The Last Days of Clinton's Losing Florida Campaign
On Monday, I flew down to Miami to volunteer for the Clinton campaign. On Wednesday morning, I woke up to the news we had lost.
Hillary Clinton supporters in Miami. (Photo by Johnny Louis/FilmMagic)
On Monday, I flew down to Miami to volunteer for the Clinton campaign. It had been my brother's idea. He said that, selfishly, if Trump won, he wanted to know that, he'd done everything he could for Hillary.
I felt the same pricks of panic but I also had my own reasons, equally selfish. In 2008, I'd been a staffer for Barack Obama in the general election; since then, I had been missing the hustle of campaign life. I had worked in in Detroit in the constituency vote operation: Women for Obama, Arab-Americans for Obama, Small Business Owners for Obama, Whoever for Obama. One group I personally organized was European and Mediterranean Americans for Obama, a category I privately referred to as "White People for Obama."
About five weeks before Election Day 2008, the campaign transferred me to North Carolina after the McCain camp had abandoned Michigan as unwinnable. I remember at the time thinking they'd given up too soon.
Monday morning, my brother and I report to the Wynwood field office of the Hillary campaign. A large empty art space, one of those countless offices that political operations quickly erect in vacant strip malls and empty storefronts, then abandon the day after the election. The rooms are always cavernous. The ceilings always echo. There's enough space here that an entire wall is painted with a 20-foot-high Hillary H. There are lawn signs and posters and stickers and buttons, rainbows and Spanish and pleasant blue fonts. When I worked for Obama, we referred to this merchandise as "chum," because it sent supporters into a frenzy. You'd chum the waters with it to get them to come to events. Now it's the last day, and there's way more of this stuff than anyone would ever need. We can take as many stickers as we want.
A woman with a clipboard greets us, smiling, on autopilot, with blonde bangs and a blue tank top. She hands us a packet and leads us into a corner decorated with magic marker-ed edicts for effective canvassing. She does a role play about a voter interaction, explains that you need to get supporters to visualize going to the polls in order to get them to do it, that we mark our contacts as HRC or Not HRC, moved, deceased, hostile, refused, etc, etc. She stumbles in her spiel and apologizes.
Sorry, she says, this is, like, the 800th one of these I've done.
Another woman, a volunteer, gives us the walk lists for our turf. She has Hillary flash tats running up and down her arm and is surrounded by a wall of Post-Its. The folders we get are meticulously organized, with scripts in English and Spanish, maps and literature and sticky notices to leave on doors with voting hours and hotlines.
Please return your packet, she says, or I'll be that crazy person calling you! She laughs, edged with panic. She has called people before.
Oh, she adds. Supposedly Cher's coming by at six.
Sometimes people answer but usually not the right ones. Often they're annoyed.
Our turf the first night is in Coral Gables. It is a rich neighborhood for the most part, with giant stone houses and Banyan tree canopies and wide, curving streets. I keep jumping at the rustling in the grass, thinking it's a snake or a rat, but every time it's just chameleons, no bigger than my palm.
It's the middle of the afternoon. Almost no one on our list is home. One house looks nearly abandoned, until a woman comes to the door and shakes her head, says in broken English that the woman we're looking for isn't there. Pitch black inside—the house has switched off chandeliers and a pool with cloudy water. Every house here seems to have a pool and the same low silver furniture and generic modern art. I can see through the windows as I affix the voting notices to their locked doors.
Sometimes people answer but usually not the right ones. Often they're annoyed. There's a lot of houses with literature still jammed under the doormats, untouched, unopened, with handwritten notes by volunteers: Every vote counts!
One woman stomps to the door, the sound of a child's piano lesson in the background, to hold up her hands in an angry FOUR, the number of times the campaign has visited her.
A young woman with Jersey plates says the guys we're looking for don't live there anymore, and we're the second people to come looking for them. One man tells me everyone in his house will vote for Clinton except him. He's for Gary Johnson, he says, he's not into "my girl." But he appreciates that all the Clinton volunteers who come to his door are "beautiful" like me. He calls me sweetheart and tells me to take care.
A little girl in a school uniform answers the door and smiles hello before a woman throws her arm between us and the child, physically shields her from us, then watches us through a sharply drawn living room curtain as we walk away across the lawn.
"Should we mark that down as hostile?" I ask my brother.
