Tuesday, 13 November 2012

FOCUS: Anatomy of a campaign for Barack Obama

Former Ambassador Parker W Borg reads a statement at the National Press Club supporting John Kerry for president during the 2004 US presidential  election. – Internetpic

Parker (in 1963) with representatives from the three alumni batches of Jose Panganiban High School (from left): Teofila Lasala (Batch ’65 deceased); Imelda Floresca (Batch’64); Sergio Ariola (Batch ’65); Francisco Osorio (Batch ’65); and Eddie Tarog (Batch ’66).

Former US Peace Corps Volunteer
Jose Panganiban Elementary School/
Jose Panganiban High School
Jose Panganiban, Camarines Norte, the Philippines

(Exclusive to MWBuzz)
ANNA and I participated in the 2012 election in a way we’d never done previously -- a way that gave us a worm’s eye view of the grand game that commentators are saying explains why President Obama won re-election. 

At the beginning of the election cycle, it was apparent that the President’s core supporters lacked their 2008 enthusiasm, largely because of disappointments over his record; and Republicans, by contrast, were highly motivated to toss Obama out of office so they might pursue their traditional conservative agenda. 

Although we both liked Obama and believed he’d made the best of a bad situation, it was more out of fear about what might happen under a Republican Administration than our passion for Obama that made us part-time campaign workers in our home state of Virginia where we’ve lived off and on these past twenty years.  

The key to the Obama victory—and the defeat of the big money—was probably the sophisticated “ground game”, where Anna and I—and thousands of other volunteers—participated. 

Quite skillfully, the Democratic Party had determined the names and addresses of vast numbers of likely supporters who might not be regular voters.  They found phone numbers and mapped out the streets where these people lived.  

About two months before the election, we began receiving calls for our daughter Darcy from Democratic pollsters who had presumably identified her as somebody who had not voted consistently (having voted in 2008 but missing the bi-elections because she was an out-of-state student). 

Most pollsters halted their interviews when they learned Darcy was not home, but one asked a large number of opinion questions before learning that she was speaking with Darcy’s mother rather than the 20-something targeted person and quickly apologized.  

Similar phone bank calls and voter registration efforts continued in each state until the final weeks. 

On the weekend before the election, we went to an Obama/Biden election office where we received maps and packets of 60-75 names and addresses so that we might go door-to-door every day from Saturday until Election Day to talk with people, remind them to vote, tell them the location of their precinct, and offer them rides to the polls if necessary.  

Hundreds of others were doing exactly the same thing in neighboring communities.  Likewise, other volunteers contacted people from phone banks with the same messages.  

These volunteer activities were coordinated from all of 71 separate Obama offices in Virginia, each with a big sign saying “Obama/Biden” above the door with a dozen or so volunteers on the inside answering questions and coordinating voter outreach.  

One less important reason for us to become involved in canvassing was to get out of the house and away from the continuous phone calls that seemed to arrive at half hour intervals whenever we were at home. 

When we received calls from Democrats, there was generally a human at the other end. When we received calls from the Republicans, it was always a cheery female robotic voice delivering a recorded message.  

At one point I considered making a donation to the Democrats for each of the robo calls I received from the Republicans.   

Parker carves a lechon (roast pig) during training at Los BaƱos
with Brenda Brown and other volunteers looking on, Philippines,1961.
– Photo courtesy of American Diplomacy.

Anna and I worked together on Saturday, knocking on doors in one of the DC suburbs about ten miles away, a place we’d never before visited.  While there were many Obama signs on lawns in the neighborhood, we didn’t stop to call at these houses because the residents had been identified as reliable voters.  

We were calling on the people who might not vote and were surprised by the number of Hispanics, Asians and Middle Easterners who lived in the neighborhood, all citizens, and all of whom we encouraged to go to the polls. 

After we had completed our rounds, marking off from our master list who was at home, who was not and what they said; we returned to the election office and dropped off our marked up list with the canvassing coordinators. 

Other volunteers would follow up with these same lists of potential voters on Sunday and Monday.  I repeated my door knocking on Monday as a part of this exercise in a different part of the same community. 

On Election Day, I got up at 4.30am to go to our neighborhood Obama election office, where I picked up pouches of legal documents and signs that I delivered to five specific polling stations so that the volunteer lawyer on duty could take complaints if voters had their identifications challenged or faced discrimination. (This was an activity that Republicans did not need to do because Democrat election observers rarely challenged the voting credentials of voters. 

