When Adam Goldfarb ’02 SOM ’05 LAW ’09 returned to New Haven after months campaigning for Barack Obama, he found his bedroom redecorated with about 30 campaign posters for Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 — under his pillow, under his bed, in his drawers.
He knew who was responsible for the prank; his roommate Addisu Demissie ’01 LAW ’08 is the state director of the New York senator’s campaign in Connecticut.
Goldfarb said he is planning to retaliate with a few hundred pieces of literature left over from New Jersey. Demissie’s reply: “I’ll be on the lookout.”
Demissie and Goldfarb, who have been close friends and roommates for three years, are “one of those roommate pairs” who are almost always together, Goldfarb said. They spend much of their time together watching TV, playing fantasy sports and just “goofing off.”
But each spends even more time committed to his respective campaign of choice. Through teasing each other with their campaigns’ talking points or keeping their communications hidden from the rival camp in the next room, they found both a foil and a source of inspiration in one another.
“If I didn’t know Addisu, I don’t know if this would have happened,” Goldfarb said of his work for Obama.
The message board of the fantasy basketball league Demissie and Goldfarb participate in often doubles as a venue for political banter and jockeying, said Anthony Vitarelli LAW ’09, a mutual friend and league competitor.
“Trade rumors are often interspersed with political barbs,” he explained.
Other classmates have noticed the jesting between the roommates when they sit next to each other in class — both have their campaign’s bumper stickers on their laptops.
Far from being a sore subject, the race dominates the pair’s conversations, with each tirelessly advocating his candidate, knowing full well he will never change the other’s mind, Demissie said.
“It’s in our blood,” he said.
Ravi Gupta LAW ’09, who is working as a “get-out-the-vote coordinator” for the Obama campaign in Ohio, said Demissie and Goldfarb are both very mature, agreeable and funny people, and he said he can imagine them having a lot of good-natured fun with their rivalry.
It was probably better that the two were not living together when the campaign was most intense, Goldfarb said. They may tease each other with talking points and poll results, but the friends are sensitive enough to each other that the campaign has never burdened their friendship, both said.
“They’re just great guys who both love politics and both love the values that the [Democratic] Party stands for,” Vitarelli said. “We all recognize that people come first and you can be friends with someone no matter who they support.”
Gupta said living with a staff member for an opposition candidate can be comforting and grounding.
“Working on a campaign is like going to battle every single day, so it’s easy to demonize the other side in a very irrational way,” he said. “Living with someone allows you to humanize the other side.”
The e-mail talking points that Demissie and Goldfarb receive from the campaigns every morning provide them with more than enough material to tease each other for the day. Most of the jokes are “too corny for public consumption,” Goldfarb wrote in an e-mail.
But if, for example, Goldfarb ever keeps his roommate waiting, Demissie quips, “I want a roommate who’s ready to go to class from Day One.”
Besides providing an opportunity for a jab at his friend, Demissie’s focus on the next president’s first day in office really is decisive for him in this campaign. He was undecided between Clinton and Obama for a long time, he said, until he watched her performance in one of the early Democratic debates, which convinced him that she would make the best president when the campaign is over and it is actually time to govern.
“On Jan. 20 at 2 p.m., when the president walks down Pennsylvania Avenue and walks into the White House and sits down at the desk, it’s not going to be about who is the best speechmaker,” he said. “It’s going to be about who can accomplish progressive goals.”
In Demissie’s mind, Clinton is the candidate who can do that.
“You can’t change everything with a speech or with words, or with actions even,” he said, echoing one of Clinton’s most popular lines. “You have to pick your fights and fight like hell for them.”
Nobody knows that better than Clinton, he said. After being “baptized by fire” in politics, he said, she knows what the country needs and how to get it done, where to compromise and where to stand firm.
When Demissie briefed Clinton during her visit to Connecticut before the primary earlier this month, he said he was impressed by how “sharp” she was. She wanted to know the specific issues important to people in Connecticut, he said.
Goldfarb, who began his work with the Obama campaign early last summer, only met Obama briefly in New Jersey after a speech in October, but he said he was impressed with the candidate’s poise. He thinks the Illinois senator has the best chance at accomplishing progressive goals and “the only chance to be transformational candidate.”
“He’s the only guy who has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation type of leader,” he added.
Obama is attracting new people to politics and new people to the Democratic Party, Goldfarb said.
“I’ve had tons of conversations with people who’ve said, ‘I would never vote for a Democrat, except for Obama,’ ” he explained. “That ability to bring people in — he basically has a monopoly on that in this campaign.”
This inspiration, Goldfarb said, is what made him “want to drop everything and jump on a campaign.”
When the summer ended, Goldfarb decided to take a semester off from law school to continue his work with the campaign. He returned to Yale after Super Tuesday and is now taking a break from the campaign, although he said he plans to return after this semester.
Demissie managed to juggle a semester of law school while running Clinton’s Connecticut campaign. Although only 27, his experience on past campaigns made him a veteran, and he rose quickly to a senior position. Experience, not age, is what matters in politics, he said.
“Politics is a young person’s game, because it takes a lot of energy and burns you out quickly,” he said. “If you are experienced and talented, you will work your way up very quickly in politics.”
