Washington D.C. — On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 2, UCSB senior anthropology major Merritt Gurley stopped traffic.
Standing at the intersection of Conant Street and Anthony Wayne Trail in the Toledo, Ohio suburb of Maumee, Gurley leapt in the air and flung her limbs into an acrobatic position she calls “star jumps.” Clad in raingear and two John Kerry signs — one strapped around her chest and another around her waist — Gurley caught the attention of one motorist during his morning commute. Apparently dazzled by her display of partisan enthusiasm, the driver rear-ended a Cadillac sporting a “Bush-Cheney ’04” bumper sticker.
Five days before Election Day, seven UCSB students boarded a van and traveled to Toledo, Ohio, a strange red-swinging state just over 2,000 miles from Santa Barbara in blue California, and nearly 400 miles from their temporary home at the UCDC center in the similarly blue District of Columbia. The Gauchos, never having visited the Buckeye State before, were welcomed by the flood of election signs — half red, half blue — that occupied the town.
“It was definitely a middle-class place,” said Matt Swope, a senior political science and physical anthropology major. “It’s like if nobody moved out of Isla Vista for 20 years, and all there was in the entire town was bars. Minus the ocean, of course.”
Though Toledo, the 86-square-mile seat of Lucas County, had supported Al Gore in 2000, its diverse population — 70 percent white, 23 percent black, with 30 percent of the overall population reporting an annual income of under $20,000 in the 2000 census — did not ensure a Democratic win again for 2004. Toledo, it seemed, could help decide whether Ohio’s 20 electoral votes would go to George W. Bush or John Kerry.
This potential power prompted Congressman Brad Sherman (D-San Fernando Valley) to pay transportation costs of volunteers who would go to Ohio and work with America Coming Together (ACT), a “voter mobilization project” affiliated with the Democratic Party, but no specific Democratic candidate in the election. ACT, like the more widely known Progress for America, Swift Vote Veterans for Truth and MoveOn.org: Democracy in Action, is a “527” committee — a fund-raising group that can accept larger sums of money than the candidate-affiliated political campaigns are legally allowed.
Graham Bishop, a senior history of public policy and sociology major, was interning in Sherman’s office as part of the Fall 2004 UCDC program, and said he jumped at the opportunity to go. Word spread and other students volunteered as well.
“Going to Ohio was our only option to campaign in a way that could actually affect the presidential race,” said Melanie Chase, a senior business economics and English major.
With hopes of affecting political change, the students disembarked from a nine-hour minivan voyage and into the home of the hosts, Lucas County Coroner James Patrick and his wife Beverly, who live in Maumee near Lake Erie. There, they prepared four days of canvassing the neighborhoods of Toledo.
“I was going door-to-door and my next stop was for a woman named Cathy,” Swope recalls. “So I knock, and this fat guy in a wheelchair — no shirt and this grandma wig – answers. And I ask him, ‘Can I speak with Cathy?’ And he answers, ‘I am Cathy.’ And then I notice that he’s wearing some makeup. I realized it wasn’t a Halloween thing. So I asked him, ‘Cathy, are you going to vote?'”
In the days leading up to the election, Cathy and thousands of other Toledo residents endured an assault by door-to-door foot soldiers fighting the war to get out the vote. The UCSB students who temporarily traded their internships for positions in the election system canvassed, or solicited people to vote, in 25 of Toledo’s more than 120 precincts. Any persuasion stopped there – ACT’s status as a 527 precludes its members from pushing any candidate upon prospective voters. At most, canvassers can arrange for a van to drive voters to polls on Election Day.
“I never told anybody to vote for Kerry. We just encouraged them to vote. That was more important: just getting people there,” Gurley said.
However, the campaigners were only stopping at addresses yielded by an ACT survey about which political party people registered as. In effect, by only reminding registered Democrats to vote, a greater number of them would actually make it to the polls, swinging the election toward Kerry and coloring Ohio blue rather than red.
Despite the spike in daily knocks on the doors, the students said they felt the Toledo residents were cordial; only a few greeted the campaigners with “goddamnit” or “fuck you.”
“Somebody offered to adopt me,” Gurley said.
Sara Potts, a senior international studies major at UC Irvine who also canvassed, said she empathized with Toledo residents.
“They had to be getting sick of us,” Potts said. “Every day, they’d get five phone messages, three knocks at the door, plus all the ads on TV and all they stuff that got mailed to them… I’m surprised they were as nice to us as they were.”
