At dusk a week ago today, several dozen students sat cross-legged on the ground outside the Af-Am House, cell phones pressed to their ears.
A group of us had just left the News to grab a quick dinner before returning to editing our election issue, but we had to stop as we passed by. Basked in the last glimmers of sunlight, abuzz with the collective hum of the phone-banking, Yale students of a thousand types were doing their best to get one last voter to the polls in support of Barack Obama. It was an inspiring scene.
Now that Obama has been elected, it is a worthwhile time to reflect on what we witnessed at the Af-Am House last week. What we saw was more than phone calls, more than an effort to turn out a few more voters. Rather, it was a collective effort, in our first time electing a president, to define our generation and birth a new era of American leadership.
Last week, the News reported on research by Yale political science professors Alan Gerber and Donald Green that suggested the canvassing and phone-banking efforts by Obama-supporting Yalies over many months of campaigning perhaps turned out no more than 437 extra voters in two battleground states. In that article, which has been the topic of debate among many on campus since it was published, a News reporter quoted two students who emphasized that Elis’ tireless campaign efforts should not be boiled down to numbers.
“What’s important, and what Obama has shown, is a lot of this election was about getting people engaged for the first time,” Sam Brill ’10 explained. “Literally hundreds of people that I knew became part of history.”
We could not have said it better.
The canvassing statistics by Yale for Change are impressive — more than 20,000 doors knocked on, more than 50,000 calls logged this semester alone. But those figures only begin to explain why the work of groups like YFC was so important. Their success came not only in the votes they turned out, but also — and just as importantly — in the spirit of engagement they sparked. Their mission, and their success, was not simply the election of their candidate. They mobilized hundreds of Yalies to work for their country and for our future — and that should not be forgotten or diminished.
Now, as Obama transitions into the presidency, it is important to ask, as Jed Bartlet might say, “What’s next?”
In last fall’s municipal elections, turnout in New Haven was an embarrassing 23 percent, and many races around the city were not even contested. Moreover, in a News poll the autumn before, nearly nine in 10 Yale students said they were interested in national politics — but half said they couldn’t care less about events at the local level.
That, we hope, will change. And if it does, it will likely do so in large part because of the mobilization for this year’s presidential election. The astonishing level of political involvement we’ve seen at Yale this fall — and since last year — should not stop now that we have elected a president. The engagement, the dialogue, the selfless commitment to making America a better place — all are necessary for sustained progress in this country.
Hundreds of Yale students made history by sending Barack Obama to the White House. But back in New Haven, there is more to be done. The fight for change, as Obama would say, does not end with one election.