I attended my first “visibility” event for Barack Obama yesterday, in Union Square, right in the midst of the Greenmarket, a perfect location to both be seen by and talk to a pretty diverse range of New Yorkers. There were approx. 20 of us spread throughout the Market, armed with “Obama ’08” signs and, with the deadline to register to vote in the Feb. 5th primary having passed, sign-up forms for people to pledge their support for him and offer to volunteer to help the campaign. I signed up 12 people during the 2.5 hours I was out there (including three potential volunteers), got a thumbs up from a few dozen more who said they were already supporting him, and had interesting discussions with a handful of people, including one who was tentatively supporting Hillary Clinton but keeping an open mind.
As a former Jehovah’s Witness, the whole steup was very familiar, and within about a half-hour, I was pretty comfortable being out there, not missing a beat when I bumped into a former co-worker, something that had always felt awkward back in those days of, um…campaigning for God. One of the things I learned back then was to read body language and faces and eyes, to discern between those who don’t see you and are actively avoiding seeing you, and those instincts were still pretty strong yesterday.
Interestingly, and purely anecdotal and subjective, most of those I saw who openly supported Obama — either by signing up or offering encouraging comments — were white, while a lot of the black people who passed me by either noticeably avoided making eye contact or had looks that I interpreted as an odd mix of melancholy and wistfulness. Of the various people I spoke to, several of them, all intending to vote for whomever the Democrats ultimately put forward, spoke of a deep distrust of the Clintons, one in particular whose comments were so outlandish I had to not-so-subtly shoo him away.
One of the best discussions I had was with a couple of women from somewhere in Europe (I couldn’t recognize the accent and didn’t ask) who were supporting Obama as the candidate most likely to change the perception of the US overseas. Afterwards, they both took pictures of me and my Obama sign.
Overall, I think there’s still an undeniably strong undercurrent of “America isn’t ready for a black man to be President” out there that even outright victories in Nevada and South Carolina won’t wipe away, but if Obama can win in places like New York and California, too, I believe that more and more people will start to see him having a legitimate shot and be more comfortable supporting him. The wide-ranging endorsements he’s received in the past week are a clear sign that there are those on the “inside” — on both sides of the “inside” — who believe he’s the right candidate, and while endorsements don’t typically mean much to the average voter, the right ones at the right time can favorably shift the media coverage so many of them depend on to help make their decision.
As far as here in NY, where it’s been presumed Clinton will dominate easily, The New York Times noted in a great front-page article in yesterday’s paper — Obama Giving Clinton a Race in Her Backyard — that “The New York City Board of Elections said more than 13,000 forms had been filed in the last week alone…”, a number that most likely favors Obama and is a good indicator that people are paying attention. Also encouraging are his prospects outside of the City which is typically far more conservative and where he’ll have to have a strong showing in order to beat Clinton outright:
Mr. Obama has been endorsed by a number of black elected officials in Harlem, southeast Queens and central Brooklyn, all bastions of Democratic voters. And in a particularly revealing gauge of his organizational strength, Mr. Obama is the only Democrat other than Mrs. Clinton to have full delegate slates in each of the state’s 29 Congressional districts, suggesting he may be competitive in areas outside New York City.
In the 2004 primary, nearly half the Democrats who voted were in New York City. Manhattan alone accounted for nearly one in five.
After the visibility event I went to a meeting with the organizers behind ObamaNYC where they were putting together a 25-Day Plan with an eye towards maximizing support for Obama in the Feb. 5th primary. It’s a very diverse and energetic group of twenty- and thirty-somethings — several of whom traveled up to New Hampshire and came back heartened despite the narrow defeat — and I left there fired up and ready to go, working on my own plan to maximize my limited time to get involved.
It was a great experience for my first real political campaign activity and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks as well as staying involved after he gets the nomination to help him get through the general election.