flaws on this policy or that, is the embodiment of this vision, of hope for significant change — the first real chance for winning a substantial presidential-cum-legislative victory that many of us Democrats had experienced in a long, long time.


My sister Linda and I were canvassing in Sparks, near Reno, while my eldest son Erik was working the precincts in Las Vegas. Virtually all the volunteers we met were guardedly optimistic but wary about Obama’s chances in Nevada and nationwide. We’d all been badly Roved before and weren’t about to start counting our chickens before the hatching on November 4th.

Clark County/Las Vegas is much more liberal than Washoe County/Sparks-Reno, which, at least the sections we canvassed, seems more working-class and conservative. But even here, Linda and I found that the number of Obama supporters were about even with those for McCain.

This near-tie mirrors the advance polls, which showed a tight race for Nevada’s five electoral votes. Obama had a very slight lead going into the November 4th voting, and more Democrats had early-voted than had Republicans, a pattern that had been replicated across the country. Similarly, tens of thousands of lawyers have been enlisted in the various states, Nevada included, as part of the "voting protection" program of the Obama campaign, to be on call in each precinct to deal instantly with illegalities or voter-purging issues that might arise throughout Election Day.


As I write this, the handwriting is clearly on the wall for a substantial Obama victory on November 4th. But that assumes that the Republicans, staring a likely Electoral College tsunami in the face, would back off this time from trying to steal the election yet again. Such thievery tactics as vote-tampering, the usual dirty tricks and last-minute robo-calling lies, viral-email distortions of the record, etc., would be too embarrassingly obvious.

But these guys are desperate, and long ago took the low road into the moral swamp that passes for Republican politics these days. They might well feel that since they’ve never been punished in the past for manipulating the election results, why not just go and steal another election and let a cowed, confused public deal ex post facto with the blatant, in-your-face power-grab?

I don’t think this will happen, but I wouldn’t put it past them to seriously consider trying once more to take what they can get while they think they can get away with it.


The most discouraging aspect of this canvassing? Hearing from a small but significant number of registered Democrats that they were supporting McCain. When we asked why the switch, several seemed to pause, as if having to think up a reason, and then came back with issues such as abortion and guns ("he wants to take away my rifles"), the latter a hot-button issue in Nevada.

But these defections were more than made up for by registered Republicans and Non-Partisans who were quite proud that they were voting for Obama this time out. When we asked them why their switches, some told us their personal tales of lost jobs under a tanking economy, which they tied to the Bush Administration, with more of the same under a McCain presidency. Others said they were appalled by the Palin choice. Other said they felt more inspired by the expectation, or at least hope, that under an Obama administration, significant changes might actually occur with regard to the economy, the war, health care, etc.

Aside from one young man who screamed loud curses at us from his pickup truck as we did our canvassing walk up one residential street, we had only a handful of negative encounters, even from those supporting McCain. This surprised us somewhat. We also were delighted when other stereotypes were broken, such as, for example, when we’d come to a house occupied by a registered Republican, with two or more American-flag decaled pickup trucks in the driveway, only to be told with enthusiasm that they’d early-voted for Obama.


We shall see in a few hours whether McCain saying "we’ve got them just where we want them" was little more than smoke emanating from a nether part of his anatomy, or a bit of obvious self-deprecating jokery, or because he knew something about the shady Roveian behind-the-curtain techniques that would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Some other final observations about the election:

1. Knowing the anger, racial resentment and "patriotic" fervor stirred up by Palin and McCain among their followers, I was impressed with the Obama campaign’s security operation. In Nevada, and maybe elsewhere, cell-phone numbers and locations for campaign activities were kept relatively secret, on a need-to-know basis. The central headquarters in Reno, for example, was a nondescript warehouse, with only a few small signs indicating where volunteers should enter. Our staging spot for canvassing in Sparks was in the back room of an essentially unmarked building housing an Italian restaurant, with just a tiny Obama sign in the front window to let the volunteers know this was the spot. In some ways all this secrecy seemed almost comical, but in the real world of 2008 passionate politics, I appreciated such tight security.

2. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Democratic volunteers state out loud that they can’t take any more of extremist "conservative" rule, and would be forced to rethink all their available options, from leaving the country to actual and undefined "revolution," if McCain/Palin were declared the winners.

I heard nary a positive word for Sarah Palin the entire weekend from any Democrat; however, while canvassing, one registered Democratic woman told us, with a smirk on her face as she watched our faces, that she would be voting for "Madame Palin." Note: One Obama canvasser had outfitted herself to resemble Palin — spiffy high heels, striking red jacket ("bought not for 150 thousand but for a dollar and a half at a thrift store") and nice skirt, hair up, Sarah-type glasses — and said she couldn’t wait for the reactions from registered Republicans she’d be meeting.

3. The Obama campaign, more than most recent Democratic campaigns, is truly multi-ethnic, just as the candidate himself is. Those of Asian, African, European, Native American, Latino extraction are involved, which adds to the strength of the Obama teams out canvassing.

Two experiences along those lines.

A. We were having lunch at a local brewpub in Sparks with an African-American woman, a real-estate agent, and her 25-year-old daughter, who works at a publishing house; they had driven here from San Jose, California. Hearing the mother talk about her tears when Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention, saying so much that was relevant to her life when she was growing up in Louisiana, touched our hearts. My sister and I might never had heard this story were it not for the fact that the four of us had met at the canvassing orientation in Sparks.

B. While Linda and I were out canvassing, a young African-American woman spotted us and came over to talk. She thanked us for what we were doing and then, in a spontaneous five-minute oration, delivered one of the best arguments for why voters should choose Obama. We were in awe of her command of the arguments. Her words were passionate, spot-on, and absolutely inspiring. She wasn’t a campaign worker or volunteer, just another ordinary American turned on by what Obama represents in this campaign. We felt uplifted and marched to our next house even more confident in the rightness of our cause.


To return to the original sports analogy at the beginning of this piece, I’m glad we drove from San Francisco and Los Angeles to canvass in Nevada, especially since Obama’s victory in California was never in question. Here was a genuine chance, with like-minded teammates, to make a face-to-face difference in an election (quite different from phone-calling into various states) by actually going out and talking with likely voters in a swing state, many from sub-groups we’d probably never meet in ordinary life.

Our bodies have felt the toll of competitive politics — sore feet, painful knees and lower backs from all the miles of walking while canvassing — but the emotional, and we hope the electoral, payoff has been well worth it.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of volunteers have been engaged in this messy glory that is democracy. If you haven’t volunteered in a political campaign, try it sometimes. It’s good for what ails ya. You betcha.