For more than a year, the candidates have courted American voters. Now it’s time to decide who gets to take us to the big dance: President Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney?
On the first Tuesday in November, we will choose the person that will be leading the country for the next four years. In doing so, we will bring to an end a brutal ritual—the presidential election season.
But until Nov. 6, the candidates will continue to scour the country for votes. They will rally the bases and attempt to win over the mythical “undecided.”
Much of Obama’s and Romney’s final campaign pushes will be focused on “battleground” or “at-play” or “swing” states. Purple places like Ohio and Florida. The race has gotten tight and it’s time to fight for the only things that matter: enough Electoral College votes for a candidate to claim victory in a country that’s pretty much split down the middle.
Escambia County is reliably red and doesn’t demand too much attention from either campaign during crunch time. But the local arms of the Obama and Romney camps have been hustling their candidates for months and don’t have any intentions of slowing down between now and Election Day.
“This is far different than what was done four years ago,” said local Romney organizer Troy Schoonover. “The ground game this time is really fantastic.”
Campaign volunteers will knock on doors. They will work the phones. They will tell anyone who cares to listen exactly why their candidate is the only sane choice for president of the United States.
Obama supporter David Guthrie cast the election in a dire light. It’s a pretty common characterization, regardless of one’s political stripe.
“I truly believe it’s the most important election of our life,” Guthrie said. “I don’t say that every election.”
Eating Tacos Ringside
The local Obama headquarters is in a small strip mall on Pace Boulevard. Inside, volunteers have been placing calls from a bank of phones, urging people to vote for their man.
Official campaign signage mingles with handmade posters on the wall. A scrap of notebook paper is stuck on an office door: “I <3 Obama.”
On the night of the second presidential debate, supporters gathered in the strip mall headquarters, hoping their candidate would make a better showing than his timid performance during the previous encounter. They watched quietly—maybe waiting to flinch—as the broadcast was projected onto the wall.
The mood at the Obama office was a bit shaken. They used to have it locked up, but recent shifts in the polls have given the president’s team a reason to sweat.
Across town, local Republicans had gathered in the back room of Monterrey’s Mexican Grill. They ate chips and salsa and howled at a Fox News broadcast of the debate.
This crowd was different. Whipped into a frenzy and ready to fight, or what Schoonover would later call a “really lovely group.” If they could, these people would have grabbed the incumbent by the scruff of the neck in order to drag him into the back room of Monterrey’s and ask him why he was turning the country into such a socialist mess.
“You tell him, Romney!” a woman shouted at the television.
It’s best to be careful around such irritable aggression. The staff at Monterrey’s made sure to keep the food coming. If they ran out of tacos, it could only be assumed that this crew would head straight to Pace Boulevard and start eating Obama volunteers whole.
The Hope and Change Factory
A few days later, the local Obama headquarters appeared in much better spirits. The president had done well enough in the debate and the faithful were all smiles on a Saturday. It was time for a pep rally.
With the election only weeks away, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) was in town to rally the troops. A standing room-only crowd packed the strip mall headquarters.
Sam Morrissette stood near the wall. His wife, Elsie, would be introducing the congressman.
“I wish what is happing now would have happened earlier in my life,” said the tall black man.
After volunteering in the president’s 2008 campaign, Morrissette said he hadn’t been as involved this election season—“this is the first time in the building”—but was starting to gear up for the final push of the campaign as the race tightened up.
“I’m optimistic,” he said, “but I wish I was more so.”
As the crowd waited for Clyburn to arrive, Regional Field Director Bre Andrews stepped to the front of the room. She encouraged people to be sure to vote, preferably early.
“To show that this is not just red-Pensacola, it’s the Yes-I-Can-Handle,” she said. “We’re not going to be red that much longer.”
When Clyburn arrived he seemed as excited to see the president’s supporters as they were to see him. He hugged his way to the front of the room and quickly hit a tent-revival stride.
“If this is any indication of the excitement that exists out there, I think we’re in a pretty good place to make this happen,” Clyburn said.
The congressman told political war stories, nailed some big-laugh punch lines and provided some energy to sustain volunteers during the final push. He was there to motivate the people who would motivate the people.
“I believe the difference between winning and losing in Florida will come down to what we do between now and Nov. 6,” Clyburn said.
