12/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Crowds Made the Difference

The reason I voted for Obama had little to do with the candidate and everything to do with the crowd.

The first rally I attended was in San Francisco, in the summer of 2007. I was skeptical about Obama. He seemed to be the product of an unholy union between the media and political consultants. Hope. Change. Blah blah blah.

There were already a good number of people waiting to see him in the Civic Center, which surprised me--we hadn't even had the Iowa JJ dinner, and the candidate was already packing an arena.

I didn't know yet how to wrangle my way into the press section, where the media sit sequestered behind the risers, surfing the Internet and occasionally getting a glimpse of the stage from between a cameraman's ankles. Instead, I made my way into the cheap sits with the crowd. The woman on my right was African-American, slipping out of work to catch
Obama over a long lunch. The man on my right was Ethiopian, and his girlfriend was white--both graduate students at Berkeley. I myself look about as pale and wholesome as a glass of milk, and my family comes from the kind of conservative, Catholic, rural Idaho county that ultimately voted 72% for John McCain.

Although it's not very appropriate to say this, I will admit frankly that I don't have too many occasions to chat with people who look and act all that different from me. I live in a neighborhood with people who have similar incomes; work with people who have similar
educations; shop at grocery stores with people who have similar diets; play sports with people who have similar temperaments. Pretty much the only time I'm thrown into an authentic mix of people is when I ride the city bus, and then no one much wants to talk.

But at the Obama rally, I had a sense that the people I was sitting among were coming from drastically different places. Yet just sitting shoulder-to-shoulder--the sheer population density of Obama rallies probably has as much to do with the fraternal feeling as anything else--was enough to make striking up a conversation okay. And because the context was overtly political, it was okay to talk about things that one usually doesn't: whether we had health insurance, what was happening in our kids' schools, the things our parents had taught us about politics, how we felt about our country. And then, because race was right out there in front of us, we tentatively dared to address that subject, too.

Over the last fifteen months, I must've gone to a hundred campaign events, Democratic and Republican, and the Obama ones consistently left me with the same feeling I had at the first: big love. In Pennsylvania, I stood in line behind an African-American man with two teeth and a cane; a white, well-coiffed special ed teacher; a schlumpy school principal; an Hispanic photographer and his homosexual, motorcycle-riding partner. Everybody was talking. They were shaking hands. In the bleachers, they touched one another's arms and caught
each other around the waist and danced to Stevie Wonder.

The election results, which showed Obama winning almost every demographic, bore out my impression of the campaign as a kind of humanNoah's Ark. It was as if it had given people first an excuse to come together, and then the chance get to know each other a little bit, and
finally permission to trust each other.

For me, this trust the real victory of the Obama win on Tuesday. It took a lot of courage for many people to overcome their doubts--about his policies, his abilities, and his intentions. It also took a lot of courage to leave their own communities and form coalitions with those
about whom they might have been wary. And it took courage for those who wanted him to win but weren't sure their neighbors would to pull the lever anyway, trusting that someone else somewhere had their back.

Happily, they were right.