"Nobody knows anything."
- William Goldman, "Adventures In The Screen Trade"
In a Northern Virginia Starbucks tucked snugly away in a featureless shopping center not far from Washington D.C., a man, once solid, but now thickening in late middle age, looks around furtively, almost warily, before he leans in to his companions, and says, loud enough for me to overhear,
"This country will never elect a black man president."
The two middle-age women, one stylish in a pink silk t-shirt, Cartier watch and diamond rings, the other older and frumpier in a "Cougars for Hillary" sweatshirt, nod knowingly. The older woman sighs,
"He's too young. He has no experience."
The younger woman shakes her head in agreement,
"I can't bring myself to vote for McCain though."
"Oh what a horrible dilemma", the older woman laments.
"It's not good.", the man agrees.
"How's the diet going?", the younger woman asks, suddenly brightening.
Politics now safely behind them, the three make small talk for a few minutes before the man says his goodbyes and leaves. I watch as he exits the store and climbs into a brand new Mercedes convertible.
The man is African American, as are his two women friends.
On the last leg of a flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore, a pale man in his late 30's with thin hair and thick glasses boards the plane in Nashville and takes the seat next to mine. Seeing the Obama "Hope" sticker on my laptop, he starts up a conversation by telling me Obama was the first candidate he ever gave money to. I learn he lives in an exurb south of Baltimore. I ask him if Obama will do well in his part of the world.
"Oh yes," he says, "A lot people in my neighborhood have lawn signs up."
He tells me he's voting for Obama for most of the usual reasons I hear from supporters - he's tired of 8 years of mismanaged government, the war in Iraq, the economy, loss of civil liberties, the desire for real bipartisanship in Washington. He asks me how long I've been interested in politics. I make my usual joke, that I grew up the daughter of liberals, in a household where I thought Nixon's first name was "goddamn."
He laughs and tells me his parents voted for Nixon. In fact, he tells me, he's voted Republican in every presidential election - he voted for George Bush twice.
He's a Republican. As are most of his neighbors. And they're all voting for Obama.
Last week I left Los Angeles to donate my time and energy to the Obama campaign in Fairfax County, Virginia. Virginia, with it's 13 electoral votes, is one of the most hotly contested of the swing states. Both and McCain are pouring resources into Northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River within sight of our nation's Capitol. The local airwaves are littered with McCain and Obama TV ads I'd so far only seen on the internet. Yet on the ground, the Obama campaign seems to have the greater visibility. There are 6 Obama field offices in Fairfax County alone, 27 in all of Virginia. I've seen a lot of Obama bumper stickers and lawn signs, but not a one for McCain. Field data I'd been allowed to see had Obama way ahead in many areas of Northern Virginia, but closely on the heels of McCain in others, and depressingly behind in many southern and southwestern parts of the state (think Appalachia).
Virginia, and maybe the election, will be won or lost on the banks of the Potomac River.
I stood outside MacDonalds trolling for unregistered voters, canvassed door to door in modest leafy neighborhoods with bucolic street names like Surry Hill Place and Marblehead Court, and made countless phone calls trying to cajole the undecided and the uneasy. Every new day on the ground brought with it at least one slap-me-in-the-face-like-a-wet-sardine moment of clarity.
Forget everything you've heard and read. Whether it's Fox, MSNBC, NPR, the New York Times or the Huffington Post. Nobody knows anything.
From the privileged white college kid who tells me he's registered but won't vote because our best days are behind us and "all the other countries are going to gang up on us and we're going to die." to the Hispanic evangelical Army captain who'd be happy to abolish the Departments of Education, Labor and Energy, but who hopes McCain will lose. You can't poll this.
Remember this the next time you hear some pundit wonder why Obama "can't close the deal", or read yet another poll "proving" he has a "problem" with "working class white voters".
Remember, nobody knows anything.
Liz Griffith, volunteer for "Virginia for Obama"