We learned later that our next door neighbor, a 70- year-old female, had gone to our local polling place, one without legal aides, where the Republican poll watchers snickered when they saw she was registered as a Democrat and joked about getting rid of her vote.)

After my driving duties, I went door-to-door once again, armed with a different, but now familiar, list of names, addresses, and a map to remind the targeted people to go to the polls  -- this time in an affluent neighborhood with an abundance of Romney/Ryan signs. 

With a student at a farewell party held in his honor by students and colleagues of the American University in Rome, May 9, 2008, Rome, Italy. – Photo Courtesy of PARKER W BORG

At one house, a Hispanic woman greeted me and expressed thanks that a Caucasian male was doing canvassing in the neighborhood. 

 She explained that the community was so pro-Romney that many of the neighbors were openly hostile.  

She felt that if she had canvassed her neighbors, she would probably hurt Obama’s chances.  Instead, she had spent her time volunteering in a Hispanic community where many of the US citizens needed help filling out their voter registration forms.  

While I was making my rounds in one community, Anna had returned to the town where we had worked on Saturday, this time being paired with an 80-year old African-American male for the door-to-door campaign. 

At first he expressed reluctance about going to the doors alone, but before long felt more comfortable about the entire process.  At one household where he encountered an Arabic speaker, he switched to Arabic himself, explaining to Anna afterwards that his job had taken him to Egypt for five years.   
Earlier in the day when I had been dropping my legal packages, I was surprised to see that by 6.30 in the morning the lines were so long that it would take people more than an hour to vote.   

Parker at home with his wife Anna and daughters Erica (front right) and Darcy (back standing). – Photo

Our daughter Erica told us that she had tried to vote at her polling place in Chesapeake, Virginia before going to work, but the line was so long that she chose to vote after work when she could afford to wait without feeling guilty about her job. 

It only took her two hours at the end of her work day, but we heard later on CNN that her polling station still had a line at 10pm -- the rule being that anybody who was in line before the polls officially closed at 7pm could still vote.  

According to the television report, Democrat party workers in Chesapeake had taken the additional step of going out to get pizza for voters standing in line. 

Once I had finished my canvassing work in the early afternoon, I returned home for lunch. Afterwards, I went to an Obama web site, where I could join the phone bank, making calls from home to prospective voters. 
After logging in and completing my first call, I submitted a status report; then another name and phone number popped onto my screen.  I did this for about two hours, calling about 60 phone lines and reaching about 25 people. 
Looking at the addresses and listening to the voices at the other end, I realized that most of my calls were being directed to African-Americans in urban areas in other parts of Virginia.  

A half hour before the polls closed, I stopped my calls and began making plans to watch the election results, which would only begin to be called after the polls had closed in each state.  

The polls in Virginia had closed at 7pm, but because of the long voting lines, the results did not begin arriving until later in the evening.  

At 8pm we went over to the home of some friends in Washington where we encountered others, often much younger who, because neither Washington nor Maryland were battleground states, had spent the last several days doing exactly the same sort of work in Virginia.  

When after midnight it became clear that Virginia was going for Obama, we applauded and congratulated each other for the work we’d been doing.  

We knew the election would be tight and didn’t think we’d know the results until many days after the election. 

We feared that as in the past the vote would be so close in states like Ohio and Florida that legal challenges would tie up the results for days, maybe weeks. 

These two states have played critical roles in all the elections since 2000.  

We were therefore surprised (and excited) by the announcement at 11.15pm on election night that President Obama had been re-elected.  

Each state is allocated votes in the Electoral College based on its total number of Representatives and Senators in the Congress.  While the number of representatives is based on population, every state is entitled to two Senators.  This was a compromise made in the 1790 so that small states would not feel dwarfed by more populous regions.  Thus large states like California and New York have 55 and 29 electoral votes respectively and small states like Vermont and Wyoming each have only 3 electoral votes.  All states except Nebraska and Maine allocate their electoral votes on the basis of winner-take-all.  Thus if one candidate gets the plurality of the popular vote, that candidate gets all of the state’s electoral votes and the number two candidate who may have lost only by a few hundred votes gets none. 