Senior religious studies major Elisabeth Nicholes said the voters’ political enthusiasm manifested in unusual ways.
“I went to a house where there were a lot of guys my age in a garage hanging out. … They had just finished spray-painting a T-shirt for the election. It said ‘Vote Kerry, Slut,'” Nicholes said.
Mirroring the political division in the city itself, some addresses housed both Democrats and Republicans. UCSB student Emily Ghan found that knocking on a door did not guarantee that the Democrat would answer.
“I went to a house where we were told a registered Democrat was living, but when I got there, I saw a Bush sign on the lawn,” she said. “I knocked, and this man answers the door. He says, ‘Hell yeah, I’m voting. I gotta cancel out my wife. And my son’s a pansy-ass liberal too.’ So at least we ended up ahead with one vote from that house.”
The day after Halloween — a holiday on which the volunteers sacrificed clustering around a keg for huddling around a pot of crab stew at a typical Ohio “country boil” — John Kerry spoke at a rally in Toledo. Chase said the transition from Halloween to the rally kept her positive and hopeful about the election.
“It was an awesome turnout,” she said. “They told us we’d get to go in, but so many people came. There were 2,000 people inside and another 7,000 outside, in the rain. We were okay with not getting in.”
When Election Day finally arrived, political ads saturated Ohio’s television broadcasts.
“Every single commercial on TV was an ad for something political — non-stop, no exaggeration,” Bishop said. “You’d get excited if you saw a hemorrhoid ad.”
Tuesday also meant a shift in strategy for ACT volunteers from canvassing large areas to pulling specific voters. Rather than roaming neighborhoods and asking all listed Democrats to vote, each volunteer stopped at a specific set of addresses until the residents there had voted. If voters had not, volunteers could arrange rides to drive them to their polling place. Ghan said persistence was essential.
“You just keep asking them throughout the day, ‘Have you voted yet?’ ‘Have you voted yet?’ ‘Have you voted yet? Well, why not?'” she said. “If they tell you they’ve voted, you back off. Otherwise, you keep going by and pestering them. That’s just how it works.”
The drizzly day’s activities also included old-fashioned sign-waving, as the student volunteers did on the corner of Conant Street and Anthony Wayne Trail. Mixed in with cheers and honks of support were old men yelling, “Fuck you,” mothers giving us the finger over their children’s heads, and, of course, that one minor, non-injury fender bender.
Polling lasted until the Ohio polls closed at 7:30 p.m., but any voters already in line when the polls closed could still vote. Some waited until 4:30 a.m. to cast their ballot. In all, 73 percent of Lucas County residents voted, higher than even Ohio’s statewide average. The students’ night concluded at a reception hosted by the United Auto Workers, a powerful force in Toledo, as the Jeep manufacturing plant calls the city home.
“It all began very happy, very hopeful. All the exit polls showed Kerry leading,” said Janelle Ureta, a senior law and society major. “We left before a lot of the results had come in and then watched the news at home.”
As the election slowly slid towards Bush and maps on news broadcasts began to flush red in the center, the students went to bed, knowing that despite their work, the Democratic effort could fail – both in Ohio and in the country at large.
“I get most disappointed about the election when I think about how hopeful we were on the night [Kerry spoke in Toledo],” Ghan said. “It was like a rally for Santa Claus on the night before Christmas, we decided.”
Wednesday morning, the students knew that even with outstanding prospective ballots, Bush would take Ohio and the rest of the country as well. Nonetheless, Lucas County voted 60 percent in favor of Kerry and a majority of Democratic candidates won local offices as well. Regardless of the final election results, none of the students who went to Ohio said they regretted going to a state more politically balanced than California.
“It feels less painful to know we did our job as best as we could,” Ghan said. “And it might sound prosaic, but I feel I learned so much more about our country in general by being in Ohio during the election. I realized how different it really is. They’re the middle and we’re on the ends. We don’t understand so much about life in the Midwest.”
Ureta said she agreed.
“I feel like we got more out of it than the people in Ohio did,” she said. “I feel like I know now that it’s something I would want to do… Besides, a lot of voters were really ardent about their politics, and I had some real interaction with these people about politics right on their front doorstep.”
Swope said his only regret was that more people could not volunteer.
“I don’t think people knew about these opportunities. It’s easy to do,” he said. “If more had gone, the outcome might have been different.”