Cincinnati, Nov. 4, 2012: The election is so close it can be counted in hours, and at least in Cincinnati, it feels that the Obama campaign's work is largely done.
Time will tell whether the nation's first black president will be reelected for another term. But there's a knowing, celebratory mood, a kind of wary hopefulness, among the president's African-American constituency here. I heard it when canvassing in lower income neighborhoods, and saw it while waiting on line with over 13,000 supporters for hours to see the President and Stevie Wonder at the University of Cincinnati's immense Fifth Third Arena on Sunday night.
And among a Sunday queue of hundreds of people waiting to exercise their right to early-vote on weekends, a right recently affirmed by the Supreme Court, the mood was festive. On Tuesday, everyone will vote near their homes. But early voters can only vote downtown at the one official polling location, the Board of Elections. So, it's a public occasion of sorts.
"We will wait for as long as it takes," said a well-dressed black man in his 60s, a retiree, standing at the very end of a three-hour line to early-vote at Cincinnati's Board of Elections on the Sunday prior to Election Tuesday. "We want to make sure our president is the next president," he said. The conviction in his voice, the commitment, felt like father to son. His wife, a health care worker, nodded.
It was probably a long wait. The Board of Elections closed at five in the evening but anyone on line at five could still vote; local media outlet Cincinnati.com reported that the last voter actually finished three hours later, at eight.
People came to vote early for many reasons, more often citing convenience than politics, though a few may have hinted at fears of voter suppression when they said they wanted to make sure "it all goes OK, you know."
Some had arrived as early as 8 a.m. to wait for the doors to open at 11. By 1 p.m., someone ordered in a pizza, which took an hour to arrive; the pizza episode became fodder for hilarity as good-natured running jokes bubbled forth along a certain segment of the line. When a local church distributed bottles of water but people weren't drinking for fear they would need to leave the line, a problem-solving suburban mother of four offered to drive anyone who needed to use the bathroom to a nearby train station. Someone distributed dozens of small sandwiches, free.
Standing at about the two-hour point, Joseph Fuqua and his headphone-wearing son by the same name, an 18-year-old student at Cincinnati State, enjoyed some quality time together not online, but on line. Both planned to vote for Obama. "The mood out here's great," the father said. His son agreed, adding, "everybody's talking, making friends."
Nearby, three first time voters, blonde 21-year-old students at Xavier University and Obama supporters, giggled and made jokes about political propaganda as a red sports car drove round the block blaring "four more years." They said they were willing to wait "till it closes," though they had already been waiting for ninety minutes and one needed to get to work.
Rumors whipped down the line: The Rev. Jesse Jackson was going to arrive (he did), and maybe, later, to buck up those waiting longest, Obama, too ( he did not). Actor Laurence Fishburne and 72-year old civil rights legend John Lewis, now a Georgia Congressman, and local big wigs lent the occasion a sense not just of celebrity but of importance.
Hamilton County, after all, is a place where voting can impact national and global politics.
Every vote counts, and the Obama campaign's message -- 537 votes decided the Election in 2000, referring to the Florida vote that swung the presidency from Al Gore to George W. Bush -- seemed to have sunk in.
"A of energy goes into encouraging early voting," says 30-year-old Brandon Craig, an Obama campaign volunteer who works as a compliance manager of a local nonprofit called HOME, or Housing Opportunities Made Equal. "The real deal on all these grassroots efforts is this: as many people as you can touch, you touch. As many people as you can talk to, you talk to. As many people as you can remind, you remind. You knock on their doors. And then you knock on their doors again."
By late afternoon on Sunday, Obama campaign volunteers in downtown Cincinnati were being turned away with no assignments, because there were no more packets of names and addresses to be contacted. In this part of Ohio, volunteers come from all over: nearby Kentucky, Illinois, Texas, and even the east coast, he said.
Back on Broadway and 8th, on a corner near the front of the early voter line, a prominent activist clergyman, Rev. Damon Lynch III of the New Prospect Baptist Church shook hands and schmoozed. "Ninety-eight percent of my congregants have already early-voted, or they're on this line, or they are passing out literature," he said. Standing behind him, a gospel choir from the church sang. "I'm excited by what we see today, the line is wrapped around the building, it takes three hours to vote and nobody's leaving," he said, adding, "So, I'm optimistic."
Finally, those early voters standing at the front of the building, impatient after waiting so long to get inside, stepped aside. An elderly woman leaning on a walker shuffled past them, waved a few fingers in thanks, and made her way into the ornate Hamilton County Board of Elections building to cast her vote.
Pundits say there was greater passion fueling Obama's 2008 campaign than this one. But on the ground in Cincinnati, Ohio in the final days of the 2012 campaign, it seems that passion has steeled into a fierce resolve, tempered now, in the closing hours, into a tentative but growing optimism.