After the representative’s speech, Obama-supporters stood in line to shake his hand and snap a picture. As he waited, Guthrie explained why he was supporting the president’s re-election. He cited the new Affordable Health Care Act, and the associated changes within the health care system, as one of Obama’s accomplishments that impacted him directly
“Without the health care reform, I’d be in a lot worse position” he said, explaining that being self-employed made obtaining insurance difficult.
A few blocks away from the Obama campaign headquarters, a group of University of West Florida students stood on the street corner waving signs at passing traffic. A man nearby sold roses from a basket on his bicycle.
“It’s very important, as college students, to make sure we vote,” said Shantrella Parker.
The students explained that they feel the president is a better choice when it comes to interests they consider important. Specifically, they said Obama could better handle the issues surrounding student loans and education.
“We believe in Obama,” said Jason Penny.
Painting the Town Red
Over at the local Romney “Victory” headquarters, Republicans were also gearing up for the final phase of the campaign. It was “Super Saturday” and volunteers were manning a room full of phones.
“I made calls four years ago,” said Jarod Workman. “It seems like now people are excited this year.”
Workman is an intern with the Romney campaign. He’s a graduate student at Pensacola Christian College and a conservative.
“I just believe in the things the Republican Party believes in,” Workman said. “—Pro-life, small government, traditional marriage.”
The intern said that he’s concerned about the direction Obama has taken the country. He cites the health care law, or “Obamacare.”
“I believe it oversteps what the government should do,” Workman said.
While he felt that the president would not be able to improve the state of the economy, the supporter pointed to Romney’s business background and said the candidate had the necessary skills to steer the country onto more stable economic footing.
“He plans on cutting back, spending less,” Workman said. “That’s how anybody saves money.”
At the next table, another intern worked his way through a call list. Derek Brauneis—a student at Pensacola Christian Academy earning community service hours he’s hoping better his chances at a scholarship—is no fan of Obama’s.
“His policies, I don’t agree,” he said. “He’s more socialistic.”
Brauneis said he did identify with Romney’s vision.
“I agree with his stance on marriage, I agree with his stance on abortion, I agree with his stance on taxes,” he said.
The interns seemed confident about Romney’s chances locally.
“It’s been a predictably red area,” Workman said.
Near a table of snacks toward the back end of “Victory” headquarters, Mona Roberts took a break from making calls for Romney. She talked about the country her grandchildren would be inheriting and why she was spending her time volunteering.
“Because I’m a red-white-and-blue girl,” Roberts said.
Her dad was a veteran. She didn’t think he would have been able to handle the Obama years.
“If my dad had not already expired,” she said, “what’s happening to this country would have killed him.”
Like the crowd at Monterrey’s, Roberts is riled up. She can’t stomach it—on a near physical level—any longer.
“The person in the White House does not love this country as he should,” she said. “Is that strong enough?”
Back on the Pace Boulevard corner, the Obama supporters said that they understood they faced an uphill trek in Escambia County.
“I’ve actually been a little nervous about putting an Obama sticker on my car because my coworker got her tires slashed,” said Sherieka Bailey, adding that the group’s signs were also drawing passionate responses from passerby. “—Somebody told me to ‘Go f-myself with this poster.’”
Bailey said she understands the passion from the opposition. Like Robertson, she understands that the candidates are laying out starkly different visions of America.
“We are going on different paths,” Bailey said, turning her attention back to the street-corner campaigning.
Souls to the Polls
In 2008, the Sunday prior to Election Day was a pretty big deal in minority communities. Across the country, church members voted en masse in an event known as Souls to the Polls.
The Souls to the Polls event—popular among African-American and Latino churches—isn’t partisan based. Congregations are not instructed who to vote for, just encouraged to vote.
In Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, 33.2 percent of all African-American voters and 23.6 percent of Latino voters cast their ballots on that last Sunday of early voting in the 2008 election.
This election year, some states have passed new laws that impact the Souls to the Polls events. In Florida, the Sunday prior to Election Day is no longer open for voting. The state’s law was challenged in federal court, but in September a judge ruled that a clear case could not be made that such a rule would negatively affect African-Americans’ right to vote.
As a result, many congregations are being encouraged to cast their vote on Oct. 28, the last Sunday available for early voting in Florida.