Suddenly came a burst of applause in the downtown Chicago field office of Obama for America, where 100-odd volunteers in folding chairs at metal tables, on the fifth floor of a dingy office building, were contacting voters Monday in the battleground states of Iowa and Wisconsin.
After 25 minutes on her cell phone to an undecided man in Palmyra, Iowa, Celeste Peterson persuaded him to lean toward the president.
“I don’t think I was breathing the whole time,” she said, flushed with victory—a small victory, to be sure, but a victory all the same. “It’s nice that he was open for conversation. He didn’t hang up on me, and that’s always a good start.”
Peterson, a 34-year-old Chicago native who sells cheeses at the Farmers Markets and recently returned to college for a degree in American sign language, was canvassing neighborhoods in Iowa on Saturday and planned to trek to Milwaukee on Election Day for more door-knocking to get out the vote.
“I’m waking up anxious every single day,” she said, noting that her eyes usually pop open well before her clock radio alarm turns on NPR. “I feel at least 51 percent positive about it, but I’m not gonna lie—I’m still concerned. I just hope that I’m making a difference.”
Sitting amid a different cluster of volunteers 50 feet away, 74-year-old Judith Kamins, a grandmother of seven, had a case of pre-election angst.
“I’m terrified. Terrified!” Kamins confided between dialing numbers of Wisconsin voters listed on her micro-targeted call sheet. “I wake up at three o’clock in the morning. I’m scared when I listen to what Romney and his group are saying.”
Kamins, who attends K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Temple, the ultra-liberal Reform synagogue directly across the street from President Obama’s Hyde Park home, has been showing up at the field office three days a week, entering data and making calls.
“I’m terrified.Terrified!” Kamins confided between dialing numbers of Wisconsin voters listed on her micro-targeted call sheet. “I wake up at three o’clock in the morning. I’m scared when I listen to what Romney and his group are saying.”
“When [George W.] Bush was elected—and I wasn’t for him—I consoled myself by saying, how much harm could he really do?” Kamins said, by way of explaining her sense of urgency. “And then I lived to see how much harm he could really do. I can’t imagine myself going back to that.”
So it went on the eve of the final titanic clash with Mitt Romney, whom the volunteers variously characterized as a liar, an enemy of women’s rights, a heartless plutocrat or simply a decent guy who has some seriously misguided ideas. “I want to be pro-Obama, not anti-Romney,” said Peterson, a self-described “member of the 47 percent.” But, she added, “he just kind of acts like a brat when he’s off camera, used to getting his way.”
Toyia Hemingway, a Hyde Park resident who lives a couple of blocks from the president and his family, said that even though she is personally doing fine, she’s worried about the decline of the middle class and the rise of poverty that she fears a Romney presidency would bring about.
“My world wouldn’t change,” said Hemingway, who works in the credit and debit card business, “ but my attitude would. I’d be feeling very disenfranchised. I’m feeling very much that the smaller person, instead of corporate America, isn’t being represented.”
Perhaps the youngest volunteer was 9-year-old Mary Pat Walsh, a native of China’s Hunan province who was making calls alongside her adoptive mother, clinical psychologist Lou Walsh.
“We just like Obama and we want him to be elected again,” said the precocious fourth-grader. And why? “I don’t know—because she likes him,” she answered, indicating her mom.
“I’m getting a little anxious about it,” Lou said about the election; she estimated that between herself and her daughter, they’ve made more than 1,000 phone calls.
“She cracks her jaw when she’s anxious,” Mary Pat noted, “and every time she cracks her jaw she has to give me a dollar. She owes me, like, a thousand dollars.”
Longtime Democratic activist Frank Diaz, who has been working elections in Chicago since 1960, scoffed at his colleagues’ jumpiness.
“They lack experience,” said Diaz, 79, who settled in Chicago from Puerto Rico in 1951 and built a career in commercial lending. “Obama’s gonna win by three million votes, and he’s gonna get 300 electoral votes.”
As the volunteers buckled down to their call lists, camera crews from France, Japan, and even more exotic places like California—invited by the Obama campaign to record all the collective dedication—stalked the phone banks and buttonholed interviewees. “I feel very excited,” 18-year-old high school senior Karla Rangel told a French journalist—a granola bar on the table in front of her waiting to be consumed. “I hope people go out and vote.”
Margie Medellin, who lives on Chicago’s South Side, has been volunteering regularly for the Obama campaign since July, and also worked for his 2008 juggernaut in Iowa. She said she’s had plenty of free time since being laid off after a 20-year career as a department store buyer.
“I wanted to do whatever I could to help the president finish his job,” said Medellin, a grandmother who helped register voters for Obama in 2008. “I’m old,” she said. “Not in mind and soul, but I’ve been around.” She added that she was fatalistic about her candidate’s chances. “I feel like if he doesn’t win, it wasn’t meant to be.”