Our coordinator warned us we would have a low hit rate but my brother is still discouraged. We have yet to speak to an actual voter from our assigned campaign walk list, except through a closed door, when we reach the last house of the night. Is Elana here? The woman smiles. Oh, yes! She's here! (I've changed the names in this piece so as not to reveal anyone's personal information.)
Elana comes to the door, in shorts and a sweatshirt. This is the moment we've been waiting for—actual contact.
"HI!" I say. "ARE YOU A HILLARY SUPPORTER?"
"HAVE YOU VOTED?"
She has not. She is planning to vote tomorrow, after work, at six. I gulp.
"THE POLLS CLOSE AT SEVEN, SO YOU HAVE TO BE IN LINE BY THEN OR YOU WON'T BE ABLE TO VOTE."
She nods, unconcerned. Does she know where her polling place is? She does. It's over at the middle school, right? Right.
When we leave my brother asks if I want to camp outside her house tomorrow and make sure she voted. Her name—Elana!—becomes a joke between us, like if we lose, it will be on her and by extension, us.
Watch VICE News Tonight's Report on How an Election Gets Made:
We make it back in time for Cher. This is the kind of surrogate event I used to work on in '08, something to fire up the volunteers, or drum up donations. I once sang "You've Got a Friend" with Carole King in a living room of Michigan moms, once tailed Kal Penn through a fundraiser in Grosse Point, once handed out Irish Americans for Obama signs at an acoustic Bruce Springsteen show on a baseball field in Ypsilanti. This is like that. Fired Up. Ready To Go. Call and Response. The surrogates are tailored to the location. Cher has the crowd in Wynwood on tenterhooks.
We walk in just as she is describing a tea of some kind she had with Hillary. Cher and Hillary, a couple of gals hanging out, both of them so famous they go by one name apiece. Apparently, Hillary said something like: I'm so tired. When this is over, I think I'd like to go to a spa. Do you know a spa?
To which Cher replied: Babe, I'm a diva. Of course I know a spa.
Cher goes on to remind us, the faithful, how committed Hillary is, how terrifying Trump is. To me the browning of America is a great thing, she says. This line gets massive cheers. The audience is diverse, seemingly heavy with LGBTQ supporters. There are lots of fearful nods, signs clutched in worry.
She tells us she could barely bring herself to watch the debates, that she watched one from her bathtub and wept, which is an image I will treasure always—Cher immersed in bubbles, glued to CNN, mascara on her cheeks
Some people have come all the way from England to help, a group of female British politics students. Cher thanks them in her remarks, tells them she stayed up all night watching Brexit results.
The British students are in front of us in the line for pictures. They came over to be a part of the election and see what they could bring back to the UK. I ask one girl if she's been to any Trump rallies and she giggles no, her mum didn't want her to go anywhere near that stuff.
I ask the her what elections are like in the UK. You could miss it, she says. She gestures to Cher, the wall-sized H logo, the line of impassioned volunteers. She is impressed, thrilled even. There's nothing, she says, like this. I think about telling her that the day to day of campaigns is mostly spreadsheets and walk lists full of closed doors and phone banks with high flake rates. That this is frosting, sizzle. But at this point in the campaign, less than 12 hours to go, it's all frosting. So who cares?
My brother and I get our picture. Cher is gracious and smart. We are starstruck, unexpectedly. We decide without irony that she is "awesome." We talk about how great she smells. It's worth noting that my brother is not Cher's core demographic. He is, essentially, The Man—50, white, married, suburban, in finance. But he is giddy afterwards, zooming in to screenshot the image of his hand on Cher's shoulder. He tells me over dinner that he thinks he was the only straight man in line and probably the most excited.
Early Tuesday morning, Election Day, the campaign calls us, twice, first thing, to make sure we're still coming in to volunteer. We get assigned to canvas Wynwood.
Just as in Coral Gables, a lot of people aren't home or have moved. We get a lot of padlocked gates and dogs and people justifiably wary of coming to the door. Multiple houses we have to mark as "inaccessible." Eventually I tell my brother to start standing further back behind me or wait on the curb because he looks like what he is—a six-foot plus white banker, the kind of guy who only knocks on your door to deliver bad news. Maybe he's why no one is opening the door for us.
I attempt some Spanish, poorly. I translate through a kindly neighbor or super or just point a lot at our Spanish literature. I manage to help several people find their polling station. I circle the time the stations close and smile beseechingly. People call me back, say their girl wants to vote or their roommate. I circle more polling stations, underline the number they can call for help or a ride. One woman, half-joking, yells at her friend.
