Boots on the Ground: Campaigning Is Not Glamorous

My experiences over the summer campaigning for a local race and getting out the vote on election day have given me a different perspective on the outcome of the presidential race and how we should move forward.

I spent my whole summer campaigning for my Illinois state senator, Melinda Bush, for whom I had interned as a junior in high school. I remember sitting in her office as an intern, listening to the issues people came in with. These ranged from problems with lake fungus and misplaced stop signs to the stories of people who needed help getting a job or elders who did not want to be evicted from their homes. Bush’s ability to listen to these concerns and try and help the people facing them, no matter how trivial they may have seemed, was what inspired me to work for her re-election.

Bush, a Democrat representing my district in Springfield, was not the only reason I was so invested in the 2016 election. In Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, when she addressed the young women for whom she is a champion, I felt as though she were speaking directly to me.

I remember being shaken to my core the first time I saw Hillary debate in the Democratic primaries. I had never seen a woman who could carry herself with such confidence and dignity. The shock I felt seeing a woman on the debate stage showed me that she would send a powerful message to the country and the world when she was elected.

For six months, I worked as hard as I could in order to send Bush back to Springfield, but part of what drove me was the hope that Hillary would be in the White House. Then I could say this country was moving towards the foundational equality which we preach, both for women and minorities.

These values are what drove me to knock on more than seven thousand doors and talk to eleven thousand of my neighbors. Campaigning is not glamorous and talking to constituents is not easy. It has its fun moments, and you make a lot of friends along the way, but you shouldn’t plan on getting very much sleep or following a healthy lifestyle.

Over the summer, I sweated my entire body weight away multiple times because I was driving around in a twenty-one-year-old car with no air conditioning.

The “Campaign Survival Kit”

Yet it was worth it, because I saw the real America, talked to real people, and got an insight into real lives. There are many people who are concerned about putting food on the table and taking care of their sick children. They don’t care how it happens or if a politician who promises that they can make a living offends certain groups of people. They are not in a position to care.

As we know, my champion Hillary was not elected president as I and the majority of voting Americans had hoped. Instead, we have a lying, racist, misogynistic billionaire with tiny hands in line to become our commander-in-chief. I keep hearing people ask how this happened, and I think I know why.

Liberals did not ask regular people about their political priorities and did not listen to the people who tried to tell them. Part of the speech I gave to people when I rang on their doorbells this summer was, “I am here because your state senator, Melinda Bush, wants to know about the issues that most concern you right now.”

I heard about property taxes, local schools, sending kids to college, the smelly dump down the street, decreasing property values, and people losing their jobs. I listened. Sometimes I would just nod my head, and at times I handed out literature on how to appeal property taxes.

The most rattling moment of this campaign cycle for me happened over the summer when I was sent to Winthrop Harbor, a town on the Wisconsin border where there have been issues with an active presence of the Klu Klux Klan.

I complained and joked about going there, but being one of the whitest people on the campaign, it was decidedly better that I go there than my black colleagues. I went in expecting to try and persuade hostile people who would never vote for a Democrat.

However, my days canvassing Winthrop Harbor were some of the nicest I had all summer. People expressed their gratitude that I had come to talk to them. This changed my perspective because I saw how people who would had been labeled as “deplorable” by Hillary were willing to vote for a Democrat. Our campaign’s outreach effort was apparent on Election Day. Even though we did not end up winning these districts, we won some new votes in an area which historically goes solid red.

This enlightening summer culminated on Election Day itself. Having invested so much time and energy campaigning, I felt that I had to get to the campaign office and help with the final get-out-the-vote (GOTV) push on November 8.

The morning and early afternoon of November 7 were serene. It was a beautiful fall day in Chicago, and I went to class as usual. Campus was quiet, and I remember feeling that all was right with the world as I Ubered downtown, away from the intellectual haven that is the University of Chicago. I listened to music and looked out the window on the hour-and-a-half train ride from Chicago to Grayslake, Illinois.

My train got in at 4:30 p.m., and I walked back to my house, only to discover that my parents had taken both the cars. I was rather annoyed, and I called my field director to tell her that I had no way of getting to the campaign office that night. She said, “No worries, I’m coming to get you.” She was at my house within fifteen minutes, and I was at the office by 6:00 p.m.

When I walked through the door, I felt a completely different energy than the kind I had left eight weeks before. I could tell by looking at my coworkers and friends that they were exhausted and run ragged. I was told that people had been getting barely any sleep and had been going door-to-door nonstop in order to prepare for Election Day. The office was covered in empty Starbucks cups, pizza boxes, and giant bags of chocolateevidence that my co-workers had been living and breathing the campaign lifestyle.

A typical campaign diet.

Next door to our office, the Democratic campaign for the Tenth District House seat was in full force. I asked what had been going on since I left, and I was told that our campaign had been working extensively with the congressional campaign to help with their GOTV efforts, as well as our own. I found out that our field organizers had been helping paid canvassers for the congressional campaign in areas that were not even in our district.

A big part of the GOTV effort is ensuring that people who pledged to vote during one of the earlier four rounds of persuasion canvassing know where their polling locations are. Four rounds of GOTV may seem like a lot, but going to these lengths has proven effective in convincing as many people as possible to vote. In order to accomplish this, we put door hangers with the polling locations on voters’ doors. Depending on the time of day, canvassers like me also ring doorbells and ensure that voters have transportation to the polls and that they intend to vote if they haven’t voted early.

