“There’s no point in voting. It won’t change my life any.”
As I looked around the neighborhood of the woman who spoke these words to me, I was almost inclined to agree. The dilapidated homes looked too small to comfortably house even one family, yet each was divided into four or five separate apartments. This woman, who begrudgingly told me her name was Mary, stood in front of one such house, in a small yard filled with trash and crab grass, while I made my plea that she vote for Obama. Her small body seemed weary, as though burdened with more concerns than its frame could stand. Still, as we talked, I sensed an unflappable optimism beneath her initial hardness, a willingness not to give up, as long as she felt there was something worth not giving up on.
People like Mary do not show up in any statistics at exit polls — and so no politician tries to court their vote — precisely because they don’t vote. They are the forgotten citizens, those so disillusioned with the political process that they simply ignore it. These are the people that need to be mobilized if the Democratic Party wants to avoid a third consecutive defeat. And the only candidate who can make this happen is Barack Obama.
As the race for the Democratic nomination drags endlessly on, each side has offered many arguments about who would be best suited to beat John McCain in November. But thus far, neither the media nor the Obama campaign itself has devoted much attention to what I believe is the most compelling reason why only Obama can achieve victory — his potential to dramatically increase voter turnout.
From the beginning, Obama has presented his campaign as a departure from “politics as usual.” He has argued that our government has too long been polarized between warring ideologies, which often arrange themselves along party lines. With Republicans making up about half our federal government and Democrats making up the other — and with one side opposing all that the other tries to do — it becomes nearly impossible to get anything accomplished. And even when one side succeeds in getting legislation passed, the other side immediately tries to undo it.
The appeal of Obama’s campaign stems from his promise to transcend this stalemate: to work with both sides, incorporate the best ideas of each and create policy proposals that can actually garner widespread support. Only in such a political environment will the government be able to make the kind of sweeping changes that would actually affect the lives of those most out of touch with the political process. While Clinton and Obama each offer similar proposals to help such people, with promises to reform taxes, healthcare, education, etc., Obama’s status as a Washington outsider, who has not made the same enemies or developed the same rivalries that Clinton has, gives him the potential to achieve unity where Clinton would only create more division.
Obama, therefore, represents the potential to markedly improve our nation in a way that Clinton cannot. If he is elected president, only time will tell the extent to which he will succeed in accomplishing his ambitious agenda of reform. He certainly offers more hope than any other candidate for Americans like Mary, and her neighbors, and the millions of similarly disillusioned voters throughout the nation.
A look at recent history demonstrates the urgent need for such a candidate. In 2004, George Bush won the presidency with 51 percent of the popular vote, beating John Kerry by three percentage points. However, 36 percent of the population that could vote did not vote for either candidate. Imagine if just a fraction of the Kerry supporters who didn’t care enough to vote had shown up at the polls. Now, imagine if a Democratic candidate existed who could convince all those who don’t usually vote that if there’s ever a time to start, now is that time. If the Democrats were to nominate Obama, they may be able to stop imagining.
At the end of my conversation with Mary, she not only resolved to vote for Obama, but she also promised to get all her friends to do the same. “Maybe nothing will change,” she said. “But we can at least try. And we can be optimistic.”
She’s right that the Democratic Party can be optimistic about its prospects this year — but only if it nominates Obama.
Gregory Chase is a sophomore in Branford College.