The complete list of battleground/swing states in this election additionally included New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nevada.  In addition, near the end of the race, it appeared that Minnesota and Pennsylvania might also be in play.  In the end all the closely contested states with the exception of North Carolina went for Obama.   
  Among the 40 largest US cities, the only places where Romney won a plurality of votes were Houston, Phoenix, Fort Worth, and Oklahoma City; likewise rural areas that went predominantly Democratic were those with heavy black in the southeast or Hispanic populations along the border with Mexico. 
We never thought that the final results from Virginia would come in after the election had been decided. 

As of 8 November, it appeared Obama had won the US popular vote (50% to 48%) and the electoral vote (303 to 206 with Florida’s 29 votes still in the undecided category.)   

This archaic Electoral College system, established in the Constitution before citizens had the direct vote, has meant that those states which are most divided between the incumbent and the challenger get the greatest attention. 
These are called the battleground states—the places where all of the final campaigning is focused. 

This year, it appeared that Virginia would join Ohio, Florida, Colorado, and a few others as the focus of the election. 
When we learned that friends from DC and Maryland were visiting Virginia to work on the campaign, we decided that we too should become involved.   

In tracking campaign appearances by the candidates and funding on advertising, it’s important to note that many of the most important states receive almost no attention because they are reliably Democratic (like New York, California, Illinois, and Massachusetts) or reliably Republican (like Texas, Georgia, Utah, and Wyoming).  

In the final weeks of the campaign neither candidate held rallies in these states or any of the big metropolitan areas of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta or Houston.  

The rallies all took place in cities and small towns of the battleground states. All the advertising attention was focused on these areas. 

Looking at an electoral map after the election, one can see that President Obama won most of the states in the northeastern quarter of the country and in the western coastal areas.  

Mitt Romney won most of the states in the southeast and western plains and mountains.  This is simplistic, but it’s the way things work in winner-take-all elections. 
Looking at each state more closely, it becomes evident that the Democrats generally won the urban areas and the close-in suburbs in almost every state, while the Republicans won in outer suburbs and rural areas. 

This was true almost everywhere whether New York, California, Texas, Louisiana, or Ohio. 
In the states where the Democrats win, the urban areas dominate the state and where the Republicans win, the outer suburbs, smaller towns and rural areas hold the majority of the votes. This also is a generalization and an oversimplification.  

A second way to look at the election results is to see which demographic group was voting for each candidate.  

 Preliminary figures show that while Romney won the plurality votes among males (52%), whites (59%), and evangelical protestant (perhaps 70%); the President won among women (55%), Blacks (93%), Hispanics (71%), Asians (73%) people under 44 years of age (60% under 30 and 52% under 44), and with incomes below US$50,000 per year.  

The Catholic vote was split in half, which was surprising because of the strong role of the Catholic Church is support of conservative social issues.  

Essentially Romney had only one group voting strongly in his favor --  white males, particularly older and wealthy ones. Because of a Supreme Court ruling that permitted unlimited contributions to Political Action Committees (PACs) without identifying contributors, vast amounts of money flowed from some of these rich white guys into the conservative’s campaign in a desperate effort to defeat the President. 

President Obama also had a big campaign chest of funds, but these came more heavily from smaller donors
Organization had prevailed over big money.  Obama had won reelection. 

November 8, 2012 

(Parker Borg was the former US Ambassador to Mali (1981-1984) and Iceland (1993-1996))

Following his Peace Corps assignment, Parker Borg attended Cornell University on a Ford Foundation Fellowship for former volunteers. After receiving an MPA degree in 1965, he joined the State Department and served more than 30 years as a Foreign Service Officer. He was nominated by three separate Presidents for Ambassadorial positions and held senior jobs at the State Department in the areas of counter-terrorism, narcotics suppression, the international dimensions of information technology, and African Affairs. He was nominated as American Ambassador to Mali, Burma, and Iceland, but never went to Burma because of Senate objection to Burma’s human rights problems. When nominated to go to Mali in 1981, the Peace Corps Director at the time, Loret Ruppe, informed him that he was the first former volunteer to become an Ambassador. Other overseas assignments included embassy assignments in the Congo and Malaysia and as a civilian advisor in Vietnam during the war.         

Following his retirement from the State Department, Parker taught courses in diplomacy and foreign policy at the American University of Rome and the American Graduate School of Paris. He and his wife Anna Maria Anderson Borg, who has also spent a career as an American diplomat, are the parents of three daughters.     

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