I told him to vote, she says, disapproving. His mom's gonna kick him out of the house if he doesn't. She tells him he'll get deported back to Haiti if Trump wins. He laughs. Good, he says, defiant, at this point still laughing.
We get one house with two kids at home. They are, judging by the decals in the window, "terrific" and "honor students." Their father is not home, but they tell us he already voted.
Is he a Clinton supporter? I ask.
"Ummmmmmm..." one begins. The other cuts him off, tactfully. "We're not sure."
We drive back to the hotel and listen to NPR as we cross the bridge into Miami Beach. We've earned a break, my brother says. We have a drink at lunch.
The host is taking calls, and we listen to Kevin from Morristown, New Jersey, who wants to share two songs that he thinks "really epitomize where we're at." One is "America," by Steppenwolf (a Canadian band, he notes) and the other is the Doors' "This the End." He helpfully repeats for NPR's listeners the lyrics to each that he finds most relevant, in case we've missed the nuance:
This is the end, he says.
This is the end.
This is the end.
The anchor laughs, momentarily dumbstruck, and then returns to normal programming with a thank you to "our upbeat friend, Kevin."
Watch VICE News Tonight Recap the Election:
We get back to the field office around five, two hours before polls close. They've put lawn signs out on the street, like furniture discarded in a move. Other volunteers come back with their own packets. They're all stoked, all of them out-of-towners. Some drift back towards the H mural for pictures.
Our coordinator, the woman with the flash tats, tells my brother and I that there's not much left to do. We basically beg her for a task until she finally says she'd love a Red Bull. We run out of the office to the nearest bar and bring back one regular and one sugar-free. She hugs us, then chugs both in rapid succession.
I've drunk the Kool-Aid, she tells us. We really are stronger together.
She says all the celebrities (like Cher) are great but the best thing about the campaign has been meeting ordinary people. Like us! She beams. She's been volunteering here for months. Tonight she's even brought her daughter. She points and we see a small girl curled up on a camp chair by the entrance, watching something on an iPad.
We ask if she's heard anything. She says, carefully, that she's been told it won't be a landslide. She stills seems optimistic.
We leave for a nearby bar that for some reason puts ESPN on the main screen. We strain to see the far TVs, tuned to CNN, and the results come in. Nothing too unexpected, not yet. The South turns red, the Northeast goes blue. Florida is too close to call.
We lapse into silence, then swing back by the office. There's no TV set up inside, no one really there. Just a marker note taped to a card table with the address for the Hispanic Caucus watch party. So we go to the the hotel and sit at a tourist bar, sipping light beer, still not speaking. The air reeks of hookah. The drinks come in plastic margarita glasses the size of small hubcaps. At some point, my brother switches to wine and we order fries that I can't eat. My sister-in-law calls, panicking. I hear my brother tell her that I've stopped talking.
I feel as though I should wait until they call Florida, that if I stay downstairs in this awful bar by the ocean that I'm somehow fulfilling a civic duty.
Numbers are trickling in. Clinton's votes haven't come in the way they were supposed to. She's losing North Carolina and Ohio, might lose Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan even.
I feel as though I should wait until they call Florida, that if I stay downstairs in this awful bar by the ocean that I'm somehow fulfilling a civic duty, that this needs to be a communal experience like a World Series or a natural disaster, like I'll somehow jinx it if I leave. There's no closed captions on the TVs they've set up and the aspect ratio is all off, so half the screen is cut off at the corners, but we can see enough to know it's over. My brother and I still have our stickers on and I can feel people clocking them as they take in our drawn expressions.
We go upstairs before Florida is officially red. I turn on MSNBC and almost instantly regret it. I put it on mute.
In our Detroit office in '08, we used to say that people got campaign goggles—like beer goggles. We meant it in the sense that the stress and isolation and long hours and shared purpose led to odd couplings. The intense emotions of politics bleed over into your personal life, hookups happen that you can't believe in retrospect but seem inevitable at the time.
But there are all kinds of ways campaigns put goggles on people involved in them. Political causes acquire their own logic and language. You forget the world outside is not in on your jokes, has not memorized your talking points. You spend so much time convincing other people of the rightness of your cause that you inevitably end up convincing yourself most of all. Campaigns require this kind of thinking to keep you all going. You know you are going to win, because how could you not? How could the real world be so different from the world you are working toward?
I fall asleep before the national results come in. They call Michigan for Trump around 11 the next morning. I'm not sure if Elana ever voted.
Meg Charlton is a producer with VICE. Follow her on Twitter.