Reading Voters

Tagging along on Operation Ohio in pursuit of the college vote

There was one week left before Ohio's voter-registration deadline and lots of work to do. Stephen Elliott was at the wheel of a rented van, shuttling around the Ohio State campus in Columbus, coordinating the movements of a dozen people. It was the first day of Operation Ohio, Stephen's personal campaign to help tip the scales in the election he'd been covering since last year for his new book, Looking Forward to It. After writing so much about politics, he said, he wanted to make some politics happen. So he organized a series of literary events in the state, hoping that a visit from some of the country's best-known literary authors to college campuses would help register and energize student-age voters.

"With the book done," Stephen said, "I had September free, and I wanted to get involved. I have a little bit of guilt because I worked for Nader in 2000, and so I figured I better put in for Kerry. And who can just sit around anyway at a time like this? Everyone should be doing something."

As the election runs hotter than ever, it seems everyone is doing something. The national party committees, more flush than ever, are churning wakes through the swing states like ocean liners. A bit more nimbly, MoveOn's digital democracy is changing the political landscape with its innovatively funded and clever ad campaigns. Grassroots organizations of all kinds are springing up to fill in with letter writing, phone banking and walking precincts. In Ohio alone, Bush backers claim to have more than 60,000 volunteers spreading the word through their Amway-style multilevel-marketing operation. America Coming Together has fielded an army of professional canvassers to lay the groundwork for what will be the biggest Election Day Get Out the Vote operation in the history of Earth. To that end, they've raised $125 million—10 times what the DNC spent on GOTV in 2000. A lot of that coin is spilling into Ohio, but the war chest keeps replenishing itself: The week we arrived, the Vote for Change tour, a set of fund-raising concert dates featuring musicians ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Death Cab for Cutie, was under way across the state, on its way to raising another $44 million.

It was into this storm of activism that Stephen's literary assembly made a landing in late September—a bumpy one, as it happens, since everyone flying in that day sensed the planes getting tossed roughly on the final approach into the Columbus airport. Having traveled with Stephen for much of the campaign season, I came along as an observer. Plus, I too felt compelled to take action. With a month left, why not get started? Now in Columbus, four hours before curtain time, as Stephen was finishing last-minute preparations, we were talking about the question that must plague all small-scale organizers: Does any of this matter?

"Goddamn right it matters," he said emphatically as we parked and found our way to a class where we were supposed to speak to students and convince them to come. "If there's anything we learned last time, it's that all effort counts. If we can get 1,000 people signed up, we'll be that much better off. It won't deliver the state, but it will help. Even if we don't get that many, it will help. But we'll see what happens. I've got my fingers crossed."


"Why Ohio?" Stephen asked rhetorically in his introduction later that night. The audience was assembled in the Wexner Center, and the writers were in the green room, waiting to come onstage. "At first, Ohio seems like an arbitrary place. But then again—why not Ohio? Everybody should get their chance to decide the presidential election. And this is your chance. In fact, I think the swing-state committee—the one that decides where the critical states in the next elections would be, like the Olympics—has picked Oklahoma for 2008. And Alaska after that. So you should take this opportunity."

It was a good opener. But in reality, of course, neither of those states will ever get the kind of political attention as does Ohio. And the Buckeye State's leverage has been amplified by an overpowering mythology of electoral importance, grounded in the twin axioms: 1) No Republican has ever won without Ohio's 21 electoral votes; and 2) Ohio has voted with the winner since 1964. Ohio, the theory goes, is a natural barometer for national politics because it's like nowhere else, and that's because it is in fact like everywhere else—a place of representative regions, with an industrial heart around Cleveland, the farm belt in the northwest, classic exurban geography in the center, and strong regional representation with all the Southern drawl around Cincinnati and a rather sizable slice of Appalachia in the southeast.

All of this is apparent at Ohio State, where 90 percent of the students are local. And despite the fact that Columbus, the state's capital, is a Democratic stronghold, it is ringed by a vast, archetypal, red "donut" of Republican counties. These are the reaches of exurbia, where the Bush minions going on "mission" are expected to bring a 6-to-1 margin for the president in those areas come November. And these are the people who fill the stands at Ohio Stadium, the campus' most imposing edifice, a fascist-looking arena of masonry where the Buckeyes play football.

So it maybe wasn't all that surprising that on a campus of 50,000, only about 300 showed up for the opening salvo of Operation Ohio. The event should have been bigger. There was plenty of local press, and it was co-sponsored by 40 campus departments and clubs. Entry was free and offered a killer lineup—the kind of literary pantheon that would pack Royce Hall at $50 a head. Readers the first night included Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, Anthony Swofford, Vendela Vida, Julie Orringer, and Jim Shepard. It was hard to know if the weak turnout had to do with political apathy or that other old campus bugaboo, the Decline of Literature—especially since, when Steve and I spoke earlier to an English class and asked about the students' favorite writers, we were at first greeted with a long silence, and that was broken only by a timid offer of "John Grisham?"

I noticed that many of those students did find their way into the audience that night, where they got to hear Eggers bring down the house with a new piece where a father, making nachos with his daughter, tells her stories about the days when he and her mother solved the worlds' problems, literally solved them, as in changing the entire world to renewable energy sources and sending all the lobbyists to Greenland, and how such global altruism made her mother horny. Orringer shared some surprisingly lucid letters that her sister's eighth-grade students in east L.A. had written to the president: "Your leadership was a mistake"; "You use the same words over and over again"; "seriously—get out of that business." Shepard sampled several stories told by different narrators including—and perhaps these were chosen for an inferred relation—the Creature From the Black Lagoon and John Ashcroft. Vendela Vida and Rick Moody both read from the Future Dictionary of America, a satirical anthology that was a fund-raising collaboration between MoveOn, McSweeney's and Jonathan Safran Foer.

