By Sam Schoenburg ’11
I could not believe I was there. Standing with my friends, fellow interns on the campaign trail in Des Moines, Iowa, I was about to hear one of the most uplifting political speeches of my life from a man who, with his win in the Iowa caucuses just two hours old, was possibly on his way to the White House. After Barack Obama stepped up to the podium, in front of 3000 excited supporters, he delivered his message of a new American politics, one of healing, one of times of hard work and determination to come, with fundamental changes in our country in sight. We would do this together, he said. And as I stood there, all around me I could feel the history in the making.
My experiences in Des Moines, which came to a head that night of Jan. 3, have shaped my life since this past summer, when I had the opportunity to work as a field intern in the Iowa capital for the campaign.
I learned what a meticulously organized campaign looked and felt like, and I became part of that operation as we engrossed ourselves in the task of contacting voters throughout Polk County, which included Des Moines. I learned so much, and I became friends with the extraordinary organizers whose job it was to build the movement by reaching out to the community, just as Barack had done in Chicago right out of college.
Leaving for school after that summer was tough, but I couldn’t forego my first semester at Yale. Yet throughout the first half of this year, my mind was often on the presidential race, checking the news, and thinking about the dedicated people still working so hard in Des Moines.
That is why my return to Des Moines was especially poignant. I traveled there at the end of December to spend nine days of winter break working with these friends. The campaign was in high gear getting our message out in the last days before this first test.
I was assigned the job of volunteer coordinator for two of the field organizers in Polk County. I was responsible for working with the organizers to keep the many volunteers busy, training them when necessary in how to track information and talk to caucus-goers, controlling the flow of traffic in the office, and ensuring that all of the day’s data was taken care of by the nightly deadline.
It was a whirlwind week. Most days we were in the office at 9 a.m. and out by 2 a.m. the next morning. Some nights we got off early. At New Year’s, for example, we were told to leave by 12:45 a.m. The meals we ate consisted of whatever pizza or other junk food we could get down in the rare free moment. We averaged about five hours of sleep a night, but we were happy to go on less.
Caucus day was the best by far. We were visible all over Polk County, reminding supporters of their caucus locations, telling them to make sure to be there by 6:30 that night. I had the opportunity to see this quirky but fascinating event take place, just one of the 1,781 caucuses that met all over the state.
I watched the bartering (and even fighting) among camps, the second alignment when people switched their allegiances from unviable candidates, and the final allocation of delegates. This south side Des Moines precinct was a tough one, but we edged out two delegates, a win enough for this one.
Upon returning to the office, excitement mounted as we watched the returns come rolling in. Obama was ahead, but how far would this thing go? Then the final score came in: Obama had broken through with a clearly winning 38 percent.
Hugs and yells filled the room. Organizers wept. This was the moment we had worked so hard to create. We paraded over to see the momentous victory speech. We had done it! And as the staff and volunteers gathered around the conference phone back at the headquarters after the speech, our candidate came on the line. He said how proud he was of all of the people who had built this movement, one of the best political organizations ever seen in Iowa.
My eyes welled up as I took in the moment: I had been part of something transformative that day. I had helped to make a difference. That feeling and those memories are more meaningful than I can say.