Why you should care
Because for some people, the politics of Election Day are personal.
The author is a former speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton and the daughter of two members of Congress.
Elections may look glamorous, but campaigning is grubby work. And the places where that work happens — campaign headquarters — are usually dumps: overflowing trash bins; stale Costco cookie packages; donated, semi-broken furniture; and bathrooms you’d rather avoid. The Des Moines headquarters of the John Kerry for President campaign where I worked as Iowa communications director was an abandoned used car salesroom. As January 2004 approached and we marshaled our resources to shake loose those prized Iowa caucus-goers, some of the plaster panels of the ceiling in my shared office began to rain down on us, actually hitting a colleague, Cyril, in the head. John Kerry won Iowa and went on to secure the nomination. Cyril survived.
First Tuesdays in November have been some of the most pivotal moments of my life. I’ve experienced a few as a campaign aide, but today Election Day is about something even more charged than politics — family. I wake up on this fall Tuesday every other year thinking about electing either my mom or dad to Congress.
Election Days feel like seven days rolled into one.
In a word, Election Days are bizarre, whether you’re a comms director or a candidate’s kid. They feel like seven days rolled into one. They begin well before dawn as the candidates, volunteers and campaign staff fan out in the dark to place reminders on the doorknobs of targeted voters; they end well after midnight following the speeches and parties. The hours in between draw out at an excruciatingly slow pace.
And yet, despite the shabbiness of the typical campaign headquarters, despite the weariness of the day in question, there is a tangibly optimistic spirit that persists — in a Norman Rockwell kind of way. Everyone is welcome and all kinds flock to volunteer: There’s the retiree in a madras shirt plodding too loudly through his call sheet next to the lanky and shy high school senior who probably has political aspirations of her own. There’s the effervescent campaign aide charged with keeping volunteers happy and productive, always putting on a good face no matter how exhausted, answering the same obvious question for the hundredth time. Like obsessed sports fans, campaign workers are glued to their laptops, citing statistics to one another about vote-by-mail returns, the size of media buys, “robo-call” response rates.
My dad first ran for Congress in 1994. He was a 60-year-old college professor of theology who had never held office before. I had just graduated from college, was totally focused on starting a career in national politics, and thrilled my dad had jumped into the ring. We were in way over our heads.
In one town, we simply went to the busiest intersection and stood waving signs, hoping for supportive honks.
Election Day rolled around, and we set off in the common tradition of visiting every city in the congressional district. Our family piled into a borrowed van and drove the few hundred miles from the bottom of the district to the top and back, unsure of what we should be doing exactly, but feeling the pressure to do as much as we could. In one sleepy beachside town, we simply went to the busiest intersection and stood on the corner waving signs hoping for some supportive honks. In another we visited a busy ice cream shop. Indeed, we were total neophytes looking more like the Griswolds than the Kennedys, but what to do with the candidate on Election Day is somewhat of a conundrum even the most sophisticated campaigns face.
These days, by the time the polls open, the die has pretty much been cast — thanks to early voting and vote-by-mail. Sure, fieldworkers need to keep churning out reminder calls to voters, and press aides like myself set up photo ops and swap tidbits of information with reporters. Well-funded presidential and senatorial candidates sit in TV studios and beam into local news stations in the last-ditch hopes of motivating forgetful voters. There is almost always a mini-crisis of some sort on which to needlessly fixate. In short, it’s a lot of fodder on a day that has monumental consequences. After months, even years of campaign work, the day is not about the candidate or campaign, but about the voters. What they do is what matters most.
In 1994, our marathon day didn’t end well. I vividly remember our drive home as the autumn moon rose, our adrenaline sapped, and the car grew quiet as we heard the results on the radio from across the country, feeling the tidal wave of GOP wins rolling ominously in our direction. It was the year of the Republican Revolution, and Democrats fared poorly across the country.
But two years later we did it all again, with a little more expertise, a lot more support, and the benefit of being on the same ballot as a popular president (who happened to then be my boss). My father won, and Santa Barbara’s had its own version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Ten months after being sworn into Congress, he tragically died of a heart attack. Weeks later, my mom, a former school nurse with more compassion than anyone I know, made the tough decision to run to carry out his term. She won and has gone on to win eight more general elections and serve our district well. Today, once more after 20 years, her constituents will go to the polls to decide if she deserves another term. And as just as it’s been for the past 20 years, I’ll be by her side as we traverse the district, absorbed in the time warp of a day that for us is now a wonderfully nostalgic family tradition: Election Day.