The night before I returned to the campaign office, there had been a mixup of the polling location door hangers, and door hangers had been hung with the incorrect polling locations. A good friend from high school whom I had been working with was in charge of fixing this problem, and he had been out knocking on doors until 9:00 p.m. the night before, getting the door hangers back from voters and making sure they had the right polling location. I heard this story before I saw him. I was tired from my long day at school and my train ride home, but when I saw how exhausted my friend was when he walked through the campaign office door, I woke up. I had spent the past eight weeks learning about theoretical voting models in my classes, and meanwhile, people back at home had been doing the exhausting work of actually making sure voters turned out.

At 6:30 p.m., I went with the rest of the canvassing team next door to the congressional campaign office, where volunteers were phone banking, to hear pep talks from Bush, Congressman Brad Schneider, and Illinois Treasurer Mike Frerichs.

At 7:00 p.m., my friend and I headed out to drop off more door hangers. It was dark, and we couldn’t see the house addresses, so we developed a system where he would drive and tell me what house numbers needed hangers and I would, for the sake of time, sprint out to houses and put the hangers on the door.

The funniest moment of the night was when I ran into a motion-activated Halloween decoration, which started loudly cackling as I sprinted off the porch. We finished two neighborhoods using this system, and at 10:00 p.m., we were called back to the campaign office because people had been calling the police on other campaign workers. Apparently, some constituents did not appreciate college students on their porches late at night, even if it was to get out the vote.

When we got back to the office, our job was to head out to polling locations and put up signs for our candidate. We were sent to five locations near the Wisconsin border, and I got back home around 12:30 a.m.

I was up by 5:50 a.m. the next morning—Election Day. I voted and headed to the GOTV staging location that I was assigned by 7:30 a.m. Staging locations are strategic places in the district where campaign staff send out volunteers and other campaign workers for GOTV efforts in that area of the district.

Because it was too early in the morning to knock on doors, my first shift was simply to hang door hangers for a list of houses I was given. However, I started late. Some people had been putting out door hangers since 5:00 a.m. My second shift was also devoted to hanging hangers, except this time I was also knocking on people’s doors. Everyone I talked to had already voted.

After my second shift, all of the work for my staging location had been done, so I headed back to the campaign headquarters in Grayslake for more GOTV efforts. When I got back to the office, I devoured some pizza and chocolate and then headed back out to finish two more shifts. I tried to go out for a third shift at 6:00 p.m., but it was so dark that I could not see any of the addresses.

Voting Lines at the Round Lake Civic Center. This picture was taken at 6:52 PM, 8 minutes before the polls closed.

Before the polls closed, we were sent to polling locations to ensure voters knew that they could not be turned away if they were in line by 7:00 p.m. I was sent to a polling location in Round Lake, which has a large Hispanic population. When we arrived, there were cars backed up along the main road because there were not enough spaces in the parking lot. People had to park in the lots across the street, and I watched as elderly people climbed over an embankment to try and get in the line before the deadline. My job was to run up and down the line of cars and yell at people that if they were in line by 7:00 p.m., they could still vote, and nobody could tell them otherwise.

When we returned to the campaign headquarters for the final time, everyone was heading out to the election watch party at a local restaurant. I did not have time to go home, so I got changed at the campaign office and headed to downtown Grayslake with the rest of my team.

When I arrived, everyone was in good spirits. There was a table set up in the back where our campaign manager and field director were watching the precincts come in on the county clerk’s website so we could know as quickly as possible whether we had won.

Our polling had Bush up by such a wide margin that we knew she was likely to win. Nevertheless, we were still on edge. This was a Republican district, and our Republican opponent had a lot of funding from the governor.

As the numbers started rolling in, we became ecstatic: Bush was winning. With an early vote that went 60–40 to the Democrats, we knew that all of our hard work had paid off and that we had secured a Democratic victory for the Thirty-first District. This was the the first time in history that the position had been held by a Democrat for two consecutive terms. It was a historic day for our campaign, and after all of our hard work, we were ready to celebrate.

As I was listening to the results of our election come in, I heard someone say, “The Dow has just crashed more than it did after 9/11.” I turned to the TV, and my heart stopped.

At a time when we were supposed to be celebrating Bush’s historic win, another historic moment was occurring: Donald Trump was winning the presidency. The evening took a dark turn, and people took to their phones, running numbers on the states that had not finished counting votes, trying to calculate if Hillary had any hope left. Groups of people gathered in corners, whispering to one another. I saw the eyes of those around me widen as they realized the implications of what was happening, and then I witnessed people ordering another drink after they thought about it. I watched a fellow field organizer sit in the corner with his head in his hands, distressed by what Trump’s proposed immigration policies would mean for his family.

(From left to right) Illinois Senator Melinda Bush, US Representative Brad Schneider, and Illinois Senator Mike Frerichs on the eve of the election.

Bush ended up winning by eight points in a Republican district. Schneider defeated Republican incumbent Bob Dold, and another Democrat, state representative Sam Yingling, kept his seat. Illinois will also be sending Tammy Duckworth to the Senate. I should have been bursting with happiness, but I left the party into the freezing cold and sat on a bench by myself to cry more than I ever have in my life. I listened to Hillary’s concession speech on the way back to school the next day.

I am glad that my districts elected representatives who I know will fight for my values. I have not lost faith in America, because I have seen that if you put in the time to try and understand and reach out to others, they will be receptive. Bush is the only state senator in Illinois who outperformed Hillary, meaning that there were people who voted for both Trump and Bush.

The 2016 election cycle opened my eyes to what is at stake in politics, and it opened my heart to the struggles and concerns of those in my community. In order to reap the benefits of living in a safe, accepting country, you have to make sure that those around you feel safe, accepted, and that they know someone is taking their concerns seriously.

I am still a firm believer in the fact the love will always trump hate, but I now understand that for love to trump hate, you need to get out and find out what people are thinking and feeling by getting your boots on the ground and knocking on their door.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

The images within this article have been taken courtesy of the author, Sarah Wasik.

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