It was all political, and swung hard left, perhaps further than some in the audience were accustomed to. Among the less liberally inclined, Swofford's essay, written for the occasion, seemed the most effective. It touched on his career as a veteran of the first Gulf War with the Marines, how his first vote went for George H. W. Bush, and his eventual transformation to a Democrat. As persuasive as he was, Swofford didn't keep some people from walking out.

That surprised me at first, until I spent the intermission with some of the students I'd met earlier and discovered that all of them were backing Bush. Kristen Meiers and her roommate Amber Lipscolmb, both leaning toward Bush but "keeping an open mind," expressed surprise at the event's "partisanship." Lipscolmb said there should have been more Republicans speaking. I pointed out that this was a literary program, and, unfortunately, there are virtually no contemporary authors who would support Bush. Or, as Stephen had phrased it earlier, "Thinking people are not Republicans." Which I did not repeat, instead listening to them long enough to realize that, like many Bush supporters, they knew very little about either candidate. "It's hard to keep up," Meiers said. "But I want to be educated before I do vote." She asked me where she could find out more about the candidates, good information beyond the television ads. I made some suggestions, and she thanked me, adding, "I guess I'm glad I'm here to listen to other perspectives." Lipscolmb nodded along, but I saw her sneak out just after the lights dimmed for the second half.

There were no dissenters at Oberlin, the second stop on the tour, probably because Oberlin is not so much a part of Ohio as it is a tiny East Coast liberal-arts enclave carved out of the woods east of Cleveland. To get there from Columbus, you drive through Amish country and the kind of rural outposts dominated by monstrous hunting outfitters like Fur, Feather and Fin, where there were only American trucks with Bush-Cheney stickers in the parking lot, and where, for $10.99, one could buy a Premium Predator Wildlife Call tape entitled "Distressed Chickens," and with the right series of turns you'll eventually happen across a charming little college town with vegan cafés and a political fault line that runs between Kerry and Nader and where Bush is nowhere to be found.

Although most Oberlin students come from elsewhere, they all have an Ohio address and can vote in the state, which was all that mattered to Stephen. One hundred fifty students arrived at the second event, less than the night before but a much larger percentage of the 3,000-member student body. The lineup had changed, with Ryan Harty, Dan Chaon, and Jonathan Ames substituting for Swofford, Eggers, and Moody. Ames headlined with his tale of hubris and humility, "I Shit My Pants in the South of France." It was a lively close, inspiring others to share their scatological stories the rest of the night at Feve, a bar where the Operation Ohio crew and the students mingled until closing time. I told a story about a friend who, by an extraordinary series of circumstances, accidentally crapped on his iPod. Stephen ordered two grasshoppers, and we shared them with interlocking arms. Spirits were good. "I'm glad you guys came," one of the students said. "If we register twice, can we get you to come back?"


That would have helped, because in the end Operation Ohio did not meet its original goals. The third date at Cleveland State was sparsely attended, probably because of poor timing (it was at 3 in the afternoon) and the fact that it's a commuter school. But even at Oberlin and Ohio State, very few registration forms got filled out because everyone passing the gauntlet of volunteers was already registered. "If you live here," one volunteer at Ohio State said, "and you leave the house, you're already getting asked to register 10 times a day"—which may not have been an exaggeration, since county clerks across the state had been having trouble keeping up with the unprecedented surge in voter registrations.

"But registration is only halfway," Stephen kept saying. "You also have to get those people to the polls. That's why like the phone call is the more important part."

The phone represents the second stage of Operation Ohio—the all-important mobilization scheme that would take effect once we were all gone from the state. Stephen created a list that would allow students to sign up to receive a call on Election Day from a well-known writer, reminding them to vote. With more participating writers than those who made it to Ohio, including Tobias Wolff, ZZ Packer, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem, there was plenty of call capacity. Before any of us arrived in Ohio, 300 people had signed up through Operation Ohio's Web site. Now there were a couple hundred more names to add to the list. And the press from the tour, Stephen guessed, would attract another wave.

"The question I tried to address here is, 'How do you get college students to vote?' " Stephen said. He'd thought about this a lot, having spent some of the campaign season hunting for the mythical Youth Vote. It has never materialized in powerful numbers; even when 18-year-olds first got the chance to vote in 1972 and there was a war with a draft on, they didn't show. Howard Dean's candidacy held some promise for energizing young voters, and the numbers for the 18-to-24-year-olds were up in many primaries. Stephen wanted to keep that momentum.

"That's why the calls on Election Day are really the focus," he said. "Elections are won on Election Day. Look at what happened here in 2000." That's when Gore's campaign, thinking they were down by 10 points, redeployed manpower and pulled ads from the state, only to see the gap close on Election Day to 3.5 points. "Today, the polls are much closer," Stephen added, "so the calls will help."

Sure, Stephen admits, it would have been nice to get more. "But anything is a success. These are people no one else would have reached. They say they're going to go, and they don't. Unless they get a phone call from Tobias Wolff."

I thought about Meiers and Lipscolmb and reminded Stephen that a few of those voters might get a call from Tobias Wolff and go pull the lever for Bush.

"Well," he said, pausing for a moment, "that's a whole different problem."


As of Tuesday, Operation Ohio has signed up close to 800 people to receive phone calls on Election Day. If you want to be reminded to vote, and you live in a swing state, go to stephenelliott.com/ohio.html.

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