In May 2003, Demissie volunteered for John Kerry’s ’66 presidential campaign in Iowa and worked on that campaign until Super Tuesday. Demissie was laid off as Kerry’s campaign reorganized for the general election, but he was rehired three weeks later.
When Kerry lost, Demissie made plans to apply to law school. If the election had turned out differently, he might not have returned to Yale, he said.
Before enrolling, Demissie continued working for the Democratic Party as a personal aide to then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who now heads Clinton’s campaign.
With this prior campaign experience, Demissie was handed a leadership role for 2008.
“If you’ve worked in the field, the respect you get in politics and policy is enormous,” he said. Even the top names in politics today, he said, “once upon a time worked in the field, on the ground, knocking on doors.”
For Goldfarb, what started as a summer internship with Obama’s policy team in Chicago turned into a full-time job organizing the campaign’s efforts in eight counties in central New Jersey through Super Tuesday. The entire policy team was reassigned to the field, he said, where members were “supplying people with policy instead of helping to make it.”
“You talk a lot of policy out in the field,” he said.
In Jersey, Goldfarb helped organized speeches and mobilize the volunteer base. The hectic pace starkly contrasted with making conference calls and sitting behind a desk, both part of the daily routine of policy work, he said. But in the field, “if you’re not sleeping, you’re campaigning,” he said.
And there is not a lot of sleeping. The long, busy days on the trail were packed with trips to represent the campaign at community events and efforts to recruit volunteers.
“It can be pretty grueling if it weren’t so exhilarating,” Goldfarb said.
Election Day seemed deceptively quiet at headquarters, Goldfarb said. The day’s work, which started long before the polls opened at 6 a.m., included responding to reports from polling sites and interpreting early numbers as they come in.
Between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. came the “last-minute craze,” Goldfarb said, when polls are busiest and when volunteers all left the campaign office to try to turn out the vote. Goldfarb was making calls with the mayor of Edison, New Jersey, until 7:59, he said.
After the polls closed and the results started to trickle in, the field workers wobbled into Obama’s statewide party late, bedraggled and exhausted, but “pumped up,” Goldfarb said.
For Obama, it turned out not to be a victory party in New Jersey, but Goldfarb said there was still reason to celebrate.
Clinton’s margin of victory was much smaller than polls had predicted just weeks before the primary, and Goldfarb said the campaign is proud of closing that gap and picking up more delegates — especially in a year when every one counts. Goldfarb said New Jersey was “a piece of a larger puzzle” on Super Tuesday.
“We still celebrated because we did so well nationwide, which opened the door for what’s happened in the rest of February,” he said.
Demissie, too, saw his candidate lose in the state where he worked. Despite the disappointment, however, he said he is optimistic about the campaign’s prospects.
“We still won a lot of states that day, and I think we’re going to win a lot more going forward,” he said.
The campaign will keep chugging ahead, Demissie said, despite Obama’s streak of 11 straight victories. Voters know how to make “independent judgments,” he said, no matter what happened the previous Tuesday in some other state.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with momentum,” he said.
Since Super Tuesday, Demissie said, the Connecticut campaign has still been active, especially fund-raising and making calls in neighboring Rhode Island, whose primary is on March 4.
Goldfarb is staying involved, too, even though he is technically on hiatus from the campaign. He plans to rejoin the campaign after the spring semester; in the meantime, he said, “I can’t help but do stuff.” Since returning to school, he has helped to organize law students in phone banks and coordinated a field trip to campaign in South Carolina.
If the race continues all the way through the summer — “God help us all,” Demissie said — he said he would jump on a post-graduation trip to Puerto Rico for the June 7 primary.
“Maybe Adam and I would share a hotel room,” he joked.
The two are already planning a vacation to Las Vegas for spring break, along with Gupta, another Obama volunteer and a fifth student who worked for John Edwards’ campaign.
After months of working for the rival campaigns, the two roommates could ultimately find themselves on the same team.
A joint ticket uniting Clinton and Obama — though far from certain, or even probable, at this point — is starting to look increasingly likely, Demissie said.
Neither candidate appears poised to rack up the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the nomination, he said, so the logical conclusion would be some sort of deal brokered between the two.
“At the turn of the year, I would have said there was a 10 percent chance,” he said of that eventuality. “Now, I’d say 25 percent.”
Demissie said he thinks to candidates are still on good enough terms that they could settle their primary squabbles and join forces for the general election.
In a tender moment during last Thursday’s debate, which Demissie and Goldfarb watched on TV together, Clinton said, “I am honored to be here with Barack Obama” before the candidates shook hands. And a TIME magazine poll this month reported 62 percent of registered Democrats would want Obama as Clinton’s running mate, and 51 percent would want her as his.
“When either side hollers about negativity, this is patty-cake compared to what the Republicans are going to do to our campaign in the fall,” Demissie said.
Goldfarb said he is not comfortable making predictions about the race, but he does not think the prolonged primary battle will disadvantage the Democrats in the general election.
“Everyone I’ve talked to will say to you at first, ‘I’m only behind my candidate,’ but it’s pretty clear that the Democrats will coalesce around the nominee,” he said. “The supporters of whoever comes in second will obviously be disappointed but then get reinvolved.”
After all, if Demissie and Goldfarb can live with each other, maybe Clinton and Obama can, too.