KEENE, N.H. — With just a few days remaining before the 2008 elections, polls from New Hampshire show Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama with a sizable lead among voters.
But, taking nothing for granted, 35 members of the Yale College Democrats ventured here on Saturday to canvass.
There was a notable sense of urgency among the students. After all, it was the New Hampshire primary that taught the Obama camp the dangers of complacency. At the beginning of primary season, Obama was fresh off of a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. Momentum seemed to be theirs until Hillary Clinton fashioned her own surprise, winning New Hampshire by three percentage points.
Eleven months later, the game has changed – John McCain is now Obama’s opponent. And with just a few days left, the political energy is as palpable as ever.
Democratic Elis took note of the atmosphere as they pulled into Obama’s New Hampshire headquarters here in New England’s other Elm City. Residents took to the streets, participating in what organizers call “visibility campaigns.”
Both the Obama and McCain campaigns had volunteers holding up signs for their candidates at different intersections, encouraging passing drivers to honk in support.
For Jeremy Avins ’10, the visible rivalry was unlike anything he could recall in his hometown of San Francisco or in the statically blue New Haven.
“It’s exciting to be somewhere where there’s actual political competition,” he said. “It’s much more energizing when you have to make your case in an area where some people don’t agree with you.”
He and about ten other students joined the ranks of sign-bearing enthusiasts, spending some of their time on the campus of Keene State College to remind students there to vote. By the afternoon, they even acted on their territorial ambitions, encroaching on the McCain supporters’ space and, ultimately, pushing them away.
The rest of the Yale contingent waited for direction on when and where they could do door-to-door canvassing, only to find that the Keene offices had enough volunteers on the ground already. They were sent south to the more rural areas of Winchester and Spofford, where some of the few remaining “un-canvassed voters” in the state lived.
At one point, one resident spoke from his garage about the region’s political divide between “Yankees” and “Flatlanders” to a Yale canvasser, Michael Boyce ’11. Boyce later commented how canvassing provides perspective on a community’s political demography.
“When you go into a new area, you have nothing to expect,” he said. “But just talking to a few people — thinking about how their politics make sense to their lifestyle — helps you get a feel for the make-up of an entire community.”
Many of the Obama supporters that Boyce met in the area cited the candidate’s “change” platform as a reason for their vote, despite their sometimes feeling at odds with liberalism.
Boyce contrasted the political conversations he had canvassing with those common to a campus like Yale’s.
“The points people make when you come to their door, either for or against your candidate, are much more infused with a real-world, practical view than you’d find [at Yale],” he said.
But Harry Etra ’09 said that he did notice some of the national rhetoric seeping into the conversations he had with residents.
“Sometimes it felt like you were hearing the campaign commercials running in the background when people spoke to you about the candidates,” he said. “It definitely seems like a lot of people are still making up their minds.”
With just two days left, Ben Shaffer ’09, president of the Yale College Democrats, said this indecision indicates that there is still work left to be done. But he was extremely proud of the students’ presence on the ground.
“When you drive two and a half hours to do work like this, you want to know that a lot of people are with you,” he said. “That’s definitely the case.”
Forty-five students returned to the state on Sunday, where they canvassed out of Milford. The Yale Dems also sent students to Philadelphia to campaign for Obama and to Bridgeport to canvass for Congressional hopeful Jim Himes.